Mihaly Munkacsy was born Michael von Lieb to German parents in Munkacs, from which he later gathered his pseudonym. After being apprenticed to itinerant painter Elek Szamossy, Munkacsy went to Pest, the capital city, where he sought the patronage of some established artists. With the help of the landscapist Antal Ligeti he received a grant from the state so he could study abroad. In 1865 he studied at the Academy of Vienna under Karl Rahl. In 1866 he went to Munich to study at the Academy, and in 1868 he moved to Dusseldorf to learn from the popular genre painter Ludwig Knaus. In 1867 he travelled to Paris to see the Universal Exposition. After this trip his style became much lighter, with broader brushstrokes and tonal colour schemes - he was probably influenced by modern French painting seen at the Exposition.
In the early years of his career Munkacsy painted mainly scenes from the daily lives of peasants and poor people. First he followed the colourful, theatrical style of contemporary Hungarian genre painters (e. g. Karoly Lotz, Janos Janko), for example in The Cauldron (1864) or Easter Merrymaking (1865). In the next years he started to pay more attention to the landscape into which he placed his figures (Storm in the Puszta, 1867). From the Dusseldorf genre painters he learnt to represent different emotions in his figures and to treat them as a group (The Last Day of a Condemned Man, 1869).
Munkacsy went on in this direction and painted genre pictures like Making Lint (1871) and Woman Gathering Brushwood (1873). At the end of the 1870s he also worked in Barbizon, together with his friend, the Hungarian landscapist Laszlo Paal, and painted fresh, richly coloured landscapes. In 1878 he painted a historical genre picture, The Blind Milton Dictating Paradise Lost to his Daughters, which marked a new milestone in his oeuvre. This scene is set in the past and in a richly furnished room. The picture was bought (and successfully sold) by Austrian-born art dealer Charles Sedelmeyer, who offered Munkacsy a ten-year contract. This deal made Munkacsy a wealthy man and a really established member of the Paris art world. Sedelmeyer wanted him to paint large-scale pictures which could be exhibited on their own. They decided that a subject taken from the Bible would be most suitable. In 1882 Munkacsy painted Christ before Pilate which was followed by Golgotha in 1884. The trilogy was completed by Ecce Homo in 1896. These huge paintings were taken on a tour and exhibited in many European cities and also in the US. All three were bought by American millionaire John Wanamaker who exhibited them in his department store in Philadelphia every Easter. (Today all three can be seen in Debrecen, Hungary.)
Munkacsy did not abandon genre painting, but his settings changed. In the 1880s he painted many so-called salon pictures: scenes set in lavishly furnished rooms in the homes of rich people. His most often depicted subjects were motherhood (Baby's Visitors, 1879), the happy moments of domestic life (The Father's Birthday, 1882), children and animals (Two Families in the Salon, 1880). His elegantly dressed, dainty young women also appear in landscape settings (Three Ladies in the Park, 1886). These pictures were extremely popular (especially among American buyers) and fetched great prices. Beside these urban subjects Munkacsy also continued to paint rural scenes and dramatic, intensely emotional landscapes.
Unlike many other painters, Munkacsy was very conscious about earthly comfort and social prestige. Over the years he became quite a celebrity.
Munkacsy started to paint during the years he spent in Arad as a joiner. With the help of partons be studied at the Viennese, Munich and Dusseldorf academies. Munkacsy painted his first major work, the outstanding "The Condemned Cell" in Dusseldorf, in 1872, together with his friend Laszlo Paal, he moved to Paris, where be lived until the end of his life. Munkacsy painted his genres in the style of realism between 1873 and 1875: "Midnight Ramblers", "Farewell". "Churning Woman", "Woman Carryng Brushwood", and "Pawnshop" were the zenith of his career. He married the widow of Baron de Marches in 1874, and his style changed from that time on. Departing from the typical subjects of realism, be produced colourful salon paintings and still-lifes. This was the period when be also turned to ladscape painting; his growing interest is marked by such great paintings as "Dusty Road". "Corn Field", and "Walking in the Woods". The assimilation of Laszlo Paal's style is apparent in the landscapes painted during the 1880s, such as "Avenue" and "The Colpach Park". His realist portraits - e.g. of Franz Liszt and Cardinal Haynald - were also born around this time, together with his religions paintings, such as "Christ before Pilate", "Golgotha" and later, "Ecce Homo".
Towards the end of his career he painted two monumental works: "Hungarian Conquest" for the House of Parliament and a fresco entitled "Apotheosis of Renaissance, for the ceiling Kunsthistoriches. Museum in Vienna.
The trilogy comprises Ecce Homo! done in 1896.
Golgotha done in 1884 (oil on canvas, 460 x 712 cm, Deri Museum, Debrecen -loan until 2002) and Christ before Pilate finished in 1881 (oil on canvas, 417 x 636 cm, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada).
Munkacsy was an over-sensitive person who was always unsure and always questioning his own talent. By the 1890s his depression grew into a severe mental illness which was probably intensified by the syphilis he caught in his youth. His last pictures are troubled and sometimes even bizarre (Victim of Flowers, 1896).
Towards the end of his life when disease was demanding more and more of his energy and finally darkness descended on his mind, he accomplished two pictures involving several figures, one is Strike (1896) where he illustrated the subject of the picture, rather unusual at his time, in a new style of character portrayal with the old passionate approach only superficially present.
It was the summer of 1896 when Munkacsy's health sharply declined. After treatment in Baden-Baden, he was retired to Colpach and Paris. Later he was taken to a mental hospital in Endenich near Bonn. He collapsed in on 01 May, 1900. On 9 May he was laid to eternal rest in Kerepesi Cemetery.
Nineteenth century visual art or the historical developments of Hungarian art cannot be discussed without considering Munkacsy 's lifework. His works considered the apogee of national painting. He was a standard-setter, an oeuvre of reference value. He was one of the few with whom the antiquated colour techniques of 19th century Austro-Hungarian painting reached its most powerful and most lavis expression.
In 2005, the Hungarian National Gallery organized in Budapest the first ever comprehensive exhibition of Munkacsy's paintings scattered throughout the world.
As many as 120 pieces were borrowed from different institutions, museums and private collections. The exhibition catalogue published on the occasion, titled Munkacsy a nagyvilagban contains a number of reproductions of his paintings.
The three-month long exhibition was a feast for Hungarians who had little access to original works of Munkacsy.