An Introduction to the Erotic & Romantic Art of Mihály Zichy

Mihály Zichy was a prolific 19th-century Hungarian artist. His work explores erotic and Romantic themes, and we will look at several explicit paintings and illustrations.

May 25, 2021By Thomas Ellison, BA & MPhil in Literature w/ focus on Poetry
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Mihály Zichy was born in Zala, Hungary, in 1827. He studied painting in Budapest and later moved to Vienna. Though he is currently not very well-known, Zichy was considered to be Hungary’s greatest illustrator of his day. He worked in portraiture and as a court painter in St. Petersburg, as well as an independent Hungarian artist. He produced a series of erotic illustrations entitled Liebe, which depicted graphic, affectionate scenes of erotic love primarily between men and women. The illustrations were only made known to the public after his death. He also illustrated the Georgian poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin and the Hungarian play The Tragedy of Man.


Mihály Zichy: A Hungarian Artist

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Seller of Apples and Spice Cakes by Mihály Zichy, 1850’s, via Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


Mihály Zichy began his study of painting in Budapest but later moved to Vienna to pursue law. Alongside his law studies, he took private classes in painting at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. In 1844, he became a student of the reputable Viennese painter Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller. 


When Waldmüller could not leave Vienna to become the teacher for the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, he sent his best student instead. Zichy was just twenty years old when he moved to St. Petersburg in 1848. He took the job as an art teacher for the daughter of the Tsar’s younger brother but soon felt discontented in the position. 


After leaving his post, he took a job with a photographer as a portraitist. He continued to live in St Petersburg for several years, receiving portrait commissions from Russian aristocrats and creating paintings for Tsar Alexander II’s coronation.


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Ceremonial Dinner in the Palace of the Facets of the Moscow Kremlin on 15 May 1883 by Mihály Zichy, 1883, via Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

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In 1858, Mihály Zichy became a member of the Russian Academy of Arts. The following year, he became the official court painter, serving under four different tsars. He painted many scenes of court and aristocratic life, including the Imperial hunt and caricatures. During his career as a Hungarian artist, Zichy also painted the portrait of the first Hungarian prime minister Lajos Batthyány and swore allegiance to Hungarian independence and freedom. He also produced paintings for Empress Elisabeth of Austria.


While living in St. Petersburg, he met the influential French writer, poet, and art critic Théophile Gautier, with whom he became good friends. Zichy’s early paintings had a strong influence on Gautier. In his 1867 book Voyage en Russie, Gautier devotes an entire chapter to Zichy, which helped boost his reputation as a Hungarian artist among the Russian public. 


In 1874, Zichy traveled to Paris. He lived there until 1881 but returned periodically to his native Hungary. He later moved back to St. Petersburg, where he died in 1906. There is a museum named after Zichy, the Mihály Zichy Memorial House, which is part of the Hungarian National Gallery in Zala. The museum is actually in the mansion where Zichy was born and lived with his family. 


The Erotic Art Of Mihály Zichy

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Six Erotic Lithographs from Liebe by Mihály Zichy, published posthumously in 1911, via Shapiro Auctions


Zichy is now well-known for producing numerous erotic illustrations and sketches in pencil, ink, and watercolor. Most remained undiscovered until after he died in 1906. Following his death, the majority of these erotic illustrations were collected in a book entitled Liebe (German for love) in 1911. 


His illustrations and sketches have a distinct style in that they depict erotic acts in an objective, graphic, and often tender way. In many of the images, there is a sense of equality and mutual affection between the sexes, as well as a passionate intensity. 


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Scene from Liebe, via Pintér Aukciósház


“Whichever drawing of his we look at, we can discover the sign of a remarkably objective man with an acute eye and magical technique yet able to be an outside observer.”
‒ Aladár Bálint, Nyugat [West], issue 24, 1913


Zichy’s erotic art is not intended to titillate the male gaze; rather, it is an attempt at an objective depiction of genuine affection and mutual pleasure, with neither sex dominating the other. 


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Scene from Liebe, via Shapiro Auctions


It is believed that he began the series of erotic illustrations while living in Paris, sometime during the 1870s, but it isn’t clear exactly when. It isn’t known if Zichy’s erotic illustrations were personally motivated, were commissioned, or whether he was influenced by the fashion of the day.


Despite the fact that his erotic drawings remained undiscovered during his lifetime, Zichy still had a reputation for controversy. His 1878 anti-war painting, The Triumph of The Genius of Destruction, produced for a Paris exposition, was banned by French authorities, who declared it to be propaganda. His painting Auto-da-fé (1868) also caused controversy among Catholics because it depicted the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition


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The Triumph of the Genius of Destruction by Mihály Zichy, 1878, in the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest


Zichy was, however, a well-respected artist whose scope encompassed a vast range of themes. Only a fraction of his work is controversial. Much of his work dealt with classic Romantic themes, such as courtly love, the sublime, revolution, independence, and the Orient. After all, he was a Hungarian artist of the late Romantic era.


Shota Rustaveli: The Knight In The Panther’s Skin

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The Knight in the Panther’s Skin by Mihály Zichy, 1882, via Sotheby’s


In 1881, Georgian intelligentsia commissioned Zichy to illustrate the Georgian Romantic epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. The poem comprises 1600 “Rustavelian Quatrains,” which consist of four 16-syllable lines with a caesura between syllables eight and nine.


Mihály Zichy completed thirty-five illustrations and was so moved by the poem that he gifted his work to the Georgian people and refused to take any payment. The poem itself was written in the twelfth century by Georgian national poet Shota Rustaveli. It is considered a canonical work of the Georgian Golden Age. 


The central theme in the poem concerns equality between men and women, as well as friendship and courtly love. The story involves two heroes, Avtandil and Tariel, and their quest to find Nestan-Darejan, an allegorical embodiment of Queen Tamar, the queen who reigned in Georgia when Rustaveli had written the poem. 


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Allegory of the Fall of the War of Independence by Mihaly Zichy, 1849


The literal translation of the title of the poem in Georgian is “one with a skin of vepkhi.” It isn’t clear if vepkhi refers to a panther, leopard, or tiger, and in some cases, it is translated as “a valiant man.” The narrative is made up of two quests, one in which Avtandil searches for Tariel (the knight in the panther’s skin), and the other in which he searches for Nestan-Darejan, who is Tariel’s love.


Rustaveli was considered to be a humanist writer. The poem glorifies the bond of brotherhood and friendship between the two heroes, as well as courtly love. Perhaps Zichy admired the poem because of its depiction of equality between the sexes since the poem also reflects an admiration for women and condemns forced marriages.


Imre Madách: The Tragedy Of Man

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The Tragedy of Man by Mihály Zichy, 19th century


Mihály Zichy also illustrated the play The Tragedy of Man, written in 1861 by the Hungarian writer, poet, and aristocrat Imre Madách. The play is written as a dramatic poem of four thousand lines and is based on the story of Adam and Eve.


The play is considered to be a major work of Hungarian literature. The three central characters are Adam, Eve, and Lucifer. After their fall from Eden, Lucifer tempts Adam and Eve into sin and puts them to sleep before traveling with them through human history. Adam and Eve then assume various historical roles, from ancient Egypt to Greece and Rome.   


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Study for Capture of the Cretan Bull and the Abduction of Europa by Mihály Zichy, via Christie’s


Later, Lucifer transports Adam into the future, in which there is an ice age and civilization has almost entirely disappeared. In this bleak future, the sun is dying, and human civilization has been reduced to savagery. Just as Adam loses hope and resolves to throw himself off a cliff, Eve appears and announces that she is pregnant. The play supports Romantic love as Adam and Eve’s relationship endures throughout, despite the temptations of Lucifer.  


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Romantic Encounter by Mihály Zichy, 1864, via Sotheby’s


Mihály Zichy: Triumph Of Bernard Palissy


In 1868, Zichy painted Triumph of Bernard Palissy. It depicts Bernard Palissy, the 16th-century French Huguenot potter, hydraulics engineer, and craftsman. He is pictured with his wife and family, holding up one of his creations.


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Triumph of Bernard Palissy by Mihály Zichy, 1868, via Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


In 1868, Zichy painted Triumph of Bernard Palissy. It depicts Bernard Palissy, the 16th-century French Huguenot potter, hydraulics engineer, and craftsman. He is pictured with his wife and family, holding up one of his creations.


Initially, Palissy had interests in ceramics and allegedly struggled for years to reproduce a style of Chinese porcelain that he had seen in France. Even after sixteen years of labor and reduced poverty, he did not manage to replicate the style.


Aside from his inventions and creations, Palissy made several important contributions to the natural sciences, including theories about the origins of fossils and the nature of underground springs.


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Portrait of Mihály Zichy


It isn’t clear why Zichy chose to paint Palissy, whether because of personal interest or because he received a commission. Still, it is clear that Zichy’s scope as a Hungarian artist was quite vast. Whether his subjects were street vendors, aristocrats, lovers, mythological heroes, or historical figures, Mihály Zichy’s attention to detail and intensity of emotion exemplify him as an influential yet often overlooked Hungarian artist of the Romantic era.   

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By Thomas EllisonBA & MPhil in Literature w/ focus on PoetryThomas works as a writer and lives in Leeds UK. He has a BA and an MPhil in Literature with a focus on poetry. In his spare time, he makes music and has interests in the Tarot, the I Ching, and visual art.