Is the shepherd grieving?

It was on this day in 1875 that Miklós Izsó (1831-1875), one of the foremost masters of Hungarian sculpture, died. His oeuvre was a brief one but in these few creative years he produced unique masterpieces of our 19th-century sculpture, including numerous splendid portraits, the Csokonai statue in Debrecen and the “Grieving Shepherd”. Although we refer to the latter as the “grieving shepherd”, Izsó simply called it the “Hungarian Shepherd”. So where did “grieving” come from?

Miklós Izsó: Grieving Shepherd, 1862, White marble, 95 cm, Hungarian National Gallery

Miklós Izsó was born in Disznóshorvát (now called Izsófalva) in Borsod County. He completed his studies in Sárospatak but then, in 1848, joined the Hungarian army. He took part in eighteen battles and served right until the Surrender at Világos. In his obituary of 1875 he was remembered as a lieutenant of the Hungarian army. After the surrender and following six weeks spent hiding from the enemy as a renegade, he fled to his native village, where his parents were holding a prayer vigil: they were praying for their son they believed to have died – who returned home right at that moment. Soon after this, he secured a post for Count Pallavici as a forrester’s assistant but the count began to question his loyalty because of his role in the honvéd army. The count asked what Izsó would have done if he had met him on the battlefield as an enemy. “I would have invited the count to surrender,” came the reply. The count asked what Izsó would have done had he refused to surrender. “I would have shot the count dead,” said Izsó, and this honesty pleased the count, recalled József Izsó of his brother in 1874. After this Izsó was enlisted into military service but deserted on the first day and was again forced to go into hiding as a renegade for a protracted period. He finally began to study sculpting under István Ferenczy in Rimaszombat and then continued his studies in Vienna and Munich. His studies in Munich were financed by his friends in Vienna – seventy members of the Kreuzer Society studying in the capital – who put aside 5 Kreuzers a time to help their friend.

In the summer of 1861 Izsó started work in Hungary on a sculpture depicting a shepherd. He exhibited the model in Pest and returned to Munich in the autumn. It was here that he received a letter from the wealthy industrialist from Pest, Mihály Gschwindt, commissioning him to fashion a sculpture of a shepherd in marble. Izsó accepted the 400-forint commission for the Carrara marble sculpture. However, when he exhibited the sculpture in Pest in June 1842 he did not hand it over to the commissioner citing additional costs. The dispute became a court case; in the meantime, the authorities seized the sculpture, which, according to the court’s decision dated 26 January 1864, was recognised as the lawful property of the commissioner. During the complicated legal case Gschwindt also complained that the work was not made out of Carrara marble, while Izsó simply denied that he had ever promised Carrara marble in the first place. Of course, the press immediately launched an attack on the wealthy industrialist, asserting that this was his way of exploiting the poor artist. As a magnanimous gesture in response to all of this, Gschwindt donated the sculpture to the Hungarian National Museum in the same year. This brought Izsó a sense of satisfaction since he regarded this piece as being especially significant.

It is interesting that while Izsó wished to fashion a simple, yet very typical Hungarian shepherd, in 1863 the Hungarian press was already referring to the work as the “Grieving Shepherd”. However, the depicted shepherd is certainly not grieving. He appears to be musing as he smokes his pipe but shows no signs of grieving. It, therefore, seems increasingly clear that this grieving was merely something the contemporary press read into the work and for posterity grieving seemed to be a genuine state of mind befitting a typically Hungarian figure. This arbitrary title would suggest that we, Hungarians, grieve when we do not in the least intend to. All of this is a fine example of the degree to which the characterology of a nation is formed not on the basis of facts and experiences but instead on stereotypes, expectations and imposed misinterpretation.

29 May 2019


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