The Hungarian Peculiarities of National Remembrance: Historical Figures with Symbolic Importance in Nineteenth-century Hungarian History Paintings

Zsuzsanna Tóth


In order to place nineteenth-century Hungarian art into international context, this article calls for the theoretical discourse of cultural memory, when a suppressed community turns to their past and insists on their antecedents’ traditions for the survival of their culture. When, in the 1850s and 1860s, the leaders of the Habsburg Austrian Empire retaliated against Hungary for its 1848-49 “Fight for Freedom”, Hungarian visual art of the era rediscovered long-honoured figures of the historical past as the essential components of Hungarian national identity. This article argues that the successful visualization and memorialization of outstanding historical characters with symbolic values for the Hungarian nation was due to history painting itself as medium. The Hungarian painters’ choice of characters vigorously reacted to the changing political relationship between the Austrians and the Hungarians from the failure of the 1849 Hungarian Fight for Freedom until the 1850s and the 1870s involving the 1867 Austro-Hungarian Compromise. Keeping it in mind, the display and the reception of four great paintings, Bertalan Székely’s The Discovery of the Body of King Louis II (1860), Viktor Madarász’s Péter Zrínyi and Ferenc Frangepán in Prison at Wiener-Neustadt (1864), Székely’s The Women of Eger (1867) and Gyula Benczúr’s The Baptism of Vajk (1875) are analysed.


Hungarian history painting, cultural memory, nationhood, national symbolism, reception

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