In the Collection of Old Master Paintings, called traditionally Old Masters' Gallery, there are approximately three thousand European paintings dating from the 12th up to the18th centuries. The Italian schools appear in the largest number, but the collection of works by Netherlandish masters is similarly rich. Numerically, the German and Austrian collection follows, but the most renowned section is the Spanish material numbering almost one hundred pieces. Despite its more modest size, the assortment of 17th and 18th century French paintings is also significant, and the British school is also represented by a handful of works.
The Collection of Old Master Paintings is a typically national collection, and its history is closely attached to the history of collecting in Hungary. The treasures of the Hungarian kings were scattered by the storms of history, and only a few pieces from the Viennese royal and imperial collections found their way here. Namely, on the orders of Lajos Kossuth, seventy-eight paintings from the decoration of the residence of the President of the Chamber in Buda were taken into public ownership in 1848, with Dürer's Portrait of a Man among them. When the decision to establish the museum was taken in 1896, it was actually the collections having been formed during the 18th and 19th centuries by Hungarian aristocratic and ecclesiastical collectors, which were united in the Collection of Old Master Paintings. The most significant was the Esterházy collection, purchased by the Hungarian government in 1871, which formed the core of the National Picture Gallery. Among its six hundred and thirty-seven paintings are Madonnas by Raphael, Correggio and Boltraffio, two hundred and sixty-three Dutch and Flemish pictures, as well as the highlights of the Spanish collection: paintings by Ribera, Murillo and Goya.
The collection of Miklós Jankovich, a notable collector of the reform era in Pest, was transferred from the National Museum to the National Picture Gallery, similarly to the Bequest of János László Pyrker, archbishop of Eger and patriarch of Venice: a collection comprising one hundred and ninety-two pictures including such works as e. g. Gentile Bellini's Portrait of Caterina Cornaro, Giorgione's Portrait of a Youth, and pictures by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Veronese. In 1872 the scholar and bishop Arnold Ipolyi donated sixty-four early Italian and German panels to the National Picture Gallery, with paintings by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Sassetta, Sano di Pietro and Michele Pannonio among them, with the intention to complement the Esterházy Gallery's material which was lacking in works by early masters. A period of systematic acquisition followed, which accelerated after the appointment of Károly Pulszky as a director in 1884. Pulszky made purchases with outstanding sensibility and skill, primarily in Italy, but also from art dealers in Cologne, Amsterdam, London, Paris and elsewhere. Outstanding among his acquisitions are Sebastiano del Piombo's Portrait of a Man, Van Orley's Portrait of Charles V, and a series of Italian frescoes. Pulszky also played a decisive role in the preparation of the project of the Museum of Fine Arts. The museum was already in its new building when the Old Masters' Gallery received the Bequest of Count János Pálffy in 1912: among the one hundred and twenty-one pictures were works by Titian, Veronese, Petrus Christus, Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan Steen.
Two further collections became public property at the beginning of the 20th century as independent museums: the museum of György Ráth, the eminent collector in Pest in 1905, and the Zichy Gallery. The fine art material from these collections was joined to the holdings of the Collection of Old Master Paintings in the 1950s. After World War I it was no longer possible to enrich the museum's material through purchases abroad. Since then a couple of generous donations (Marcell Nemes, Jenõ Boross), together with the private collections which remained in the country, have formed the basis of acquisitions.
Szilvia Bodnár (ed.), Museum of Fine Arts Budapest, Budapest 2006.