Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka – Castellammare di Stabia (1902)

Today his name is largely unknown outside of Hungary, but Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka was actually rather good at promoting himself. In fact, if he were still alive today, he’d probably write a self-help book based on his life: “How to be an Artist – the Long and Winding Road”. Here’s the blueprint:

~ Have your god tell you that you’ll be a painter greater than Raphael ~

~ Visit museums and check out your competition ~

~ Save money for fourteen years before having a go at art ~

~ Take art classes until you’re reasonably good ~

~ Travel the world extensively ~

~ Paint, paint, paint ~

~ Follow the Sun Path ~

Jokes aside, Csontváry has one of the most moving life stories I’ve ever come across, proof that artistry has as much to do with faith as it does with skill: faith in one’s self, in one’s vision, faith in the beauty and harmony of the world.

It all started on October 13, 1880, on a warm and sunny afternoon, when sitting outside his pharmacy in Gács, in present-day Slovakia, 27-year-old Csontváry heard a heavenly voice telling him:  “You will be the greatest painter in the world, greater than Raphael”. A year later he went to check out the competition for himself by visiting the Vatican galleries in Rome. Seeing the Renaissance works of the Italian masters in person left him impressed, but not discouraged, noting how Raphael’s art lacked the presence of the divine. He would fix all that! Thus he returned to Hungary and for the next fourteen years put all his heart and soul into his pharmacy, saving money and preparing for his life’s mission.

At 41 he was finally ready, setting off to Munich to take art classes. Other European cities followed, including a brief stay in Paris. Within a year, Csontváry was done with his academic training, traveling extensively throughout Italy and painting outdoors. He was obsessed with following the Sun Path (napút), which for him meant painting along with the sun, en plein air.

No wonder that Csontváry returned time and time again to Italy, with its sun drenched islands and vibrant Mediterranean blues, where nature and architecture fuse so effortlessly.  All the light was there – how could Raphael have missed it?

Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka - Castellammare di Stabia 1902
Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka – Castellammare di Stabia (1902), oil on canvas

It’s in Italy where he painted Castellammare di Stabia, a landscape reminiscent of Henri Rousseau’s naïve style. Set at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, Castellammare di Stabia is an enchanting small town in the Bay of Naples. We can easily spot its defining elements in Csontváry’s landscape – the fuming Mount Vesuvius in the background, the azure of the Bay of Naples, with its gusty breeze, slanting sailboats and stylized waves, embraced by a curved shoreline decked with tall, pastel houses.

There is a sense of harmony – often present in Csontváry’s works – shaped by the primeval elements that were so important to the Hungarian artist: earth, fire, water and air. The smoke, as a proxy for fire, can also be seen from the factories in the far distance. But how small and insignificant the factories appear compared to the mighty Vesuvius looming ominously on the horizon. The same can be said about the few people going about their day on the narrow street to the right –  in contrast with the nature and architecture around them they look like miniature toy figures willed by the whims of a child. Add to that the warped perspective in use, and the scene we’re admiring might as well be contained inside a crystal ball. Seen through Csontváry’s eyes, everything seems magical.

Castellammare di Stabia wasn’t one of the artist’s most famous or best works – it was merely a stepping stone, a candid shot of his time spent in Italy before he went on to other lands in search of his Great Motif, the divine energy that he thought Raphael was lacking. He finally found it in Lebanon and shortly thereafter stopped painting altogether. Perhaps Csontváry imagined that as soon as he achieved greatness, the whole world would take notice and bow in deference to him. But he was ignored and ridiculed, especially in Hungary, for his “extreme” views: embracing veganism, pacifism and shunning alcohol and smoking. Declaring himself a genius didn’t help his case either. If it wasn’t for the writings he left behind, we wouldn’t know anything about him. He died alone, poor and in obscurity, with some people posthumously claiming that he had suffered from schizophrenia. It took decades before his works were finally appreciated in Hungary, but to this day he still remains largely unknown outside of his homeland.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Emma Cownie says:

    How times have changed. Csontváry’s was “ignored and ridiculed, especially in Hungary, for his “extreme” views: embracing veganism, pacifism and shunning alcohol and smoking” – I am a vegetarian, non-smoking, non-drinking artist who hates violence and I don’t think any one much thinks I’m extreme, quite mild I would hope. Going round saying you are a genius, however will annoy people. Its strange that he was obsessed with following the Sun Path (napút) and painting along with the sun, en plein air, because his painting look pretty gloomy and rather unnatural.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gabriela says:

      Csontváry was very ahead of his time in his views, quite progressive. It is ironic how much things have changed in the meantime. Don’t worry, Emma, I don’t think you’re an extremist! I personally don’t find Castellammare di Stabia gloomy, but I think you might appreciate Ruins of the Greek Theatre at Taormina more: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/ruins-of-the-greek-theatre-at-taormina/GQFLgGpbd8zd3Q

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Emma Cownie says:

        Oh yes, this is a more engaging painting, certainly! I know that vegetarianism has gone from being something very weird people to to being pretty common (depending on where you are in the world)!!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh,wow. What a story. I have always been in awe of not just your writing but also of the research you put into your pieces.
    A great share. I love the painting too. I was think the Lens aperture when thinking about the curvy feature of the painiting, but crystal ball sounds much better 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thank you for such a nice comment, Rahul! I had been feeling rather apprehensive about writing Csontváry’s life story, afraid I wouldn’t do him justice. I’m really happy you enjoyed reading it and discovering his art.


  3. ReinventIngrid says:

    You are a master story teller, Gabriela. an artist totally unknown to me (and most of the world outside Hungary as you said) and yet, you brought him to life and to all of your readers for a wonderful artful pause.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thank you so much, dear Ingrid! I have found Csontváry’s story to be so compelling and emotional that I was afraid my writing would miss its mark and turn him into a caricature. You know me, I’m always happy to pamper you with an artful pause.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I wonder for all the travail..l if through faith, God’s welcome into heaven was enough. Thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      I would sure hope so! Thanks for stopping by, Anthony. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.


  5. M.B. Henry says:

    Well that is a very interesting story! Although with a pretty sad ending 😦 Glad you shared with us some of his work and story, it is a lovely painting

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thank you for reading, M.B! I’m sorry if I made you sad. At least Csontvary is getting more recognition these days.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. M.B. Henry says:

        Oh I’m just glad to hear his story – the forgotten always pull at the old heart strings for me! I’m very glad he’s getting some notice now

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Eric Wayne says:

    I looked him up and I guess a movie was made about him. I really like his “Secret of the Old Fisherman” painting. Guess I’m a sucker for obvious emotion, deep wrinkles, and so on.

    Anyway, I rather like his works. Clearly he had something to say, and was doing his best to convey it. The artists and musicians who didn’t quite make it are sometimes quite interesting. I recently discovered Leonor Fini, for example, and a bunch of 70’s rock bands I’d never heard of.

    It seems the world can richly reward all the 3rd and 4th rate CEOS, lawyers, businessmen, dentists,and so on, but only a handful of the best artists are able to make it. We tend to see art as some sort of fluff, but without the creative contribution, life on Earth would be dreary.

    I’d rather think someone like Tivadar could have afforded a modest living, such as any ordinary artisan or businessperson in his community, instead of dying alone, poor, and unknown. C’est la vie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      I’m like that too, I’m discovering new interesting artists on a weekly basis. There’s also the story of Vivian Meier, if you’ve heard of her or watched the documentary “Finding Vivian Meier”, which got an Oscar. She was this really good photographer that never got recognition and she always comes to mind when I think of all the artists that struggle in anonymity. I’m guessing that for every Csontvary there are tens of thousands more who never get accolades, not even posthumously.


      1. Eric Wayne says:

        I’ll have to look up that movie.

        Liked by 1 person

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