Canvas and Cult. Pál Szinyei Merse (1845—1920) and his Art

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Canvas and Cult. Pál Szinyei Merse (1845—1920) and his Art

Building C, Ground floor - 12 November 2021 – 20 February 2022

The life’s work of Pál Szinyei Merse, an outstanding master of nineteenth-century Hungarian painting and one of the most influential figures in Hungarian art, is the subject of the latest exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest. The exhibition of around 120 works examines the connections between the paintings in Szinyei Merse’s œuvre and the cult surrounding the artist. As the evolution of his art and the history of his cult unfold side by side, visitors are offered a new perspective on the artist’s prominent position in cultural history.

The exhibition presents Szinyei Merse’s key works in their Hungarian context and in relation to thematic and painterly parallels from the international (primarily German, Austrian and French) art scene of his times. More than twenty paintings by international artists have been kindly loaned to the show by distinguished public and private collections, including masterpieces by Monet, Sisley, Corot, Courbet and Gainsborough. The exhibition provides not only a rich selection of Szinyei Merse’s œuvre, including several pieces rarely seen in public, but also a detailed overview of his cult, revealed through the works of past masters such as Károly Ferenczy, József Rippl-Rónai and Aurél Bernáth, and contemporary artists including Gyula Konkoly, Endre Tót and Ábel Szabó.


Originally planned for 2020 to coincide with the 175th anniversary of the artist’s birth and the centenary of his death, the exhibition was postponed due to the pandemic crisis. The upside of this delay, however, is that now, in autumn 2021, the Hungarian National Gallery can exhibit additional works that have rarely been glimpsed in the last hundred years, which would have been impossible to include last year. One example is Szinyei Merse’s Sailboat on Lake Starnberg (1867), a painting that disappeared from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts during the turmoil of World War II, but which was recently restored to the Budapest collection thanks to the generosity of a New York art collector of Hungarian origin. Szinyei Merse’s painting White Tree (1909), now in private ownership, is on public display again for the first time in over a century.

Pál Szinyei Merse was a ground-breaking pioneer and the first true colourist in the history of Hungarian painting. During his time in Munich, the young artist studied in the legendary class of Karl von Piloty and could count some of the finest painters in the city among his friends. The works produced in the first period of his career – Picnic in May, Lady in Violet, Snowmelt, Skylark, Balloon – played a key role in the establishment of modern Hungarian art. His chefs d’œuvre are among the best-known paintings in Hungarian art history and have formed an inescapable part of Hungary’s cultural memory for over a hundred years. With their perfect composition, their pervasive power and freshness, their daring use of colour and their singular approach to nature, Szinyei Merse’s paintings are universally admired. The artist’s greatness lies in the fact that, at the same time as his French contemporaries, the Impressionists, but entirely independently from them, he discovered the capacity of sunlight to break down form and modify colour. He was the first Hungarian who consistently, comprehensively and innovatively implemented modern ideas in painting, enabling Hungary’s scene, for the first time in its history, to keep pace with the latest trends in European painting.

Szinyei Merse’s life and career are presented both in the context of works by his nineteenth-century contemporaries, and also retrospectively, looking back at his legacy as an established, revered artist through the lens of the cult that embraced him late in his lifetime. Three decades after the previous major Szinyei Merse exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery, even his most familiar paintings now appear in a new light, through uniquely arranged thematic sections covering an unprecedentedly wide-ranging ensemble of his works. Thanks to the loans kindly received from within Hungary and abroad, visitors now have the chance to see works by Szinyei Merse that are seldom on public display: Mother with her Children I, Dance of Fairies, In the Park, Self-portrait in a Leather Coat, Portrait of Zsófi Szinyei Merse.

The central piece in the exhibition is one of the most famous works of Hungarian painting, Picnic in May. The work played a crucial role in the rise of the Szinyei Merse cult, and it has become a true Hungarian icon. The unique place it occupies in the history of art is investigated in a specially produced short film. Another highlight of the show is the section on colour theory, in which the science of colours and how we perceive them helps us to interpret Szinyei Merse’s colour-rich canvases. Further sections examine the four historic international exhibitions that shaped the development of the artist’s life and work. The exhibition concludes with a room dedicated to the cult of Szinyei Merse in twentieth-century and contemporary art, keeping the artist and his works alive in the form of reflections, paraphrases and interpretations.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue in Hungarian and English.

Curators of the exhibition: Orsolya Hessky, Réka Krasznai, Adrienn Prágai


Major Corporate Partner of the exhibition is MKB Private Banking
Sponsor: Mizo Coffee
Our Cooperating Partners are: Air France és Porsche Hungaria

Highlights, curiosities

Wilhelm Leibl: Portrait of Pál Szinyei Merse, 1869

Wilhelm Leibl, one of Szinyei Merse’s closest artist friends in Munich, was among the most distinguished German exponents of realist and naturalist painting. The portrait shown here – the first of the Hungarian artist – was painted in 1869. Leibl portrays Szinyei Merse as an artist and a dandy, dressed with elegant nonchalance in a top hat, overcoat and tie, with a cigarette between his fingers. During Courbet’s visit to Munich, he persuaded Leibl to travel to Paris, which interrupted his work on the portrait. Not long afterwards, the Franco-Prussian War separated the painter from his model, so the dynamically painted likeness remained unfinished.

Pál Szinyei Merse: Meadow with Poppies, 1896

In his paintings of poppies, Szinyei Merse, similarly to Claude Monet, was enthralled by his observations in nature of the pairing between what are perhaps the two strongest complementary colours, red and green. Szinyei Merse had already tackled the same painterly problem when producing his Picnic in May. This painting builds on the effect produced by powerful, vibrant colours, and one can almost feel the sweltering summer atmosphere of the countryside in the palpitating, sun-warmed air. We know from the artist’s son, Félix Szinyei Merse, that most of his paintings of poppies were made “very quickly, in two or three sessions ... but he always had to make great haste, because poppies wilt quickly and are ruined by rain showers”.

Pál Szinyei Merse: Picnic in May, 1873

Pál Szinyei Merse’s Picnic in May is one of the best known and most highly cherished works in Hungarian painting. Its value derives not only from its artistic innovativeness, but also from its theme. The image of a group of friends enjoying a picnic in a magnificent spring landscape has prompted feelings of cheer and happiness in every generation of viewers. It was this casual, simple joie de vivre, free from all sense of nostalgia, that made this painting so modern. Szinyei Merse himself stated that his aim was to paint nothing more than “a beautiful spring day that is being enjoyed by a merry company on an excursion away from the city …”.

Pál Szinyei Merse: Mother with Her Children I, 1869

Szinyei Merse produced his earliest painting of note at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. By granting equal rank to the human figure and to the landscape, he flouted the strict rules of academic painting. Taking a moment from everyday life as the subject matter of a painting, as though it were a photographic snapshot, was also considered unusual and modern, as was the glorification on canvas of “trivial” contemporary fashion. As the art historian Simon Meller later wrote, “it was so new and so taken for granted that its epoch-making novelty was not even noticed”.

Pál Szinyei Merse: Apple Trees in Blossom, 1902

Around the same time as he produced several of his poppy compositions, Szinyei Merse also painted another typical Impressionist motif: apple trees in blossom. The art writer Béla Lázár gave the following verdict of the ageing painter: “he is only interested in nature when it accords with his feelings, that is, when the flowers bloom, in the sunshine. This joy radiates through his apple trees in blossom, which he portrays branching erratically, in divine intoxication…” Trees in blossom were popular themes among the Impressionists in France, for as a symbol of spring they embodied the impression, the vernal atmosphere of sunshine and flowers.

Canvas and Cult. Pál Szinyei Merse (1845—1920) and his Art

12 November 2021 – 20 February 2022

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