In memoriam Zsuzsa Urbach (1933-2020)

In memoriam Zsuzsa Urbach (1933-2020)

Zsuzsa Urbach at the Piliscsaba campus, 2003 
(Photo by János Jernyei Kiss)

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of art historian Zsuzsa (Susan) Urbach, Hungary’s foremost scholar of Early Netherlandish Painting. She was 87 years old. She studied art history and archaeology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest – even though it was hard for her to get accepted to University in the early 1950s for political reasons. Finishing her studies also took some time, as, after the 1956 revolution, she spent two years abroad (studying in Munich and in London). Eventually, she returned to Hungary and finished her studies in 1959, receiving a doctorate in 1963. She started working at the Collection of Old Master Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1966. She worked at the Museum until her retirement in 1992. Although she continued to study the Old Masters, in 1994 she started a new venture: she established the second Department of the History of Art in Hungary, at the newly founded Faculty of Humanities at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Piliscsaba. She was instrumental in creating a very successful art history program, hiring a number of young colleagues who teach there to this day. 

The primary field of research for Zsuzsa Urbach was Gothic paintings. She published groundbreaking studies on medieval iconography – on subjects ranging from the Visitation (focusing on the painting of Master M.S.) to the Nativity and the Doubt of St. Joseph to portrait iconography. She was among the first ones to draw attention to copies of Early Netherlandish Painting – publishing important early copies of Hieronymus Bosch and Jan van Eyck in Budapest, among others. She was also a champion for the use of phototechnical examinations for medieval paintings in Hungary. At the Museum of Fine Arts, her attention focused on Early Netherlandish Painting, and she published a series of important studies both in Hungary and abroad on the topic. She also wrote several smaller monographs on the holdings of Hungarian museums. Her research culminated in the monumental catalogue of Early Netherlandish Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, which was published in two volumes by Brepols in 2014.

By the time I got to know her, she was one of the grande dames of Hungarian art history. She was usually at the library of the Museum of Fine Arts, always eager to talk to younger researchers. I remember these conversations fondly. In preparation for the 2006 exhibition on King and Emperor Sigismund, her connections made possible the restoration of the copy of the Way to Calvary after Jan van Eyck in Brussels. This panel is a highly interesting item in Old Master Paintings collection in Budapest and its restoration was done at KIK/IRPA in Brussels. Volume 44 of Acta Historiae Artium was dedicated to her in 2003 and another Festschrift, titled Als Ich Can, was published by her colleagues and students for her 80est birthday in 2013. It is well-known that her students at Pázmány Péter University greatly admired her. For the reminiscences of her career, Hungarian-speaking readers are encouraged to read the interview with her, published in MúzeumCafé in 2014.
After Jan van Eyck: Way to Calvary. Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts
for high resolution, see here

Susan Urbach, Early Netherlandish Painting in Budapest I & II. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-909400-09-2
ISBN: 978-1-909400-29-0

For a fuller bibliography of the works of Susan Urbach, click here.

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