Csontváry – The troubled artistic genius from Hungary

Self portrait by Csontváry (c.1900)
Self portrait by Csontváry (c.1900)

The thing that brings me the greatest pleasure about writing this blog is that I am constantly unearthing artists whom I had not heard of before.  My blog today is another example of such a discovery and I have one of my readers, Mary Ann Barton, to thank for this, as it was she who asked me to write a piece about the artist who had created two of her favourite works.  So today, come with me on this voyage of discovery and find out something about a Hungarian artist and at the same time, savour some of his beautiful works of art.  Let me introduce you to Mihály Tivadar Kosztka, although, in 1900, he used the pseudonym of Csontváry and that is the name he is always referred to when people talk of his art.

Woman Sitting by the Window by Csontváry (c.1890) Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest
Woman Sitting by the Window by Csontváry (c.1890)
Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

Csontváry (pronounced sont varee) was born in Kisszeben in July 1853.  Kisszeben was originally situated in northern Hungary and is the Hungarian name of a small town which is now situated in the north east of Slovakia and is the present day Sabinov.  Csontváry’s forefathers were originally from Poland but later moved to Hungary in the seventeenth century.  His father was a pharmacist, who later gained a diploma in medicine. Csontváry’s early education took place in his home town of Kisszeben and his secondary education is recorded to have taken place in the town of Ungvár (now the western Ukraine town of Uzhorod).  At the age of twenty, having completed his education, he followed in his father’s footsteps and worked in a pharmacy in Presov.  He eventually became a pharmacist in his own right in 1874, at the age of twenty-one, after attending the University of Budapest. He completed his military service and later studied at the university’s Faculty of Law whilst working in the local government magistrates office.  In 1879 he, along with many of his fellow university students, played a part in the relief operation of the town of Szeged which was almost completely destroyed in a major flood.  .

Baalbek by Csontváry (1905)
Baalbek by Csontváry (1905)
One of his largest works measuring 714 × 385 cm (281.1 × 151.6 in).
Csontváry Múzeum, Pécs

This is not a story about a person who, as a young man, always loved to draw and paint and wanted to free himself of the shackles of his father’s profession.  He loved working as a pharmacist and had no desire to become an artist.  If  we are to believe what he later wrote in his autobiography, the beginning of his artistic journey came to him, in the autumn of 1880, through what he termed, a mystical vision in which he was told that he would become a great painter, even as great as Raphael.  He believed that it was God’s wish that he should become a great painter.  It could well be that this was the first of many schizophrenic happenings which would dog him all his life.   He decided there and then that he wanted to be the world’s greatest exponent of plein air painting and his hope was that one day his reputation would surpass that of Raphael Sanzio, his artistic hero.  With the money he had accrued, he set off for Rome in the spring of 1881 to study the works of the Masters of the Italian Renaissance, especially Raphael.  However, on his return, he did not immediately change his lifestyle and turn to art, in fact, he returned home and continued to work as a pharmacist for another ten years and, whilst a pharmacist, he wrote many articles regarding pharmaceutical work and its regulations.   It could be that he realised that to become a full-time artist was a financial gamble and so decided to build up his savings before abandoning his life as a pharmacist and in fact his break from that work did not come until 1894, when he considered himself financially independent.  He was now forty-one years of age and ready to devote himself to art.

The Old Fisherman by Csontváry (1902)
The Old Fisherman by Csontváry (1902)

Hungary at the time had no Academies of Art and so Csontváry travelled to Munich where he enrolled on a six month course at a private art school run by the Hungarian painter, Simon Hollósy.  Hollósy, who was actually four years younger than Csontváry, had studied art at the Munich Academy but had become disillusioned with the its training, which like many of the formal European Academies of Art, concentrated on historical paintings and the copying of such classical works.  Hollósy believed in more realistic art and the more realistic depiction of people and was influenced by the likes of Gustave Courbet, who had his work exhibited in the German city.   Hollósy was also influenced by the new style of art produced by the French Impressionists.

Ruins of the Greek Theatre in Taormina by Csontváry (1905)
Ruins of the Greek Theatre in Taormina by Csontváry (1905)

Following stays in the German cities of Dusseldorf and Karlsruhe where he studied under the German painter, Friedrich Kallmorgen, he went to Paris where he studied at the Académie Julien.  All the time during his travels he was learning about art but he never remained still and most of his art was self-taught.  From Paris, he travelled to Switzerland, along the Dalmatian coast and Italy where he visited Rome and Naples and the nearby ancient site of Pompei, where he stayed during the winter of 1895, constantly sketching the various landscapes.  He moved south and visited eastern Sicily and the town of Taormina and the nearby ruins of the ancient Greek colony of Naxos.  He was always looking for that special place or special site which he could depict in one of his paintings.  He finally returned to his homeland and the Tatras mountain region in the summer of 1902.  It was here that he discovered the natural beauty and the way it looked in the natural sunlight.  The following year, 1903, he decided to go off on his travels once again and applied for a travel grant from the Cultural Ministry but his request was turned down.  Not deterred, and with money he had borrowed, he set off for the Near East visiting the Egyptian city of Cairo and the Palestinian cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  From Palestine he journeyed north to Damascus and then crossed over the mountains to Lebanon and the town of Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley which was once the site of the Roman “city of the sun”, Héliopolis.  In 1905 he travelled to Greece and stayed in Athens.

Springtime in Mostar by Csontváry (1903)
Springtime in Mostar by Csontváry (1903)

His constant travelling and his constant search for the perfect location to depict in one of his paintings took a toll on his health.  It was not just the deterioration to his physical health brought about by his tiring travelling itinerary but more and more he was suffering from mental problems partly brought about by the solitude on his travels but also his never ending and all-consuming search for the perfect subject and the perfect light.  His mental wellbeing was also sorely tested with the mixed reception he received when his work was first exhibited in Budapest in 1905 and again, four years later, in 1908.  His paintings received a better reception when shown in Paris in 1907 and following that he went off to the Lebanon where he painted his famous “Cedar paintings”.  What disappointed him the most was that he felt that his work was unappreciated by the people of Hungary and that he himself was unloved, so much so that he ended his painting career in 1909, totally disillusioned with it, just fifteen years after it had begun. His last painting was Riding on the Seashore.   Instead, he worked on his autobiography and published a number of pamphlets, often controversial, about life in general, religion and pacifism.  One in 1912, entitled Energy and Art, laid out his strong beliefs opposing modernity and another, Men of genius, published a year later asserted his genius.  Sadly, during his lifetime in his native Hungary, he was thought of as an oddball mainly because of his outspoken views.  He was a vegetarian, shunned all forms of alcohol and condemned the habit of smoking.  He was also a forthright pacifist.  All these traits were condemned by his biographers who would often dismiss him as being a schizophrenic and totally rejected his visionary ideas as being manic.  His so-called prophetic writings were probably derived from his ever more serious mental issues which ended his creative ability to paint.  He did carry on sketching but the subjects became more bizarre as his schizophrenia became more serious and more debilitating.

The Solitary Cedar by Csontváry (1907)
The Solitary Cedar by Csontváry (1907)

Csontváry died in Budapest in June 1919, six weeks before his 66th birthday.  He died alone and virtually penniless.  Like many artists before him, his work was not appreciated fully until after his death.  It was not until 1930 that his work was re-assessed at a posthumous exhibition held at the Ernst Museum in Budapest and it was nearly twenty years later, in 1949, when his work was exhibited in Paris that his ability as an artist was fully appreciated.  However it was not until two exhibitions held in his homeland, a retrospective held in the Hungarian town of Székesfehérvár in 1963 and at the Hungarian National Gallery in 1964, that his contribution to Hungarian art was fully appreciated by the Hungarian people.    An further exhibition of his work was shown at the World Fair in Brussels in 1958 and again a major exhibition in Belgrade in 1963 and both were held to be very successful.  Most of Csontvary’s artistic works are to be found in the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest and the Csontváry Museum in the southern Hungarian town of Pécs while others are in private collections.

Riding on the seashore by Csontváry (1909)
Riding on the seashore by Csontváry (1909)

Csontváry is looked upon as being a loner, a genius because of his eccentricity which became more pronounced in his later life due to the severity of his mental issues.  He was unappreciated in his own lifetime and it was not until long after his death that he was considered to be one of Hungary’s greatest painters.


Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

2 thoughts on “Csontváry – The troubled artistic genius from Hungary”

  1. Thank you so much for writing about Csontváry and his work! It’s such a poignant story — a traveler and seeker who suffered greatly but made beautiful and haunting art. If you’re interested, you can see two of his paintings, Woman Sitting by the Window and The Solitary Cedar, in a blog post that I wrote, “How Art and Music Bring Happiness to Dementia Care,” http://joyousparadox.com/2014/01/18/how-art-and-music-bring-happiness-to-dementia-care-part-1/

  2. Csontváry was a genius in fact. In my opinion, he was not only one of the greatest Hungarian painter at that time, but the greatest of them all, thus, that of the Hungarian modern art.
    The problem with most Hungarian artists of that time was that they did this and that, often changing sujet or motive, so they seldom worked out an own style, at least they reached a stylish style, not so Csontváry. This circumstance can perhaps be explained by the political or economic upheavals of those times.
    Csontváry’s “Fisher” is an utters interesting work in my view which would deserve a more extensive discussion. Unfortunately, it is not possible to add pictures here to show what he had thought while painting this picture. It could help people to make them understand content and meaning of the painting.

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