In the 1870s and 1880s, Mihály Munkácsy was regarded as one of the famous and sought-after artists by collectors across Europe and North America. Born Mihály Lieb in 1844 in the small Hungarian village of Munkács, the orphan and apprentice carpenter rose to become an internationally acclaimed painter-prince in Paris. He received his earliest artistic instruction from the itinerant painter Elek Szamossy before studying briefly in Budapest, Vienna and Munich. On the advice of Wilhelm Leibl, Munkácsy made his way to the Dusseldorf studio of Ludwig Knaus, whose humorous, anecdotal painting had a lasting impact on the young artist. His best known work from his time in Knaus’ studio, entitled The Last Day of Condemned Man, received the Gold Medal in the 1870 Paris Salon, and made the twenty-six year-old artist famous overnight.
After the Franco-Prussian War, Munkácsy established himself in Paris, where he came under the influence of the realism of Gustave Courbet and the Barbizon School of painters. Like Courbet, Munkácsy painted emotionally charged pictures of the lower classes with heavily impastoed brushwork, structuring his paintings out of a dark under-painting and working tone-on-tone towards brighter accents of color. In 1874 he married the Baroness de Marches, the widow of the artist’s Luxembourg patron, and this brought about a striking change in all aspects of the artist’s oeuvre. Munkácsy climbed out of the despair and darkness of The Last Day of Condemned Man, and turned to a more colorful and joyful mode of painting, exchanging the wretched poverty of Hungarian village life for the elegance of the bourgeois salons of the French capital. His splendid townhouse on the Avenue de Villier, completed in 1880, and the scene of sparkling soirées attended by celebrities from the worlds of art, literature and music frequented by Liszt, Massenet, Paine, Dumas and Doré. In the works of an anonymous author of an 1886 exhibition catalogue, Munkácsy’s home ‘is a museum, filled up to the roof with treasures of art and rarities. One would be inclined to believe that the splendor of times long past shone around the successor of the painter-princes Raphael, Titian and Rubens, with whom he is worth in every respect. Then too, you may observe how he absorbs, with his artistic eye, color, brilliancy, light and beauty, in order to reflect them again in his art’ (fig. 1). By no means giving up his call for ‘truth to life’, Munckácsy now took inspiration from the delicately painted, fashionable interiors of Alfred Stevens and the splendid colorism of Hans Makart. The result was a very personal style that expressed above all the beauty of material things – spirited in delivery, dashing in color, illusionistic in textures and luxurious in the patina of finish.
Interior d’un salon belongs to the group of paintings called by the artist his ‘salon pictures’, a body of work painted between 1878 and 1887. The intimate atmospheres of these pictures, representing chic Parisiens and their children at leisure hint at the bourgeois ideals of domesticity, prosperity and refinement; the private space is exalted as the material foundation of the family and the supporting pillar of the social order. The composition follows the paradigm apparent in many of these paintings, and very closely resembles The Music Room, of the same date and currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (fig. 2). In both pictures, the composition is split into two halves; on one side, the family gathers around the piano, intent on the afternoon’s entertainment, while on the other side, the artist displays the accoutrements of wealth: paintings on the walls, a sculpture before the lace-draped window, an alcove filled with objects d’art and the rare and exotic pet parrot on his perch. Rich Oriental rugs fill the foreground and an oriental table and tea service complete the environment of luxury.
We are grateful to Judit Boros for confirming the authenticity of this work.