Portraits of art patron Marcell Nemes

From Rippl-Rónai to Oskar Kokoschka

MúzeumCafé 25.

For decades József Rippl-Rónai was a close friend of Marcell Nemes (1866-1930), who was legendary during his own lifetime as an art collector and patron. In his memoirs Ferenc Medgyessy wrote that when Rippl-Rónai heard that the wife of Nemes had died he paid a visit of condolences and that after a few words he took out his box of colours and quietly started to paint. “You surely don’t want to make business out of my suffering?” Nemes remarked. At that time Nemes already owned at least 50 works by Rippl-Rónai. We have relatively little information about Olga Steiner, the wife of Marcell Nemes, but we do know that she was born in 1872 in Dévény and that in January 1890 she married the 24-year-old Nemes, who at the time was living in Budapest and working as a coal merchant. She died soon after at the young age of 39. They had no children. It’s worth noting that a few years earlier Rippl-Rónai had painted a portrait (presumably commissioned by Nemes) of her mother Mrs Adolf Steiner, which remained in the family’s possession until quite recently. The death of his wife was clearly an important turning-point in the life of Marcell Nemes. Several signs indicate that after the art lover had lost his spouse he wanted to free himself from his ever expanding collection. A number of large gifts made by Nemes, including a donation which helped establish the Picture Gallery in Kecskemét, can be dated to the time of Olga Steiner’s death. What is true is that in 1913 Nemes sold some of the significant items of his collection in Paris. However, over time Nemes again established an important collection and after emigrating he spent the 1920s living like a Hungarian nabob in his Munich mansion. Rippl-Rónai once remarked that he was surrounded by treasures while remaining poor. Nemes was essentially a restless, extremely energetic character, which besides the stories told about him is well illustrated by the contemporary portraits made of him. Several foreign artists painted images of Nemes, but unfortunately we have no information about the subsequent fate of those works. We do know that a very expressive portrait of Nemes by Oskar Kokoschka eventually turned up in the collection of the Lentos Museum in Linz. In a letter dated 29 May 1929 Kokoschka noted that Nemes didn’t really like the portrait – neither was Kokoschka particularly fond of Nemes, who was somewhat ostentatious with his riches. While the relations between Nemes and Kokoschka were not entirely serene, the former’s purchases proved very positive for the latter. Nemes not only commissioned his portrait in the late 1920s from the already successful Kokoschka, he also purchased about ten other pictures. The memory of Marcel Nemes remains alive not so much because of the portraits and caricatures made of him, but rather because of his internationally famous collection and his open-handed donations. The exhibition From El Greco to Rippl-Rónai at the Fine Arts Museum, which opens at the end of October, includes the aforementioned portrait by Kokoschka and Rippl-Rónai’s painting of Olga Steiner on her deathbed.