Mihály Munkácsy (Hungarian, 1844-1900)
Mihály Munkácsy (Hungarian, 1844-1900)

The Two Families

Mihály Munkácsy (Hungarian, 1844-1900)
The Two Families
signed and dated 'Munkácsy M. 1880' (lower right)
oil on panel, unframed
41¾ x 59 1/8 in. (106.5 x 150.3 cm.)
Painted in 1880
Charles Sedelmeyer, Paris (bought on behalf of William H. Vanderbilt by Samuel P. Avery 1881).
William H. Vanderbilt Collection, 1881.
Thence by descent to Brigadier General Cornelius Vanderbilt.
William H. Vanderbilt Collection (sold by the order of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt); Parke Bernet, New York, 18-19 April 1945, lot 59.
E. Shinn (E. Strahan), The Art Treasures of America, Philadelphia 1879-82, p. 111, p. 104 (illustrated).
J.B. Atkinson, 'Our Living Artists', Magazine of Art, September 1881, p. 61 (illustrated).
O. Berggruen, Michael Von Munkácsy, 1885, following p. 28.
F. Walther Ilges, M. Von Munkácsy, Bielefeld, Leipzig, Velhagen & Klasing 1899, p. 65 (illustrated).
C. Sedelmeyer, M. von Munkácsy, 1914, p. 68.
L. Vegvari, Munkácsy Mihály Elete es Muvei, Budapest, 1958, no. 286 (illustrated).
The Collection of W.H. Vanderbilt, 1884, p. 59.
Century Cyclopedia of Names, 1954, vol. 3, p. 3985.
A. Lewis, J. Turner and S. McQuillin, The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age: All 203 Photographs from "Artistic Houses", Toronto, 1987, p. 119 (illustrated p. 118).
G. Weisberg, D. McIntosh, A. McQueen, Collecting in the Gilded Age, Art Patronage in Pittsburgh, 1890-1910, exh. cat., New Haven and London, 1997, no. 59 (illustrated p. 206).
C. Huemer, 'Charles Sedelmeyer (1837-1925)', Belvedere 2, Fall 1999, p. 14.
London, Royal Academy, 1880, no. 650.
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1886-1903 (on temporary loan).
Pittsburgh, Frick Art & Historical Center, Collecting in the Gilded Age, Art Patronage in Pittsburgh, 1890-1910, April-June 1997, no. 59.

Lot Essay

In the 1870s and 80s Mihály Munkácsy was, from Europe to North America, among the most famous and sought-after of painters. His artistic career reads almost like a fairytale: born in 1844 in the small Hungarian village of Munkács, the orphan and apprentice carpenter rose to become an internationally renowned painter-prince in Paris (fig.1). His splendid townhouse on the posh Avenue de Villier, completed in 1880, was one of the most elegant salons in Paris, where the artist held sparkling soirées attended by celebrities from the worlds of art, literature, and music, including Liszt, Massenet, Taine, Dumas, and Dori. In the words of the 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 anew around this successor of the painter-princes Raphael, Titian, and Rubens, with whom he is worthy 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 works."

The Two Families (1880) is one of the most famous and most subtly executed works of the so-called "salon pictures," a body of work painted in several different versions between 1878 and 1887. The intimate atmosphere of these interiors, representing chic Parisiennes and their children at leisure, hints at bourgeois ideals such as domesticity, prosperity, and refinement; the private space is exalted as the material foundation of the family and the supporting pillar of the social order. On the left side of the present version, Munkácsy takes up a theme that he had begun in 1877. In that earlier work, The Two Families (in the Kitchen) (fig. 2), the artist depicted the title figures in rustic dress in the dusty kitchen of a farmhouse. The arrangement of figures on the right side of the composition, especially the woman leaning casually on the table and looking affectionately and attentively towards the left, brings to mind the well-known work Milton Dictates 'Paradise Lost' to his Daughters (1878), now at the New York Public Library. This connection is also emphasized by a pencil sketch in the Hungarian National Gallery (fig. 3), where the artist placed an adult in the chair that would ultimately be occupied by a lively child. Munkácsy always prepared his ambitious compositions with extreme care, making numerous sketches and studies of details, in order to endow the finished work with his distinctive painterly freshness and baroque bravura. Vegvari's catalogue raisonné lists, in addition to the above-mentioned compositional drawing (no. 139), an oil sketch (no. 287), and a pencil study of the little girl (no. 273), as well as a subsequently prepared reduction (no. 288), which reappeared at auction in the late 1970s. In his 1899 monograph, Walther Ilges reproduced yet another pencil sketch of the composition, the whereabouts of which are unknown.

Mihály Munkácsy (b. Lieb) received his earliest instruction from the itinerant painter Elek Szamossy, before studying briefly in Budapest, Vienna, and Munich. On the advice of Wilhelm Leibl, Munkácsy soon made his way to the Düsseldorf studio of Ludwig Knaus, whose humorous, anecdotal genre painting exerted a great influence on him. His best-known work from that period, entitled The Last Day of a Condemned Man, was to make the 26 year-old artist's fame overnight, after it received a gold medal at the 1870 Paris Salon. The painstaking psychological characterization of the figures, the representation of anecdotal detail, as well as the dramatic composition based on dark-light contrasts, produced a strong emotional effect on the contemporary public. According to Istvan Genthon, Munkácsy "listened to the new language of Düsseldorf's comedies, and in this language described a tragedy."

Once he established himself in Paris after the Franco-Prussian War, the realism of Gustave Courbet and the Barbizon School came to characterize Munkácsy's art. With heavily impastoed brushwork he structured his emotionally-charged pictures of the lower classes out of a dark underpainting and worked tone on tone towards brighter accents of color. But his 1874 marriage to the Baroness de Marches, the widow of his deceased Luxemburg patron, brought about a striking artistic change: Munkácsy climbed out of the somber, despairing cellar of the 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 French capital's bourgeois salons. The 1876 self-portrait with his wife, In the Studio, could be seen as a prelude to the salon pictures, with its reflection of the artist's newly acquired social standing. By no means giving up his call for "truth to life," Munkácsy now took inspiration from the delicately painted, fashionable interiors of Alfred Stevens, and the splendid colorism of Hans Makart. The result was a style that expressed above all the beauty of material things spirited in delivery, dashing in color scheme, illusionistic in textures, and luxurious in the patina of finish. A particular interest in Munkácsy's salon pictures developed also with the Parisian art dealer Charles Sedelmeyer, with whom the artist had signed a ten-year exclusive contract on November 4, 1878. In recognition of the world-wide success with Milton, the French rewarded Munkácsy the Légion d'Honneur, and the Austrian Emperor made him a nobleman.

As shown in a gallery view of 1884 (fig. 3), The Two Families was once part of the "finest collection" in the New World, that of William Henry Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt had inherited a fortune of ninety million dollars from his father in 1877, together with ownership of the New York Central Railroad. In the eight years between his father's death and the end of his own life, Vanderbilt bought some two hundred paintings at a cost of about one and a half million dollars. The magnificent mansion that he built for himself on Fifth Avenue included a 32 by 48 foot exhibition gallery, which was naturally illuminated through a tinted skylight. The gallery contained, beside two paintings by Munkácsy (Vanderbilt also owned A Gypsy Encampment from 1873), works by stars of the Paris Salon, including Meissonier and Bouguereau. Vanderbilt commissioned from Earl Shinn a sumptuously illustrated four-volume study entitled Mr. Vanderbilt's House and Collection (1883-84), a work intended to document his achievement for posterity, and to demonstrate that he was not only a successful businessman but also an amateur des arts.

Although Vanderbilt for the most part decided which paintings to acquire, he also took into consideration the advice of New York art dealer Samuel P. Avery, as well as that of the Paris-based American art agent George A. Lucas. On Vanderbilt's trips to Europe the three spent a great deal of time making the rounds of exhibitions and artists' studios. In his diary entry of March 30, 1880, Lucas remarked that "Sedelmeyer asked 60,000 for Munkácsy." When the two agents came to Sedelmeyer's gallery on May 13, 1881 to admire the blockbuster exhibition piece Christ Before Pilate, Avery bought The Two Families on Vanderbilt's behalf for exactly that price. In an interesting passing detail, the business relations between Sedelmeyer and Vanderbilt resulted in cliché-ridden fallout, even appearing in Emile Zola's 1886 novel L'Oeuvre. In the notes of the painter Guillemet, which served Zola as a source for the novel, Sedelmeyer was characterized as a wily, chic gallery owner with a coup des Américains who always succeeded in selling paintings of contemporary artists to millionaires of the Vanderbilt's stature, for "the pride of an American is to be able to say that he has bought the most expensive painting of the year."

Munkácsy's anecdotal, emotionally inflected genre painting made him from the beginning of his career the darling of American collectors. William P. Wilstach, a Philadelphia hardware merchant, is known to have "discovered" the obscure art student in Düsseldorf, buying the Condemned Man even before it won a gold medal at the Salon. But Sedelmeyer's international marketing prowess doubtless played a part in the artist's enormous popularity after 1878. Under Sedelmeyer's aegis, in 1880 The Two Families was exhibited at the London Royal Academy instead of at the Paris Salon, and Laguillermie produced widely- distributed etchings of the work. Monumental exhibition pieces were presented in theatrical settings in Sedelmeyer's own gallery, before sending them on world tour to the most important cities of Europe and the East Coast of America. Munkácsy reached the height of his fame with the dramatic history painting Christ Before Pilate (1881), which was celebrated almost unanimously as the masterpiece of the Century. The artist's arrival in New York on November 15th, 1886 for an appearance at the 23rd Street Tabernacle Exhibition resembled the state visit of a monarch, and was front-page news. A few months later it was announced that John Wanamaker of Philadelphia bought the painting for the highest price that had ever been paid for the work of a living artist.

Munkácsy's works eventually found their way into the most celebrated collections of the American Gilded Age. Although in the last decade of his life Munkácsy was engaged in huge, official commissions from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as the ceiling of the staircase in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna and a wall painting for the Parliament in Budapest, it was said of him, not without justification, that "although Hungary is his native country and France his artistic one, America is gradually becoming the lasting home of his work."

We are grateful to Christian Huemer for researching and preparing this catalogue entry.

fig. 1 Mihály Munkácsy in his Paris Studio (Avenue de Villier).

fig. 2 Mihály Munkácsy, The Two Families (in the Kitchen), 1877, Private Collection.

fig. 3 Mihály Munkácsy, The Two Families, pencil, 1880, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest.

fig. 4 Picture Gallery of William H. Vanderbilt, New York, 1884.

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