Not only was Csontváry cedar lonely, it was located more than a hundred years later

Csontváry Kosztka Tivadar’s Lonely Cedar is undoubtedly one of the most famous Hungarian paintings, which has burned into the retinas of many people even though they have not seen the original painting. Until now, we didn’t know much about the exact circumstances of the painting’s birth. It has also been said that Csontváry drew it from an illustration, that he never visited Lebanon among the cedars, or that he drew a non-existent tree. It was the only Cedar location, which he thought he knew so far, but he didn’t actually locate it. Art historian Gabor Reeder was able, he said, to find the tree that served as a model through an armchair search. Turns out, the lonely rice wasn’t lonely after all.

Originally, Gábor Rieder’s field of expertise was not Csontváry, but in one of his works he collected material for the most famous Hungarian paintings. Of course, Csontváry was also an unmissable part of this department. When he read about it, he was struck by the title of the only cedar in the list of German art: the cedars of Lebanon at 1,800 meters above sea level near Tripoli. At sunset.

“I really liked that dry, descriptive title, which a painter certainly wouldn’t give their work. Then, half a year went by, and we were stuck at home with family because of covid, and then I brought up this topic again. It all started as a hobby research. I had a critical approach, Myth-busting basis.Art historians Peter Mollnus and Zofia Vijváry have previously identified from a very few photographs that Csontváry painted them in his studio after postcards and illustrations.I expected the same for Lonely Rice,” Gabor Reeder said. A longer study on rice was published in Artmagazin.

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The art historian expected to quickly find the prototype that inspired Csontváry’s painting made in 1907, because the German title had the feel of being taken from a travel book. A problem often arises with Csontváry is that he does not know what happened only in his imagination and what happened in reality. His travels also have this doubt.

A visitor in front of the painting Lonely Cedar at the opening of the Csontváry170 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts on April 13, 2023 – Photo: Zoltán Balogh / MTI

Gábor Rieder searched a lot of library databases – he said there was an incredible abundance on all subjects, if one is patient – but he couldn’t find a rice representation like Csontváry’s. “His representation is not typical I have found, they are of a very different kind. Csontváry painted a withered, slightly limp, damaged plant, not the usual giant tree. For this reason, I was more and more certain that he had not painted his cedars after a postcard, no such inscription or photo,” said the researcher.

The cedar cult living in the mountains of Lebanon developed practically alongside human civilization, the trees were endowed with divine properties and only exceptional people had access to them. Trees of enormous stature and of living to a great age were desirable commodities even in ancient times, and huge specimens provided valuable timber for buildings and ships, and for the sake of the Egyptian pharaohs and rulers of the Middle East these forests, now reduced to a very small area, were felled.

At the beginning of the twentieth century there were not many of them either, but relatively many visited these places in the biblical landscape. One of the most famous places visited by pilgrims and travelers alike was the Bsharri cedar grove near Tripoli, which was also referred to as the Cedars of God. Many engravings and drawings of this grove from the 19th century have survived, according to all indications Csontváry also visited here, but no one was able to indicate later that this was the only cedar.

Gábor Rieder also looked at hundreds of images of cedars from the beginning of the 19th century, but for a long time he could not find a trace of the Csontváry tree. “I was also looking for a lone cedar, I looked at a lot of tourist photos, I was looking for a valley like the one in the background of the photo, but there are also a lot of them out there. Then I came across a photo from the Washington Library of Congress of people camping in a cedar grove. Wow , It would be nice if Csontváry himself was sitting in front of the tent, I think. I enlarged the picture, although I did not find Csontváry, but I still had the experience of eureka: the tree was visible on my screen, and all its branches, including those which appears to be holding a knife, is the same as seen in the painting,” the art historian recalled the circumstances of the discovery.

The image, previously unknown to Hungarian researchers, belonged to the Department of Photography in the American colony in Jerusalem, which took in this era the so-called memorial images in the Middle East, which created a 3D effect when viewed with a special device thanks to stereo technology. Reader does not believe it is likely that this photograph made it to Csontváry, as memorial photos usually show popular tourist sites and sights. The only cedar, which, as we see, was already surrounded by other trees, does not appear in later pictures either, so it can be assumed that Csontváry visited this grove, and if he did not paint it there, he must have made sketches on the spot.

The American photo showed a Csontváry tree, but it was not specified where the photo was taken. Reeder enlisted the help of Lebanese conservationists and botanists in geographic identification, but the result was that everyone thought they had spotted the tree in their area, even if it looked nothing like a typical tree.

On the other hand, good results can be achieved from the armchair, the Hungarian researcher started by scanning modern-day photos of cedar groves in Lebanon, so he also visited a human grove using Google Street View. There, he discovers the tree he was looking for, which he could not recognize before because its distinctive “knife” branch had broken off, becoming a dozen trees.

“I walked through the grove several times almost without seeing the cedar, it didn’t simply jump out of the picture, but the other two trees, which are often depicted in engravings, even if they were old, made it clear that the donut was in the center, without a noticeable right branch. The Hungarians opened two paintings Here since the regime change, but they didn’t know at the time that a lone cedar stood ten meters away from them,” said Reeder, who assumes that Csontváry cedars don’t look spectacular in later photos because it’s beautiful. The habitat changed slowly, plants grew on it, and no There is a view of the tree in the middle of the group of trees.

We were searching for a lone cedar among the cedars of God in vain, the tree fell sometime between 2018 and 2019, and there are only remnants of it in the grove. Tourist photos taken since then testify to this.

“Csontváry has written in many places that cedar can live for 6,000 years, and this seems to be a strong exaggeration, because others have only lived for 4,000 years, and botanists don’t say that much, but somehow we can consider Lonely Cedar as a picture,” said Gabor Reeder. According to Csontváry, the course of his career shows that he became a painter much later than he was an apothecary.

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