Mihály Munkácsy

The Painting Prince

The life journey of the Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy (1844 –1900) led him from abject poverty to meteoric superstardom. Abandoned as a child, he spent his early years starving and working as slave labor. In stark contrast to these childhood traumas, America’s millionaires later treated Munkácsy like royalty. By 1888, he was Europe’s highest paid painter, thanks in part to the clever marketing tactics of his dealer. His most famous masterpieces, known collectively as The Christ Trilogy, enthralled the public with their massive scale and psychological insight. Under enormous pressure to produce, Munkácsy nonetheless kept evolving as an artist, creating stunning work that hangs in great museums today.

Youth Training and Early Success

Munkácsy was born Mihály Lieb in 1844 in the town of Munkács, Hungary. (He officially began using the surname Munkácsy in 1868.) His middle-class family had five children: their father, Leò, was a government salt administrator, but their mother, Cecília Reök, died when the future artist was only six. Within a year, Leò had remarried, but his new wife did not want to raise the children, so they were divided among the Reök family. Munkácsy was sent to live with István Reök, a former lawyer who had fought on the wrong side of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, forcing him to live on the run for years. For this and other reasons, István was not the most stable person to raise a boy. In 1852, when Munkácsy was eight, his father died. It was then that he was reunited with his younger sister, Giza, and began living with their affectionate aunt, Jakabné Steiner. This happiness proved short-lived when robbers killed Jakabné. At age ten, therefore, Munkácsy had to go to work, essentially becoming a slave laborer for various carpenters. He worked fourteen hours per day, earning enough money for housing, but with little left for food. By 1858, he had received his master document in joinery, but in 1860, after years of starvation, he became seriously ill and had to return to his uncle’s care.

Mihály Munkácsy, Christ Trilogy, 1882–96 Courtesy Déri Museum, Debrecen, Hungary

While convalescing, Munkácsy demonstrated superb skills in drawing that were noted by his uncle. Through connections, István was able to enroll his nephew in an apprenticeship with a portrait painter, Elek Szamossy (1826–88). For the next year and a half, this pair traveled around Hungary meeting influential collectors, while Szamossy opened the young man’s eyes not only to  art, but also history, literature and mythology. In 1863, Munkácsy was granted access to copy masterworks at the National Museum in Pest, an experience that accelerated his artistic development.

In 1865, at age twenty-one, Munkácsy was able to enroll at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, thanks to several generous patrons and a scholarship from the Association of  Fine Arts in Pest.  Though he could afford only one year  of study, he was fortunate to have as his professor Karl Rahl (1812–65), who immersed Munkácsy in the world of Hungarian folk genre painting. In 1866, Munkácsy enrolled in the Munich Academy through the financial support of Antal Ligeti (1823–90), director of Hungary’s National Museum. His teachers there included the Hungarian history painter Sándor Wágner (1838–1919) and the German muralist Wilhelm Kaulbach (1805–74). The teacher who made the biggest impression on him, however, was the great landscapist Eduard Schleich the Elder (1812–74). In 1867, Munkácsy painted The Isaszeg Battleground, which depicted a key episode from the Revolution of 1848. Here we see Schleich’s influence upon his student: the figures in this painting take second place to a magnificent sky with clouds colored by gunpowder. That same year, Munkácsy won a scholarship that enabled him to visit Paris, where he saw the works of both Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet.

The trip to Paris  inspired  Munkácsy  to  leave  the  Munich  Academy  to study with the talented German painter Wilhelm Leibl (1844–1900). Introduced to Édouard Manet by Courbet, Leibl had learned to approach color as the Impressionists did and became known for his colorful palette. This was a happy time in Munkácsy’s life: he enjoyed a group of good friends who gathered to sing Hungarian folk songs and revel in the brasseries. Even so, Munkácsy continued working as a carpenter part-time to make ends meet.

Mihaly Munkacsy, Still Life with Flowers, 1881 Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, Hungary

Encouraged by Leibl, the 24-year-old next enrolled in the Düsseldorf  Academy,  the center of  what was  called the Düsseldorf  School of  Painting,  a form of  realism characterized by  impeccable detail and a tonalist palette   of muted colors. It was here that he studied with the painter Ludwig Knaus (1829–1910), whose influence became apparent immediately. Gone were the stiff portraits and contrived genre scenes of the recent past; instead Munkácsy developed the more natural feel seen in Yawning Apprentice (1868–69) with its more spontaneous sense of motion.

In 1869, Munkácsy began work on his first masterpiece, The Last Day of    a Condemned Man, inspired by the plight of young men caught evading the military draft. Here he created a powerful psychological representation of   the doomed youth that resonated powerfully with the public. Until this time, Munkácsy had been painting on the tops of cardboard boxes rather than can- vas, but for this work he created a wooden panel. The success of the resulting work changed the artist’s status completely, winning him enthusiastic attention from both dealers and critics. Wisely,  he had taken Knaus’s advice to submit  it to the 1870 Paris Salon, where it won a gold medal and was purchased by the American collector William P. Wilstack (1816–70). (Later it was given by Wilstack’s widow to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and a century later it landed in Hungary.) At twenty-six, Munkácsy became a sensation.

Almost overnight, Munkácsy went from abject poverty to having the famous art dealer and publisher Adolphe Goupil (1806–93) buy several paintings and order more. He also encouraged Munkácsy to move to Paris, but  then the Franco-Prussian War broke out, making travel impossible. After the war’s conclusion, Munkácsy was invited to live with one of his new collectors, Baron Henri-Édouard de Marches and his wife, Marie-Anne Cécile Papier,  in Guirsch Castle near Arlon, Luxembourg. The couple set up an atelier for their guest, and Goupil offered him a contract. This was the first time that Munkácsy did not have to worry about money or having a roof over his head. He continued to work on folk genre paintings in a subdued and earthy palette, the most successful being Churning Woman (1871).

Mihaly Munkacsy, Father’s Birthday, 1882 Collection of Imre Pákh

A Change in Style

In 1873, Munkácsy exhibited five paintings at the Vienna world’s fair, then traveled to the Barbizon region of France, where he painted Woman Carrying Faggots under the influence of Millet. That same year, Baron de Marches died, and Munkácsy’s friendship with his widow began to deepen. Within a year, they were married, which created a profound change in all aspects of the artist’s life. While maintaining a Barbizon look, he started incorporating atmospheric techniques he admired in the work of the late English master J.M.W. Turner. In Dusty Road (1874), for example, Munkácsy used looser brushwork—almost to the point of abstraction—to portray sunlight filtering through a cloud of dust. The newlyweds divided their time between a rented palace in Paris and Colpach Castle in Luxembourg. But now Munkácsy was under tremendous stress to earn money to maintain his newfound lifestyle, and thus felt pressure to change his style and themes. He began painting portraits of his wife in the studio and at home: no longer visible were the earth tones and barrenness of peasants’ interiors, but instead the vibrant colors and lavish furnishings of  the aristocracy. Munkácsy’s work evolved rapidly from folk genre to Belle Époque, and indeed he never painted another folk scene after 1878. These new “salon pictures” were very successful financially (especially among American collectors), eradicating forever his lifelong dread of poverty. Some of the most famous examples include In the Atelier (1876), Paris Interior (1877) and Father’s Birthday (1882). On closer inspection, these paintings actually appear almost abstract, with lost and found edges and rich pattern work that deploys just the right amount of detail in the perfect value.

Munkácsy next turned his attention to the remarkable life of the seventeenth-century English poet John Milton. In 1878, he painted The Blind Milton Dictating “Paradise Lost” to His Daughters, which promptly won a medal of honor at the Paris Salon. Goupil himself could not afford to buy it, a development that marked the end of their mutually beneficial relationship. Through con- nections made by Munkácsy’s wife, the Austrian dealer Charles Sedelmeyer bought The Blind Milton and promptly resold it for a huge profit to the New York collector Robert Lenox Kennedy. (Today, it hangs in the New York Public Library, which was established in part through the Lenox family’s generosity.) Soon, Sedelmeyer offered Munkácsy a ten-year exclusive contract that guaranteed 100,000 francs a year, relieving him of all financial pressures. In return, Sedelmeyer gained control of all of the artist’s works and also the valuable right to reproduce them through engravings.1 With his dealer’s warm encouragement, Munkácsy focused on happy domestic scenes right into the mid-1880s, though he also painted magnificent still-life pieces.

Mihaly Munkacsy, Christ before Pilate, 1882 Courtesy Déri Museum, Debrecen, Hungary

The Christ Trilogy

A brilliant marketer, Sedelmeyer sought a way to elevate Munkácsy to super- stardom, and so gave him a copy of the bestselling book Life of Jesus, written  by the French intellectual Ernest Renan (1823–92), who presented Jesus as an ordinary man who died for the truth. In developing the enormous painting  Christ before Pilate (1881), Munkácsy looked to the examples set previously by two Russians. In his recent novel Anna Karenina (1877), Leo Tolstoy offered a scene in which Anna and her lover admire a “realistic” painting of Christ. The other inspiration was a recent sculpture that Sedelmeyer had seen, Christ before the People (1878), by Mark Matvegevich Antokolszkij (1843–1902), who had depicted Jesus as an ordinary man bound by rope, walking to his death.

Munkácsy developed Christ before Pilate with great enthusiasm. His German student, Fritz van Uhde (1848–1911), recalled him “with rolled up shirtsleeves, he was running to and fro, till finally […] bare-handed he grasped into the paint and formed the picture in more and more wide spots.” Munkácsy  focused on the moment when Jesus, bound in ropes, stands before the Roman governor who is to decide his fate. Gathered all around, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of “misleading our nation and forbidding us to pay taxes to Caesar and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King” (Luke 23:2). Munkácsy highlights the dramatic tension between the Pharisees’ chaotic shouting and the pensive stillness of Pilate and Jesus. The artist created more than thirty-five oil sketches during the preparatory process, having hired as models an array of Jewish  immigrants, who were instructed to use gestures and expressions conveying strong emotion. Just as important, Munkácsy intensified the psychological impact of his composition through deft management of contrasts in value and warm vs. cool colors.

When it was unveiled in 1881 at the monumental size of 164 inches high by 250 inches wide, Christ before Pilate moved Munkácsy to an even higher tier of prestige, with many observers comparing him to Michelangelo and Rembrandt. Sedelmeyer organized a four-year tour of the painting across Europe, earning himself and the artist a fortune from entrance fees. From its first appearance  in Paris, Christ before Pilate attracted several thousand people daily, eclipsing the Salon occurring at the same time. When the painting reached Vienna’s Künstlerhaus, Sedelmeyer obtained sixty percent of the ticket revenues for himself and the artist, and twenty-five percent for a scholarship program, leaving the host venue with just fifteen percent. There he contextualized the new painting with a retrospective of Munkácsy’s work and sold reproductions at great profits.

Almost immediately, Munkácsy began his second Christ painting, Golgotha (1884). This depicts the Crucifixion, the most tragic episode in the Passion of Christ. Here again, Munkácsy skillfully rendered a wide range of human emotions in the crowd’s faces, inspired particularly by Tintoretto’s Golgotha in the Scuola di San Rocco at Venice. Unlike Tintoretto, however, Munkácsy worked from photographs of  his models, and even  had himself  photographed in the role of Christ. Munkácsy painted sixteen oil sketches in preparation. The final painting features a sky filled with ominous blue-grey clouds that enhance the scene’s psychological tension.

Not surprisingly, the press in both Europe and America followed Munkácsy’s painting process closely. When Golgotha was finished (at 181  inches high by 280 inches wide), Sedelmeyer exhibited it alongside Christ before Pilate at his palatial gallery in Paris, then toured it for three years to the same European venues as before. In 1886, the two paintings were exhibited together across America. When Munkácsy arrived in New York City, he was welcomed with a banquet attended by such luminaries as the Hungarian-born newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer and the city’s mayor, Abraham S. Hewitt. Two weeks later, he was the honored guest of President Grover Cleveland at the White House. He continued working during his American sojourn, painting portraits of Princeton University president James McCosh (1811-94), the millionaire collector Henry G. Marquand (1819–94) and Pulitzer’s wife, Kate Davis (1858–1927).

The tour’s profits were so great that Sedelmeyer initially refused to sell the two Christ paintings, even when offered US $150,000 by the Austrian and French governments. They were finally sold after the American tour, to the Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker, who exhibited them in his emporium. Christ before Pilate sold for $160,000 and Golgotha for $175,000, instantly making Munkácsy the highest-paid painter in Europe. Sedelmeyer told the press: “If we consider Hungary his native land, and France his artistic home, America will be more and more the permanent home of  his works.”    In 1988, however, Wanamaker’s heirs sold both paintings at Sotheby’s. Christ before Pilate went to Canada’s Joseph Tanenbaum, from whose collection it was donated to the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Ontario.2 Last May, the Hungarian government agreed to purchase it for more than US $5 million, though this commitment has been hotly debated in the artist’s native land.3 Golgotha went  to the New York dealer Julian Beck (1925–85), who sold it to the Hungarian- American businessman Imre Pákh (b. 1950) in 2004. Five years later, Pákh established the Munkácsy Foundation and loaned Golgotha to the Déri Museum in Debrecen, Hungary. As of June 2015, Pákh has been unable to reach an  agreement on its value, so he has taken the painting back.4

In 1890, Munkácsy began his third and final Christ painting, Ecce Homo, which he completed six years later. Depicting the Resurrection (the title is  Latin for “Behold, the Man”), this work was painted on yet another huge canvas (159 inches high by 256 inches wide). It features seventy-three life-size figures displaying a range of emotions, with Christ at the center. Like its predecessors, Ecce Homo was welcomed enthusiastically throughout its European tour. Earlier, in 1888, Munkácsy had felt exploited by Sedelmeyer and thus established a new arrangement with Gábor Kadar. This time, however, the painting was not purchased by  John Wanamaker,  but instead by  an English-American  consortium upon its return to Europe. In 1914, Ecce Homo went to Frigyes Déri, who went on to found the aforementioned Déri Museum in 1930. In 1995, the three Christ paintings were exhibited together at the Déri Museum, and then again at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest in 2011.

Munkácsy’s Christ paintings elevated historical genre painting to a new level of sophistication through his mastery of psychological insight and his very personal empathy for the plight of an oppressed man. In 1899, James Joyce wrote: “The picture reveals the mean human passions being characteristic of both genders with such realism [...] it is obvious, that the attitude of the artist is human, deeply shockingly human.” Throughout his life, Munkácsy worked to the brink of exhaustion, and perhaps it was inevitable that the rigors of producing three enormous masterworks—and more—would take their toll. He died four years after Ecce Homo was unveiled, at the age of fifty-six. Munkácsy’s fame faded rapidly with the onset of new approaches to painting, to the extent that far too few of us today know much about his extraordinary achievements.




  1. Christian Huemer, “’Globetrotting Wall Paintings’: Munkácsy, Sedelmeyer, and Vienna’s Künstlerhaus,” Fine Art Connoisseur, (September/October), 2012, 50–54.

  2. Art Gallery of Hamilton, Canada, press release, July 20, 2009.

  3. Mark McNeil, “Christ before Pilate Sold to Hungary for $5.7 Million,” The Hamilton Spectator, (May 13, 2015), 22.

  4. “Mayor of Debrecen: Buying Munkácsy Painting Involves New Legislation,” Daily News Hungary, July 12, 2014, 31. Csibi Loránd, “Christ Trilogy: US Collector to Remove ‘Golgotha’ as Purchase Talks Collapse with National Bank,” The Voice of Cleveland Hungarians, (June 13, 2015), 17.


American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2016, Volume 36, Number 1