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Istvan Szonyi

 (1894 - 1960)
Istvan Szonyi was active/lived in Hungary.  Istvan Szonyi is known for expressionist portrait, landscape, and figure painting.

Istvan Szonyi

Biography from the Archives of askART

The following information is from the website of the Szonyi István Memorial Museum

Before entering the rooms of the museum let us say some words about Szonyi’s life. He was born in 1894, in Újpest. After finishing the grammar school he was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in the autumn of 1913. His first master was Károly Ferenczy, who in the summer of 1914 took his students – among them István Szonyi, as well - to the Artists’ Colony of Nagybánya. As a soldier on leave, Szonyi also spent the summers of 1917 and 1918 there. The young painter could get direct impressions of the colony and the life of the free school before and during World War I. The summers spent in Nagybánya played an important role in the artistic inducement of Szonyi. In 1918, after he had been discharged, he got back to the Academy, this time as István Réti’s pupil. (Károly Ferenczy died in 1917.) The school years proved to be short, as he had been expelled because of his participation in the reform movements at the Academy. Fortunately, this decision did not interrupt the young painter’s career.

In 1921, Szonyi had his first one-man show at Ernst Museum, which met a great success. His contemporaries celebrated him as a great master creating a school. He transmitted, for instance, the influence of Béla Uitz through his special screen towards Vilmos Aba Novák, Jeno Pais Goebel, Erzsébet Korb, Dávid Jándi, Jeno Barcsay and Károly Patkó. He influenced their art for a shorter or longer period. During his first trips to Europe (Vienna and Berlin) he got acquainted with the great classical masters. He learnt from them through their works what he missed because of his being expelled from the Academy. This explains his adoration to Rembrandt, his following Marée’s classicism and Brueghel’s influence on his art. In the whole course of his career was attracted to classical compositions but was able to avoid the traps of Neo-classicism.

After he had been forced to leave the Academy he visited the Artists’ Colony of Kecskemét a few times. It was at this time that he began to deal with graphics and etching intensively though he did not belong to Viktor Olgyai’s pupils like most of his contemporaries. In the first part of his career he etched more than two hundred plates. As a significant member of the “etching generation,” he contributed to the development of Hungarian graphic art at the beginning of the 1920s.

His marriage to Melinda Bartóky and his moving to Zebegény meant a decisive stage of his life and art. The landscape, the village life, and nature still undisturbed made a deep impression on the painter standing at the beginning of a promising career. At the end of his first period, a series of masterpieces were produced on Zebegény topics: Burial at Zebegény, An Evening at Zebegény, Motherhood and Village Covered with Snow – regarded by István Genthon as the most beautiful Hungarian etching – all dating from 1928.

In 1929, he was one of the first bursaries of the Hungarian Academy of Rome to get to Italy but he returned home after a few months. Though he was deeply impressed by Roman art treasure and Italian landscape, he could only produce works at his chosen home place, in Zebegény at the Danube Bend. Szonyi’s palette was changing gradually; lighter, brighter and radiant colours broken with white appeared on it. He found a new technique suitable for the new view: the egg tempera, the recipe of which he worked out himself. Since his childhood he was much interested in chemistry. His technical experiences were published in 1941 in the book titled “The School of Fine Arts,” of which he was both co-author and editor.

At the beginning of the 1930s, a new period of his started. In this decade were his most radiant pictures created: Evening, 1934; Nude with Red Kerchief, 1936; People with Umbrellas, 1939; and The Garden Bench, 1943. These are but a few examples, which cannot reflect the richness of a life work consisting of several thousand panel pictures and drawings.

Szonyi was appointed to a professor of the Academy of Fine Arts in 1937. He taught for more than two decades. Though he was the leading professor of the mural department he got but a few monumental commissions. That is why he was delighted to be commissioned to paint Saint Emery Church in Gyor. He did his best to execute the program prepared by the church. The fresco of Gyor can be said to be of much higher standard than contemporary works of ecclesiastic art.

His real genres, however, remained panel picture and drawing. It was Jeno Elekfy having visited Zebegény very often in the 1930s, under whose influence Szonyi began to paint aquarelles and found the most suitable water-colour technique for himself: gouache. Gouache-paint with its velvety and dull surface is similar to tempera, so it was perfect for making sketches and studies. Several hundreds of small paintings of such kind were produced at that time, many of which are more than a mere sketch; they are perfect compositions.

If we want to evaluate István Szonyi’s art, we have to speak about the complete world he found, about the harmony he was able to create both in his life and art. He gave a particular answer to the challenge of the age; he did not follow modernism but remained faithful to his inner inducement. Undertaking the intellectuality of the first generation of Nagybánya and making use of the results of the “Moderns”, Szonyi brought about his own particular world not inaptly called the forth branch of post-impressionism by Dénes Pataky. His art deservedly belongs to the most important chapters of our painting art between the two world wars.

During his last years he was often ill. He spent almost all his time in Zebegény. In 1958-59, he took a pleasant trip to Italy on his daughter’s invitation. The old spasm had already relaxed and he could paint some important gouache and tempera pictures under the blue sky of Italy. The sea and the harbour of Fiumiccino especially inspired him. In 1960, he was just preparing for the exhibition of the pictures painted in Italy. This is what he wrote about it to Zsuzsa, his daughter, in his last letter of 21st August 1960: “…the exhibition causes me great anxiety again. Never have I been so worried like now before an exhibition … Aging has been badly invented. One is losing the mark of genius though it has not even developed completely yet. “

After 9 days, on 30th August, he died at his home in Zebegény.? His wife lived there for another seven years. When she had died in 1967, the Hungarian state bought the estate from the inheritors, and the story of the museum started.

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About  Istvan Szonyi

Born:  1894 - Ujpest, Hungary
Died:   1960 - Zebegeny, Hungary
Known for:  expressionist portrait, landscape, and figure painting