In the 1870s and 1880s Mihály Munkáscy was regarded, from Europe to North America, among the most famous and sought-after of painters. The young Mihály Lieb (he later took his surname from the name of his native village) received his earliest artistic instruction from the itinerant painter Elek Szamossy before studying briefly in Budapest, Vienna and Munich. On the advice of William Liebl, the young Munkácsy made his way to the Dusseldorf studio of Ludwig Knaus, whose humorous, anecdotal paintings made a strong impression on him. Munkácsy's best known work from that period, The Last Day of a Condemned Man, painted when the artist was only twenty-six, was to make him famous overnight, and he received the gold medal at the 1870 Paris Salon.
Once he established himself in Paris after the Franco-Prussian War, the realism of Gustave Courbet and the Barbizon School came to influence Munkácsy's art. With heavily impastoed brushwork, he created emotionally-charged images of the lower classes out of a dark underpainting and worked tone on tone towards brighter accents of color.
In 1874, the artist married the Baroness des Marches, the widow of his deceased Luxembourg patron and this brought about a striking change in the artist's oeuvre. Munkácsy climbed out the dark, somber images that characterized his early work and emerged into a bright and joyful mode of painting, finally exchanging the wretched poverty of Hungarian village life for the elegance of the French capitol's salons. 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 Dorè. In the words 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 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. (fig. 1)
The Little Sugar Thief belongs to the group of paintings called by the artist his 'salon pictures', a body of work painted in several different versions between 1878 and 1887. The intimate atmospheres of these pictures, representing chic Parisiennes and their children at leisure, hint 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. The composition follows the paradigm apparent in many of these paintings, the most famous of which is The Two Families which was sold in these rooms in 2003 (fig. 2). The composition is split into two halves, each serving as counterpoint to the other. To the right of the composition, the mother dozes on a chaise-longue, while off to the right, the mischievous child plunges her hand into the sugar bowl, all the while never taking her eyes off her sleeping parent.
Munkácsy's anecdotal, emotionally-inflected genre painting made him a particular favorite with American collectors. William P. Wilstach, a Philadelphia hardware merchant, is known to have 'discovered' the obscure art student in Düsseldorf, buying The Last Day of a Condemned Man even before it won the gold medal at the Salon. In New York, the artist was represented by Sedelmeyer, who would present the artist's paintings in a theatrical setting in the gallery before sending them on a world tour of the most important cities of Europe and the East Coast of America. So great was Munkácsy's fame in the United States that the artist's arrival in New York on November 15, 1886 for an appearance at the 23rd Street Tabernacle Exhibition resembled the state visit of a monarch, and was front page news.
Munkácsy's works eventually found their way into the most celebrated collections of the American Gilded Age.
We are grateful to Christian Huemer for his assistance in preparing this catalogue note.
(fig. 1.) Mihály Munkácsy in his Paris studio (Avenue de Villier)
(fig. 2.) Mihály Munkácsy, The Two Families, 1883, (sold, Christie's, New York, 26 October 2003, $662,700).