Munkcsy was recognized during his lifetime as the foremost Hungarian artist of his generation. He studied in Budapest, Vienna, and Dsseldorf before moving to Paris in 1872 following his marriage to the widow of Baron de Marches. He displayed great versatility in his subject matter, from biblical, to historical, to genre and to portraiture. His first entry at the Paris Salon of 1870, The Last Day of a Condemned Man (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) earned him a gold medal. His work attracted the attention of the Parisian art dealer Charles Seydelmeyer who signed Munkcsy to a ten-year contract in 1878.
Following his move to Paris, Munkcsy began painting scenes of bourgeois life. During the 1870s and 1880s, he produced almost fifty of what Seydelmeyer called "drawing room interiors". There exist a number of works related to our painting, among them a profile study of Madame Munkcsy (fig. 1) and Lady Arranging a Vase of Flowers (fig. 2). The Flower Arrangement (also sometimes called Father's Birthday) can be understood as a pictorial exploration into the life of contemporary Paris. Its subject consciously played to the taste of the very people he represented in his paintings by favorably depicting their elegant homes and families. As Geza Perneczky observed, "Munkcsy painted the close interiors typical of bourgeois drawing rooms of the later nineteenth century. The heavy embroidered cloths covering the tables, ornate wallpapers, chandeliers, metal objects and the glittering frames of pictures and mirrors fill the room with a kind of restless animation. Huge fan-shaped palms fill the canopy-like room and recesses of the windows and women always abound in these interiors. They talk, play the piano, read or amuse their children. These pictures present a world more intimate in every respect: moments of the carefree pastime of the wealthy, unimportant events and family reunions. The taste shown in the paintings reflects the atmosphere of French Eclecticism of the times and the brush with which Munkcsy recorded it was facile, quick and colorful" (G. Perneczky, Munkcsy, Corvina, 1970, p. 22). Munkcsy himself was no stranger to this privileged social group. By 1880 he had moved his family into a large house on the Avenue de Villiers, said to be the first in Paris with electric light.
The notion that images of everyday life were suitable subjects for paintings was considered avant-garde. One of the leading proponents of the "modern painting" was Alfred Stevens who saw a painting by the artist at Galerie Seydelmeyer and related to Seydelmeyer that "[he] could not imagine how the painter had managed to place his figures so plastically in the room, bring together such a wealth of color, and yet achieve such unity of effect" (C. Seydelmeyer, M. von Munkcsy, Paris, 1914, p. III).
Munkcsy enjoyed international patronage throughout his lifetime. Seydelmeyer recognized the potential of the American market and assiduously promoted Munkcsy in America, even bringing the artist to promote his paintings to potential buyers in the major cities of the Northeast in 1886. A Flower Arrangement was in the collection of the preeminent American collector Cornelius Vanderbilt who also owned Munkcsy's 1880 picture The Two Families (Fig. 3).
M. Munkcsy, Madame Munkcsy, (V. Lajos, Munkcsy Mihly: lete s Mvei, Budapest, 1958, no. 327)
M. Munkcsy, Lady Arranging a Vase of Flowers, (V. Lajos, Munkcsy Mihly: lete s Mvei, Budapest, 1958, no. 327)
M. Munkscy, The Two Families, (illustrated in C. Seydelmeyer, M. von Munkcsy, Paris, 1914, p. 69).