Simon Meller and Elek Petrovics

The activities of the Museum of Fine Arts in Pest are recognized in Vienna as well in 1918

In the last months of the First World War, there was little positive news and little permanent value generated in Hungary. However, the Museum of Fine Arts still held notable exhibitions and employed significant experts, one of whom was appointed to be a (subordinate) director in March 1918, even during these times. 

On March 12, 1918, Pesti Napló reported on King Charles IV granting the title of “Directors of the Hungarian National Museum of Fine Arts” to the King’s Counsel, the Department Director of the Hungarian National Museum of Fine Arts, Gábor Térey, dr. The significance and strength of the contemporary museum is depicted by the fact that Térey – who was a student of Jacob Murckhardt, a founder of modern art history, and who was invited home from his assignment as a private tutor at the University of Freiburg (1894–1896) for the occasion of millennial celebrations – was not even the primary leader of the museum.

The Museum of Fine Arts was founded at the time of the millennium – that is why Térey was invited home –, but the building itself was opened only in 1906. Térey contributed a lot to the establishment of the graphic collection of the museum, and as the head of the old gallery (from 1904 to 1926, pursuant to the Hungarian Biographical Lexicon) he made his mark with the preparation of the old painting and drawing material. (However, József Szinnyei wrote that he retired already in 1925: “He settled in Freiburg, where memories of his youth aspirations attached him.”) However, the Museum of Fine Arts had an even more famous leader as well, today we would say a Director General. This was Elek Petrovics, about whom a number of appraisements have been published.

In early 1918, Ludwig von Baldass, an art historian of Vienna, the “neighbouring castle” – who was later celebrated, but surrounded with debated judgement – also recognized the achievements of the Museum of Fine Arts in Pest. (Von Baldass became a professor and the Director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in 1934, but his judgement is negatively influenced by his role in Nazi times. He prevented the rescue of the Rothschild collection abroad after Austria’s German occupation in 1938.) On February 3, 1918, Pesti Napló wrote that the official journal of the Museum of Industrial Arts in Vienna, Kunst und Kunsthandwerk praised the new acquisitions of the Hungarian institute. “The exhibition of the new acquisitions of the Museum of Fine Arts opened half a year ago, presenting the rich, valuable achievements of Elek Petrovics as a director for three years to the Hungarian arts audience” – quoted the Austrian opinion the paper from Pest.

This is also confirmed by art historians too: Jolán Balogh wrote in his study in 1967: Elek Petrovics “was the centre of the life of the Museum of Fine Arts for 21 years, since he became the head of the Museum in 1914, until 1935 –  his painfully forced retirement”. When he started his work at the museum, the institute was only taking shape. Therefore “it was in desperate need of a clear-sighted, flawless leader with confident judgement, which it did get in the person of Elek Petrovics” – wrote Balogh.

The exhibition, organized in the last period of the First World War, “gained Petrovics immense credit even in foreign professional circles” – wrote Pesti Napló in 1918. Pursuant to the paper, the fact that the Hungarian institute is praised by an Austrian professional paper, is rare, since “aspirations of museums in Budapest was looked at with jealousy and contempt in Vienna“. So von Baldass, the guard of the Viennese court, praising “all significant acquisitions of the Petrovics era” broke the ice pursuant to the report of the Hungarian paper.

Petrovics also outlined the evolutionary history of Hungarian painting, tracking it back to the “pioneers whose names have been forgotten”. For example, great French impressionists were represented by the exhibition of new acquisitions in Budapest more characteristically than German and Austrian museums. But old masters were not pushed into the background either: “Baldass lists Keresztre feszítés (Crucifixion) painted on golden background, found by Petrovics in the castle of Countess Imréné Erdődy among significant works of Altdorfer.” The study also highlights Ghirlandaio’s Szent István (St. Stephen) and Gaudenzio Ferrari’s Lamentation of Christ, as well as Jan Lys’s Judith and “two interestingly modern Magnasco-paintings” – wrote Pesti Napló, quoting the Austrian analysis.

Pursuant to the Hungarian paper, “though not to the level of its special significance, but the Austrian scientist is also concerned with the Ferenczy-type bronze collection too, acquired for the museum four years ago by Simon Meller. Looking at the famous horse statue, Baldass accepts Meller’s hypothesis and considers this bronze, great in spite of its small size, as the work of Leonardo da Vinci.”

We have also written about the statue, attributed to Leonardo,on as well: pursuant to the opinion of Simon Meller, the professional of the museum, in 1915, published a year later, the small statue was Leonardo da Vinci’s artwork. Later Mária G. Aggházy also represented this opinion, but professionals have become unsure again since then, so today the statue is usually listed by catalogues with a question mark or without an author.

The statue, depicting a figure sitting on a rampant horse, was brought to Hungary by István Ferenczy (1792–1856) sculptor, but he offered it for sale to the state in vein, so the artwork stood in a box for 50 years. The heirs opened the box in 1913, where only the horse was found, and the horseman was added to it later, since it was hidden by Ferenczy in the wall of his workshop in Rimaszombat. The heirs sold the statue to the Hungarian state – in instalments – in March 1914, which they came off badly due to the later inflation.

“Contrary to a significant part of European art museums, the Museum of Fine Arts did not owe thanks its foundations to the collection by the rulers, its establishment was attached to the national renewal. It does not have a very long past in its present form either – it was opened in 1906 –, but its material and structure is the witness of almost two centuries of collection and cultural aspirations” – wrote about the collection in a museum publication in 1998 by Klára Garas academician, former Director General.

Few people know that “collection” started with a kind of confiscation, which laid the foundations for the later museum: “Paintings decorating the Chamber President apartment, placed under public ownership in 1848 for the decree of Lajos Kossuth, included for example Dürer’s Portrait of a Man” – wrote Szilvia Bodnár about the history of the museum on the website of the institute. The basis of today’s collection is formed by the Esterházy collection, purchased by the Hungarian state in 1870-71. “This collection formed the basis for the National Gallery, the direct predecessor of the Museum of Fine Arts” – wrote Bodnár. Drawings and paintings acquired included artworks of Leonardo, Raffaello, Correggio, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Ribera, Murillo and Goya.

This shows that the museum collection was not founded in 1914, the Museum of Fine Arts would not be the same today without the Esterházy collection. However, they managed to enrich the collection even in one of the most difficult periods of the 20th century, for which Petrovics, Térey and Meller are also worth recognition.

A Szépművészeti Múzeum igazgatója = Pesti Napló, 1918. március 12.
Osztrák folyóirat a Szépművészeti Múzeum új szerzeményeiről = Pesti Napló, 1918. február 3.
Takács Róbert: Leonardo da Vinci szobra Budapesten bukkant fel?
Balogh Jolán: Petrovics Elek = Művészettörténeti Értesítő, 16. évf. 1967/2.
Szépművészeti Múzeum (Szerk.: Garas Klára; a második kiadást gondozta: Ember Ildikó) 1998.
Bodnár Szilvia: A Múzeum története 
Művészeti Gyűjtemény
MyDear BB…: The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925–1959. (Szerk.: Robert Cumming) 2015.

Written by: Iván Miklós Szegő