He was born into a Szekler Reformed family in the Transylvanian village of Mărcușa/Kézdimárkosfalva on 10 February 1810. He started working on portraiture at the college of Aiud/Nagyenyed, and then studied painting in Sibiu/Nagyszeben.
In 1829 he moved to the Vienna Academy as a student of Johan Ender, but he only studied there for a few months. Although he did not agree with all the teaching principles of the academy he observed and learned the typical characteristics of Viennese bourgeois portrait and genre painting. He returned to Cluj-Napoca/Kolozsvár in 1830, where he acquired the skills of lithography from Gábor Barra, a significant figure in lithographic art. Pictures he made using this technique were sought after all his life.
Lithograph of Sándor Petőfi by Miklós Barabás
In 1831 he was invited to paint in Bucharest, where he became a recognized and popular portraitist besides completing many miniatures.
In 1833 he travelled to Venice in order to study at the academy, but not long after this he quit and departed on an extensive tour of Italy with the Scot William Leighton Leitch. Leitch taught Barabás a new technique in watercolour, and the Scotsman’s influence led him to use watercolours to paint several Italian landscapes. This was an important period in his development.
He returned to Pest in 1835, where he presented – to huge acclaim – a copy of a Veronese picture done in Venice.
From this time onwards he mostly lived and worked in Pest. He was made a corresponding member of the Academy in 1836.
Several of his pictures are infused with a sentimental, Biedermeier emotion in line with the spirit of the age. His aquarelle of the laying of the foundation stone of Chain Bridge (1842) was virtually the first to report on this great occasion.
From the 1840s his other primary genre alongside painting was lithography, literally, ‘stone writing’. His lithographic portraits preserve the features of virtually every significant Hungarian personality of the century.
In compliance with what the public demanded of a painting, Barabás did not transfer the freer, more generous style of watercolours into his oil painting. The majority of his portraits continue his earlier, idealizing style bringing out the positive characteristics of the subject.
Gradually recovering from the melancholy that overtook him in the wake of the defeat of the War of Independence, he picked up his earlier work routine.
Portraits of Count Lajos Batthyány, Ferenc Liszt and Artúr Görgey
During the 1850-1860s the number of his commissions declined dramatically, thus he was forced to undertake altar painting and photography, fields that he was not intimate with, in order to support himself.
In 1859 he received authorization to establish a Fine Arts Society, of which he was presiding chairman from 1862 until his death.
In the 1850s he also painted Franz Josef. Many criticized Barabás for showing little development in a long career, and never modifying his style of painting. He was an advocate of stately, representative portrait painting, and while in this genre he created perfection, his group paintings and genre paintings are – from a 21st century perspective – somewhat stiff and his compositions reveal deficiencies.
He painted portraits of virtually every significant figure, writer, artist and politician of the time, proving his great ability to capture a likeness and his superb technical skills.
His works are displayed in the Hungarian National Gallery, the Petőfi Museum of Literature, in Cluj-Napoca/Kolozsvár, Bucharest and in several museums in Transylvania.
Large-scale retrospective exhibitions of his works were organized in 1948 (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest) and in 1995 (Székely National Museum, Sfântu Gheorghe/Sepsiszentgyörgy).
In 2000 the local government renovated his villa in Városmajor Street, Budapest and today the building along with the grounds function as a cultural centre.