Painting in Central Europe in the Era of Emperor Franz Joseph

To celebrate the 120th Anniversary of its inauguration in 2016 the Budapest Art Hall (Műcsarnok) organised a Jubilee Exhibition focusing on its First Golden Age in the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph.1 The aim of this show was twofold: to demonstrate the extent of Budapest’s international artistic contacts2 and to show the periodisation of modernisation in painting during the Austro-Hungarian Empire up to1900.

The second part of the nineteenth century and the first fifteen years of the twentieth century (up to the First World War) constituted a golden age of painting in Central Europe. It was the age when the region encompassed by the Austro- Hungarian Empire consciously embarked on the process of modernisation. A new awareness of nationhood, coupled with a determination to “catch up” with the perceived cultural performance of the Western half of Europe, produced a string of spectacular achievements in culture generally, but especially in the fine arts.

The different art centres of the Empire and its nations (Austrians, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians and Croats, to mention only the numerically largest ones) all embarked on the modernisation of their economies and concomitantly of their cultural production, not least the visual arts. It was a time when high culture enjoyed an especially privileged status – architecture, painting and sculpture all received close attention from the politico-cultural elite. This was because the visual and plastic arts were perceived as indicators of a country’s level of (European) civilisation and had become a vital part of state representation. International Exhibitions were important forums where national cultures competed for attention and were considered to be barometers of the progress made on the road to modernity.

This was the first time that an exhibition has been dedicated to showing the painting of the whole Central European region between about 1860 and 1900. The aim has been to select from each nation some of the most remarkable works created during those four decades. 168 paintings from six countries and 22 collections (state and private) represented the different schools of paintings according to the chosen leitmotivs of the show. Several of them are chef-d´oeuvres of leading masters of iconic significance, like the huge painting by the Polish Jan Matejko (Rejtan, 1866), or the early work of the Prague master Jakub Schikaneder (All Saints’ Day, 1888), or the Croatian Vlaho Bukovac (Dubravka, 1895).

The exhibition illustrated the main phases of modernisation in painting and highlighted its turning points when a new generation of artists brought fresh approaches and introduced a new Weltanschauung to the art of Vienna, Prague, Budapest or Kraków. The comparative element was the leitmotiv of the show, demonstrating the common inspirations of artists who established national schools of painting on an extremely high aesthetic level.

Beside the representation of relatively well-known artists (Makart, Wyspiański, Mucha, Kupka, Rippl-Rónai) rarely seen works (Auchentaller, Olgyai, Pataky, Poll, Rački) cast an unusual light on an age which retrospectively looks like an undisrupted flow of extraordinary creativity, although for its actors it was more often experienced as a continuous stream of crises, of formidable challenges and often a bitter struggle for recognition. The pictures were grouped around common themes which represented the core intellectual, historical and sometimes philosophical preoccupations in all three phases of the modernising process.

The introductory section (the first room) focused on the institutional background, state and private patronage (e.g. Emperor and King Franz Joseph) together with the functional support of the artists’ unions and the patrons of the arts (e.g. Count Gyula Andrássy and his family). Culture (by which people in the nineteenth century understood only high culture) was regarded at the time as a yardstick against which a country’s or a nation’s level of development could be measured. The political, economic and institutionalised cultural systems of Central Europe were less well advanced than in Western Europe, and the more responsible members of local elites realised that the state had a duty to support every initiative that would lead to the spread of high culture.

The uninterrupted march of modernisation during this period went through three stages and was carried out by three generations of artists: the Historicists, the Realists and the Modernists at the turn of the century. All three generations were in fact “modern” in their own day, enriching and refining the artistic legacy and knowledge inherited from their forebears, and in turn passing on innovations in both approach and style to the next generation. Each of the three generations worked out new artistic principles, as well as developing novel intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual values. All this is still regarded as part of the gold standard of the culture and artistic traditions of each nation living in this part of Europe.

Matejko, Jan (Kraków, 1838 – Kraków, 1893), Reytan, the Fall of Poland 1866, oil on canvas, 282 × 487 cm, The Royal Castle in Warsaw. © Andrzej Ring, Lech Sandzewicz

The modernisation of art took place in a similar fashion among the artists of every nation in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, not least because, as the Monarchy’s national cultures developed, each of them closely observed what was unfolding in the others. A look at the artworks on display at the international exhibitions of the time will reveal how much all these nations had in common, notwithstanding individual efforts to mark out distinctive territory.


The show had a musical dramaturgy, that of a visual symphony where the three movements – the three period-styles – exhibited a cohesive colouristic dominance with their preferences of colours and tones. Thus the works of Historicism were mainly in different versions of lush reds, warm browns, while the second “movement”, Realism, was dominated by sombre, silver-grey tones. The third movement – Modern Painting of the 1890s – was the most varied where the Symbolism and plein-air colourism of the different nations reflected the many-sidedness of the region, specifically local preferences in colour schemes and leitmotivs.


The masterpieces of Historicism reflected nation building and the construction of a narrative of national history. Individual perceptions of the “national” landscape and local peasant genres were also addressed in this age.

If world fame equated with having one’s name on the lips of the citizens of Paris, then three painters from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy managed to achieve this: Jan Matejko, Hans Makart and Mihály Munkácsy. “These three great ‘M-s’ represent the very highest level of what can be achieved with colour… Makart was the sanguine of the three, Matejko the choleric, and Munkácsy the melancholic. Makart was the lyrical, Matejko the epic, and Munkácsy the elegiac…” – so wrote the most revered Viennese art critic of the time, and the strongest ally of the Secessionists, Ludwig Hevesi.

The Polish master Matejko was awarded a gold medal in Paris in 1867 for his grand historical canvas Reytan, the Fall of Poland. Thereafter, he despatched every large historical tableau he painted on a European tour. Most of his themes were drawn from Polish history. No painter determined more strongly a nation’s concepts about its own past than Matejko. For this reason his canvases did not provoke as much excitement among sensation-seeking foreign audiences as paintings of better-known personages from universal European history and culture, like those of the Austrian Makart or the Hungarian Munkácsy.

Hans Makart was the most celebrated painter in Vienna in the 1870s, a decorator of palaces and arranger of festivities. He focused not on national tragedies, but on opulent historical genre scenes, and was a fashionable portraitist of female beauty. An entire artistic period “Makart-Zeit” was named after him in Austria.

Munkácsy’s most successful masterpiece, Christ before Pilate (1881) represented the crowning glory of the artist’s career. It is a modern, yet historically realistic image of Christ that follows the interpretation of Ernest Renan, author of the influential Life of Jesus published in 1863. Munkácsy’s painting was a truly innovative biblical scene, a psychological tour de force, executed with uncompromising realism; it filled his contemporaries with astonishment and awe. Critics described it as authentic and original, deeply human and majestically uplifting. The devout viewed it with piety, while learned agnostics regarded it as a faithful historical reconstruction, as well as the embodiment of the “eternal man”, a moral example to be followed. Here was an image of Christ with which everyone in Europe in the 1880s, regardless of nationality, religion or denomination, was able to identify, since it personified the continent’s cultural, historical and philosophical heritage.

When Munkácsy died in 1900, Ludwig Hevesi wrote an extremely perceptive analysis of the place in art history occupied not only by Munkácsy, but also by Makart and Matejko. First and foremost, Hevesi considered all three to be experts in colourism; in addition “… they became the masters of travelling pictures that were given the extravagant tag of ‘sensation paintings’. This type of work, aimed at the masses, originated from the shrewd insight of an art dealer, whose business strategy was to satisfy the public’s hunger for spectacle …” Nevertheless Hevesi, still acknowledged the qualities and authentic artistry of History painting.


From around the mid-1880s, and throughout the region, this concept of history and approach towards art came to be challenged by a more modern attitude. Heroic idealism was now replaced by the grim reality of the lives of ordinary folk. Artists discovered a new perspective on man and contemporary society, which they expressed through realism and naturalism; they painted unsparingly harsh depictions of misery and destitution (Jakub Schikaneder: All Saints’ Day, 1888; István Csók: At the Employment Agency, 1892).

Schikaneder, Jakub (Prague, 1855 – Prague, 1924), All Souls’ Day, 1888, oil on canvas, 139.5 × 220 cm, National Gallery in Prague. © National Gallery in Prague

In the 1880s, every national school of painting in Europe was dominated by variants of Realism and Naturalism to such an extent that, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, French cultural policy officially supported Realism and Naturalism as a modern stylistic trend. It was not until the canon of art history was retrospectively formulated in the twentieth century that artists in this style (e.g. Bastien-Lepage or Alfred Roll) were divested of the right to be called “Modern”.

In the austere decade of Zolaesque naturalism, the bleakness of the here-and-now made its deepest impression on young artists who came from the more deprived parts of the country, and who had witnessed at first hand the depths of misery in which rural Hungary languished. The experience was one that many could never forget, even when they were living in Munich or Paris (László Pataky: Vigil, 1886).

There were many exponents of this realist, naturalist style who, with each passing decade, clung to the principle of faithfulness to reality, and whose paintings continued to act as social commentary far into the next century (for example, László Pataky: Interrogation, 1897; Imre Révész: Our Daily Bread, 1901). These painters – contrary to the taste of the art market – dared to paint tragic and sombre themes from the mundane reality of daily life. In their best works this was combined with an overwhelming dominance of “atmosphere” or “mood”, especially melancholic atmosphere. From the mid-1880s, the influence of Corot, Millet and Bastien-Lepage, and soon also masterpieces by Fritz von Uhde, inspired young painters of the region to change their palette from the academic brown and golden hues into a silver-grey colourism which was chiefly appropriate to paint poetically atmospheric cloudy skies, dusk and fog.

Many artists whose careers began around 1875 also painted atmospheric landscapes, since this style was related to a deeply felt psychological approach to the subject, which was on the increase; at the high point of Symbolism, it became so dominant that it also revolutionised the long-standing tradition of late romantic genre painting and established a new tradition. Some of its protagonists labelled it “poetical realism”, like the Austrian Emil Jakob Schindler, but it can equally well be described as “mood-painting” or “Stimmungsmalerei”, the appellation favoured by contemporary German- speaking critics like Ludwig Hevesi. For a while, every intellectually and emotionally sensitive painter (most spectacularly László Mednyánszky, but also some followers of Naturalism) even in their genre pictures produced works of such evocative force that they may reasonably be classified as “Stimmungsmalerei”. This trend is evident in the works of Ottó Baditz, László Pataky, István Csók, János Vaszary, Károly Ferenczy or István Réti. Realist or Fine Naturalist paintings focusing on contemporary life reflected not only critical attitudes to society but also a growing interest in the psychological analysis of its different facets (Csók: Confirmation, 1890).3

Pataky, László (Zalatna, 1857 – Alvinc, 1912), Interrogation, 1897, oil on canvas, 225 × 300 cm, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest. © Hungarian National Gallery


The psychological crisis reached its zenith in the 1890s, when the painting styles of the different nations truly began to diverge.4 This decade of turmoil and progress is the most fascinating in politics, as it is in culture, the arts, and particularly painting. At this time, an uncommonly large number of innovative and talented artists emerged in each of the nations of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Yet, as each national school of painting began to find its own distinctive voice, national identity was simultaneously being overshadowed by a crisis in personal identity. Painters were led to the discovery of one of the most fundamental human problems of the twentieth century: the vulnerability of the individual psyche to the competing influences of Eros and Thanatos, coupled with a general identity crisis reflecting the social alienation of large layers of the society.

Although the theme of gender-crisis was eventually to be elaborated and brought to its highest level of sophistication in Austrian art after 1900, it was actually first broached in the relatively less well-known painting of Poland and Bohemia. As the end of the century approached, the realist mood-painters were joined by a younger generation, whose art focused more intently on the sort of existential problems faced by the individual. With unparalleled psychological sensitivity tinged with pessimism they explored the hidden depths of the soul and the realm of the instincts in their art. Especially the Polish painters attempted to evoke dimensions of existence beyond the material world (e.g. Stanisław Wyspiański: Planty Park at Dawn, 1894). They flung open the gates of imagination, allowing the forces of the irrational to burst forth (Jacek Malczewski: Thanatos, 1898; Wojciech Weiss: Obsession, 1899). The Czech Jan Preisler painted the ambiguous anxiety and desires of adolescence (Spring, 1900). The uniquely individual Hungarian, Mednyánszky, created emblems of existential loneliness and despair (Old Galician Jew, 1900).

Viennese painting was somewhat different. In the capital of the Empire the social issues and problems of national-cultural identity were subdued and replaced by philosophical issues or an individual poetical approach to the traditional subjects of the genres. A sensitive “Stimmungsmalerei” and virtuoso Fine Naturalism characterised the Austrian painting of the 1890s, which was exclusively refined and focused on the cult of beauty. Beside virtuoso portraits and poetical landscapes verging on Symbolism (Maximilian Lenz and Carl Moll), a remarkable number of genre pictures and allegories “visualised” music, the central art form of Viennese culture. In 1898–99 Josef Maria Auchentaller (a member of the newly founded Secession) painted six panels recalling Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. This “Pastoral” music room was like “painted music”: in the tradition of “plein-air Stimmungsmalerei”, it closely followed the instructions that Beethoven had written for each movement. It is a vivid documentation of the Viennese cult of music and nature (Auchentaller: Elfe am Bach, the second movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony).

A fundamental change in style and in Weltanschauung came in 1900 and was initiated by the Symbolist masterpieces of Gustav Klimt. Symbolism/Art Nouveau/Secession focused on the new sensitivity in regard to gender issues, and generally an awareness of the role of women coupled with the discovery of the realm of the unconscious and the instincts.

There were others, however, who were unwilling to go down this unforgiving path, preferring instead to take refuge once more in nature (Carl Moll, Julian Fałat, Károly Ferenczy, Antonín Slavíček) while experimenting with colour, and paving the way for the abandonment of narrative, thus achieving an artistic autonomy of painting.

Wyspiański, Stanisław (Kraków, 1869 – Kraków, 1907), Kraków’s Planty Park at Dawn, 1894, oil on canvas, 100 × 201 cm, The National Museum in Kraków. © Laboratory Stock National Museum in Kraków
Malczewski, Jacek (Radom, 1854 – Kraków, 1929), Thanatos, 1898, oil on canvas, 124.5 × 74 cm, National Museum in Poznań. © The National Museum in Poznań
Preisler, Jan (Králův Dvůr, 1872 – Prague, 1918), Spring (Triptych), 1900, oil on canvas, 112 × 70 cm; 112 × 186 cm; 112 × 70 cm, Gallery of West Bohemia, Pilsen. © The Gallery of West Bohemia in Pilsen

The 1890s, up to 1897, was an optimistic period in Hungary, when practising artists were full of plans and projects as they prepared themselves for the Millennialcelebrations. Although the younger generation was still studying in Munich and Paris, there was a trend in Budapest towards organising a more efficient art establishment and exhibition policy. This led to the founding of the Nemzeti Szalon (National Salon) in 1894. Amongst the leading painters, Fine Naturalism was superseded gradually by Symbolism and a new colouristic style characterised by soft, velvety brushwork. Each painter tended to develop his own version of this fresh form of Naturalism.

Three masters were the pioneers of the new approach. Firstly, József Rippl-Rónai, who was living in Paris, experimented restlessly until his work matured into an individual style of painting that produced glowing portraits in oil and pastel. Secondly, János Vaszary was also an artist of accurate virtuosity, albeit with a somewhat “cool eye” and a searching mind. To him, the challenge of stylistic experiment had priority, while the model had secondary importance, being only a means to achieve new effects. Thirdly, Károly Ferenczy’s highly disciplined approach to the systematic rendering of new effects was underpinned by strict faithfulness to nature. This type of painting introduced modifications in terms of style and technique, but still concentrated on psychological insights, so may therefore be described as atmospheric mood SymbolismFerenczy never changed his basic aesthetic principles and Weltanschauung, whereby the guiding ideal was a tranquil symbiosis of man and nature creating beauty and harmony (Ferenczy: On the Hilltop, 1901).

Ferenczy, Károly (Vienna, 1862 – Budapest, 1917), On the Hilltop, 1901, oil on canvas, 110 × 141.5 cm, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest. © Hungarian National Gallery

Besides these three leading artists, there were many other excellent experimental painters (for example, Frigyes Stobentz, Adolf Fényes, Oszkár Glatz, Hugo Poll) who worked in diverse modes. However the mainstream modern style now focused on the Hungarian countryside and its inhabitants, as represented by the members of the Nagybánya group, whose colony was based on the picturesque small mining town of that name (today Baia Mare) in Transylvania.


Particularly in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the modern artists of the 1890s rebelled against their fathers’ generation and struggled with multiple crises of identity; at the same time they remained imbued with a sense of responsibility towards their nation and the local community. In spite of all innovations in form and style, they were insistent on stressing the role of the individual psyche in their works. The historical authenticity in their work emanated from its psychological concentration on human life as an existential tragedy. This widely experienced “rediscovery” of the uniquely unpredictable inner workings of the soul, rendered even more vividly through Symbolism, provided the means by which the fin-de- siècle masters, arriving on the scene in the 1890s, expressed their modernity. The intensely atmospheric way in which lyrical visions of the mind were captured (Wyspiański, Boznańska, Rippl-Rónai, Švabinský, Otto Friedrich, Klimt, Ferenczy and Vaszary) fostered a trend in which psychological aperçus and associated theory remained important to the majority of significant artists in this region of Europe.

For painters who stubbornly continued to insist that the reality of the here and now was an essential component of a work of art, the human factor remained of greater importance than formal experimentation.

Hungary went through a deep political crisis between 1903 an 1906, both with regard to its status in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and to its internal politics. Thecrisis threatened the fundaments of the political system, not only the party landscape but also the relationship to Austria and the Emperor. These tensions could be felt, albeit vaguely, even in painting. As a consequence of the renewed anti-Habsburg attitude, a new search for a different national identity arose and this was soon articulated not only in the sphere of politics, but also in culture. Grave social problems became a topic for realist painting, thus preserving the genre of peasant subjects. The realists had to face a new and deep poverty, typical not only of the Alföld (the Great Hungarian Plain) but everywhere in the countryside. The modern stylistic features of painting were combined with dramatic social sujets.

Auchentaller, Josef Maria (Vienna, 1865 – Grado, 1949), Fairy by the Brook, 1898–1899, oil on canvas,
175×73 cm, Villa Scheid in Vienna – The Victor & Martha Thonet Collection Galerie punkt12, Vienna. ©
amp, Vienna, Andreas Maleta

From about 1905 onwards, through the years leading up to the First World War, the intellectual and artistic legacy of this fin-de-siècle generation was questioned and repudiated by their “sons”, the members of the Paris-focused radical avant-garde (in Hungary the group of the Eight). Theoretical thinkers among contemporaries of the avant-garde artists set about constructing the first formalised art history canon, by means of which the painters of the immediately preceding generation (even the leading experimental masters of the 1890s) were relegated to the background – even their right to be called “modern” was placed in serious doubt. This exhibition aimed to re-evaluate the aesthetic and intellectual achievements of these three pre-avant-garde, but in their own time “modern” and “Zeitgemäss”, painters of Central Europe.

Auchentaller, Josef Maria (Vienna,1865 – Grado, 1949), Dance of the Fairies / “Elfenreigen”,
1898–1899, oil on canvas, 230 × 185 cm, Villa Scheid in Vienna – The Victor & Martha Thonet Collection Galerie punkt12, Vienna. © amp, Vienna, Andreas Maleta

The reign of Franz Joseph ushered in a golden age of art, especially in painting, right across the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The different national schools produced many works that still stand out as commanding masterpieces, if judged by accepted international standards. Of all the periods in the history of Central European art, this is the era that offers the most intriguing new revelations and stimulating insights each time it is revisited.


1 The exhibition was accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue in English and in Hungarian.

2 Műcsarnok had been the main exhibition venue of the Hungarian Art Society since the late 1860s.

3 Realism remained an integral part of cultural and social modernisation for many decades, precisely because it was tied by myriad threads to the realities of the age.

4 From the mid-1880s, a counter-current in literature and philosophy began to gain momentum in Europe, a Weltanschauung that verged on the pessimistic and the irrational; in the fine arts it was distilled into Symbolism. In the 1890s, across Central Europe, this tendency became increasingly prevalent in the new directions taken by painting, regardless of formal or stylistic manifestations.

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