Variations on Realism – From Munkácsy to Mednyánszky

Building B, 1st Floor - The exhibition is temporarily closed

The Hungarian National Gallery opened its re-arranged permanent exhibition focusing on the art of Mihály Munkácsy, which has been expanded with works previously kept in storage as well as international pieces. With works displayed in six rooms and built around six themes, Variations on Realism – From Munkácsy to Mednyánszky explores the changes that took place in the depiction of reality.


The Hungarian National Gallery’s recently revamped permanent exhibitions (Art in the 19th Century – from the Age of Reforms to the Turn of the Century and Modern Times) take a fresh look at the art of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th through new perspectives adopted in accordance with a more up-to-date scientific approach. The next permanent exhibition that awaited a similar renewal was the one focusing on Mihály Munkácsy’s art, which had last been re-arranged in 2012. The sequence of rooms re-organised according to the new concept now forms the last section of the permanent exhibition halls on the museum’s first floor encompassing the art of the 19th century.

The previous, somewhat rigid monographic grouping of works was replaced in recent years by an approach that discusses artists and artworks in a larger context and highlights broader connections between them. Munkácsy’s masterpieces (e.g. The Condemned Cell and the Woman Carrying Brushwood) as well as works by László Paál, Lajos Deák Ébner, Adolf Fényes, József Koszta and Gyula Rudnay continue to occupy a distinctive place at the permanent exhibition Variations on Realism. Besides these artists, the art of László Mednyánszky is also given prominence. Walking through the revamped exhibition halls visitors can view not only the well-known cardinal works but also ones that had previously been seen by the public only on rare occasions and had remained in storage. As a novelty, the pictures by Hungarian masters have been augmented with an international selection. This change was necessitated by the fact, among others, that many of the featured Hungarian artists, with Munkácsy at the helm, pursued their careers abroad, were active on the international art scene and made a name for themselves at exhibitions in foreign countries, while building their reputations spanning many countries through the international art dealing market. The international context is furnished in each section of the exhibition by a foreign artist, such as Narcisse Virgilio Diaz de la Peña (who was an important master of the artists’ colony in Barbizon besides László Paál), Friedrich August von Kaulbach (who exhibited his works at the Paris Salon), Albert von Keller, Louis‑Ernest Barrias, and the Austrian painter August von Pettenkofen (who was active in the Hungarian town of Szolnok too).

The backbone of the exhibition is Realism and its variations, as the title also states, and the central concept explores the depiction of reality from Munkácsy to Mednyánszky. Early on in the history of art, artists were preoccupied with the idea of capturing reality or conveying the world surrounding them as precisely as possible. However, it is the 19th century that can be regarded as the century of realist and naturalist strivings: it was then that painters and sculptors embarked upon the mission of providing an authentic and objective presentation of the society and the reality of their time. Spanning a period from the 1860s to the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the exhibition portrays the emergence, flourishing and decline of Realism and Naturalism, i.e. the process of how the artists of the day experimented with different approaches to capturing reality. A bygone era – that of the late-19th century with its small town streets, rural landscapes, as well as scenes and colourful interiors of Hungarian villages – comes alive as visitors walk through the halls, while the sumptuous milieu of the wealthy haute bourgeoisie and the daily lives of the poor and destitute living in towns are evoked in genre scenes set in urban environments.

Realist and Naturalist artists typically presented everyday reality through the direct observation of the modern world. In his masterpieces Mihály Munkácsy showed the profound drama of his age, while László Mednyánszky’s powerful vagrant pictures and landscapes parted with Munkácsy’s tradition and introduced a new quality of capturing reality. One of the leading genres of 19th-century painting was the landscape, which underwent significant changes in the second half of the 19th century both in its artistic approach and technique. Light and shade were assigned an ever-increasing role along with colours in landscapes painted in the spirit of en plen air, i.e. in the open. Visitors are in for an exciting journey at the rearranged permanent exhibition leading from Mihály Munkácsy’s and László Paál’s French landscapes to László Mednyánszky’s mystifying depictions of nature clad in mist.


Curators of the exhibition: Réka Krasznai and András Zwickl


Corporate Partner: Farrow & Balls.

Highlights, curiosities

Baron László Mednyánszky: Autumn Landscape, 1903

This painting is determined by the contrast of blue and the yellows glowing almost in an orange light. Mednyánszky writes about this pairing of colours: “The blue. Cold dissonance (on an orange basis) is a source of well-being, and it has a special soothing effect on the nerves.” At that time, Mednyánszky discovered the potential of using a painter's knife or spatula, Spachtli in German. He did not apply paint to the canvas with brushes, but rather spread it in thick layers, as wide and as hard that it could never be done with a brush.

Mihály Munkácsy: In the Studio, 1876

Two-metre portraits are far and few between in the history of art. This is one reason that makes Munkácsy’s work In the Studio unique. The work is not merely a self-portrait but also a genre scene from the master’s life relating virtually the entire story of the making of the piece. However, there is something particular here: the viewer feels as if the painting placed on the easel were being made by two artists: Munkácsy and his wife.

Narcisse Virgilio Diaz de la Peña: Landscape, around 1860-70

Born to Spanish parents, the artist studied porcelain painting in Sèvres. In the 1830s he came in contact with a group of landscape painters working in Barbizon. His favourite subjects were shady woods and the contrast of the sun shining through the clouds and from behind the dark foliage of the trees. In the picture, at the foot of an enormous silhouette of the trees, the small figure of a brushwood collector is seen, emphasising the harmony between man and nature. Like many of his fellow painters, Diaz – similarly to Munkácsy in his first period of art – used bitumen to ground the canvas, resulting in the gradual darkening of the colours and the partial loss of nuances in tone.

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