oil on canvas, 72 x 58,5 cm
Thanks to his extraordinary insight, sense of purpose, and specific ambitions, this erudite man stood out among not only his well-known family but also the best minds of his generation. While the firstborns of the Festetics family, who rose to eminence in the 18th century, Pál, a newly-made count and vice president of the Royal Chamber, and his son György, founder of the first agricultural school on the continent, Georgikon, were the beneficiaries of the rich Keszthely estates of Kristóf Festetics, Antal grew up, as the second son, in the ranks of the landed gentry, in his father’s modest country house at Toponár. His father sent him to study in Buda, where he received a first-rate education (secondary and higher), amassed a library of books, and became associated with enlightened and, thus, masonic circles. He took an active role in the movement’s leadership and, after its prohibition, purchased the collected documents of freemasonry in the Habsburg Empire. He worked as a secretary of the Royal Governor’s Council, before becoming the first chamberlain as a non-aristocrat.
In 1797, he acquired, by way of exchange, the large Dég estate, as well as a handful of villages, from his brothers and, marrying beauty with utility, implemented significant reforms: in addition to introducing modern farming methods, he reorganized the village structure, regulated the road-network, and, during the Napoleonic wars, sold grain from the newly-arable land at a handsome profit to the army. Wool from his 14,000 sheep was processed at the textile factory in Gács (today Halič, Slovakia). With great business acumen, he turned the factory into a joint-stock company and, as a main shareholder, furnished it with state-of-the-art technology. His huge earnings made him the wealthiest of his class.
In the meantime, he was living and working in the Hungarian capital. As a councillor, he was bound to Buda, but by purchasing a tenement house he also became one of the most prestigious taxpayers of Pest. He had his friend László Orczy as his role model: his ʻMorocco Court’ was, after the well-known Orczy House, the second-largest tenement house of the city which stood at Erzsébet square until its 1962 demolition, which also helped to finance his projects. Festetics married Baroness Amália Splényi, Orczy’s niece; the couple created a significant herbarium. Soon, their English garden and villa, located in the vicinity of Orczy Gardens, similar to it both in size and beauty, became a spectacle of the city.
Festetics’ Dég residence, designed by Mihály Pollack and completed in 1812, was the first major Neoclassical country house in Hungary. Its enormous park, according to contemporary accounts, put all other Hungarian gardens in the shade. Renowned German landscape gardener Bernhard Petri, the designer of Orczy Gardens, was also involved in its creation.
His elegant town house in Pest (Zrínyi street, built in the 1820s and now housing CEU) was also designed by Pollack; it was once again the architect who persuaded him to gift a corner of his villa garden to the orphanage established by Joseph, Palatine of Hungary. He donated another corner, with the famous Elias Fountain, to Ludovica Military Academy, and the rest of the property became the botanic garden of the University of Pest (today’s ELTE). The Clinics complex was built in place of the Paul Street Boys’ lake.
The portrait, now on display for the first time, shows Antal Festetics wearing a black dolman and was painted posthumously, presumably after an original from the 1840s (perhaps from 1847, the year of his wife’s death), in 1865. It is part of a series dedicated to the donors of Joseph Orphanage by Gáspár Sonnenschein (1831–1876), a Pest-based artist who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and is known for his portraits and religious paintings. The Museum received it as a gift from the City of Budapest in 1907. It captures in rich detail facial features, the grey of thin hair combed forward by a lead comb, the steady blue eyes, and the quiet elegance of the clothes. We are looking at an extremely successful industrialist and landowner whose wealth could be compared to that of aristocrats and whose many achievements were justly admired by his contemporaries.
(Written by Gábor Alföldy)
The painting, which had been in a poor state, was conserved for Budapest History Museum Kiscell Museum – Municipal Gallery, with the support of the National Cultural Fund of Hungary, by conservators István Juhász and Dóra Juhász-Boldizsár in 2022. The doctoral thesis by Gábor Alföldy, defended at PhD School of History of Arts, ELTE (Useful Beauty: The Park of Antal Festetics at Dég), will soon be published in book form.