When the edifice of the Museum of Fine Arts was opened, 19th century art was solely represented by a couple of Austrian Biedermeier paintings along with some contemporary works bought around the turn of the century by the National Gallery. These latter purchases revealing an excellent taste (works by Stuck, Lenz, Khnopff, and Segantini), were made at the best possible moments, almost at the completion of the pictures, and have been forming the nucleus of the late 19th century Symbolist and Art Nouveau material up to the present day.
The core of the 19th century collection is provided by a more or less complete cross-section of the development of French art starting from Delacroix. The foundation of this collection was initiated in the year following the opening of the museum with Count János Pálffy's bequest and with the purchase of a picture by Pissarro and an early work by Gauguin. However, credit for raising the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist material to European stature undoubtedly goes to Elek Petrovics: it was during his directorship (1914–1935) and through his purposeful acquisitions that this collection was made almost complete. The acquisition in 1945 of the Herzog collection (one work by Monet, Renoir and Corot respectively) was in a way the crowning achievement of Petrovics's efforts.
Thanks to Petrovics's particular taste and attraction the museum is able to present a comprehensive collection of 19th century French art. His attitude towards the art of his own time was similarly decisive, but in reverse: the fact that the most dynamic decades of the 20th century were not exploited in the enrichment of the contemporary collection has left gaps which can now barely be filled. This legacy of caution, hardly even acknowledging contemporary art, continued for several years after Petrovics. Its result was that of the works of art produced in the fifty years before 1960, only four or five important items found their ways into the museum at the time of their execution. To fill the resulting enormous gaps has proved to be possible only subseqently, through strenuous efforts, but the pieces acquired to date cannot even attempt to give a true picture of the main trends of a period already regarded historic.
The establishment of the collection of properly contemporary art is due to Krisztina Passuth. Her efforts to rectify omissions and prevent further exclusion of the activity of living artists from the museum were notably supported by Victor Vasarely, who, in 1969 presented the museum works by abstract artists who had played an outstanding role in the 1950s. In addition to giving a new impetus to the acquisition of works by living artists, this donation also temporarily determined the aspect of the collection to a large extent. Although the art of the first half of this century is also represented by significant works, the real character of the 20th century collection is rendered by the contemporary section, today comprising a string of works of international renown, and it is in this area that the prevailing opportunities for further systematic acquisitions lie.
Szilvia Bodnár (ed.), Museum of Fine Arts Budapest, Budapest 2006.