The present work is a smaller version of Gyula Benczúr's monumental masterpiece, The Baptism of Vajk (National Gallery, Budapest).
A student of the famous Munich painter, Karl von Piloty, Benzcúr was among the most important European academic painters of his era. Best known for his history paintings, which are notable for their dramatic power and harmonious colours, Benczúr returned to Germany in 1875, staying there as a teacher at the Munich Academy until 1883.
The present work is notable for its powerful lighting and sumptuous materials, designed to invoke a sense of patriotic drama. The genesis of this subject was indeed born at a time of Hungarian national awakening. As Dr. Gábor Bellák writes:
"In historical painting, the period which began around 1870 brought a spectacular change thanks to the government competition of 1869, which aimed at bringing about a new, representative painting that reflect the changed political situation [the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in 1867, or "Compromise", which gave Hungary its own constitution within the Austrian Empire]. Benczúr submitted a study entitled The Christening of Vajk (1870) made in the style of Piloty. His study won, and he received a commission to paint a canvas. The christening of Vajk, the pagan name of King St. Stephen, the founder of the nation, was a decisive event in the history of Hungary. It was with this act that Hungary became part of Christian Europe. In the historical iconography of St. Stephen, the depiction of his christening first appeared in the beginning of the 19th century. The symbolic rebirth in Christ and the birth of the new Christian nation, depicted in this manner, is well represented in painting; in fact, the figure of St. Stephen could, to some degree, be used to symbolise the Compromise of 1867. In 1867 a new, constitutional state was born after centuries of national struggle, revolutions and freedom fights. In his large-size Vajk composition Benczúr created the apotheosis of this latest rebirth, this time with a new hero...Benczúr studied history in depth for the Vajk painting as well. We are familiar with the sketches he made of Medieval subjects, we know that he chose the interior of the 10th century San Marco of Venice as the venue of the scene because of its "historical authenticity", and we also know that was familiar with other depictions of the same theme in art, first and foremost a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger, and Tiepolo's altarpiece representing the christening of St. Constantine, which he chose as the artchetype for The Christening of Vajk." (G. Bellák, Gyula Benczúr, 2001, pp. 22-23).
In a letter to the present owner, Dr Bellák further writes of this painting:
"This is Gyula Benczúr's posterior version of his most important history composition, The Baptism of Vajk, which has been in the National Gallery since it was painted in 1875. The Baptism of Vajk was so popular in the 1870s and 1880s that Benczúr had to make an inkdrawn version for steel-engraving multiplication in 1880. The graphic version was a little bit different from the painted one, in so far that it has an arched top with angels sitting on a cloud, holding the Hungarian Holy Crown in their hands. This graphic version was reproduced in a variety of forms, from banknotes or postmarks. The present painting is an oil version of the above drawing, which means that it must have been painted after 1880, although exactly when is not clear. I am willing to say that it was more likely made in the 1910s rather than in the 1880s.
This painting is very important for us, for we did not have information of that kind of self-repetiton in the case of this painting. In a manuscript compiled around 1939 we have a reference to a "reduced replica" of the Vajk-picture but it was thought to be a replica of the 1875 painting and not of the 1880 drawing. The same manuscript also mentions that in or around around 1939 the picture was in the possession Dr. Ottó Atkáry. This is important to know, because Dr. Atkáry already owned the picture in 1921 when it was first (and last) exhibited in the large Benczúr memorial exhibition in Budapest. All the exhibited items were labelled; the number 225, affixed to the present work, was catalogued as The Baptism of Vajk, owned by Ottó Atkáry. The catalogue did not mention it was a replica, but this must have been logical as all the other Vajk versions had at that time long since been in museums.
In conclusion: the picture is Gyula Benczúr's autograph oil painted replica of his 1880 ink drawing based upon his 1875 painting, The Baptism of Vajk. The work was only once exhibited, at the 1921 Benczúr Memorial Exhibition in the Budapest Múcsarnok. Around the year 1939 it was still in Hungary, and this is the last known date in its provenance. The Benczúr research project has had information about one replica of the Vajk picture, but neither visual nor literal sources hinted at its exact appearance. I am delighted to discover this excellent picture that I think to be painted in the 1910s."
We are grateful to Dr. Gábor Bellák for his assistance in writing the above catalogue entry.