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István Csók: Erzsébet Báthory (1895). The reception and afterlife of a “masterpiece”

Csók István: Báthory Erzsébet (1895). Egy “mestermű” fogadtatása és utóélete

Művészettörténeti Értesítő
Emese Révész

István Csók was intrigued by the story of Erzsébet Báthory, princess of Transylvania who lived in the 17th century, already during his academic studies. Around 1885 he depicted the best-known episode of her life-story: the ruler bathing in the blood of her servants. (Prior to him, only Viktor Madarász painted a picture of this scene in 1862.) When some 15 years later he returned to this theme, he picked another less known episode. The topic of his large canvas begun in 1893 is a scene when around 1600 Erzsébet Báthory is watching with sensual pleasure her stark naked maid-servants drenched in cold water in the courtyard of her Csejte castle in the chill of winter. Csók made several studies for the 4 × 6 m composition, including a model photo for the protagonist. The painting was completed by early 1895 and sent to the Salon exhibition in Paris in February.

The theme preoccupied the master for several decades and in the 1920s–‘30s he made several variations on it. They testify to his experiments with modern forms conveying the historical theme in an expressionist style. Parallel with that, he painted several variations and replicas of the motif of his monumental picture deemed most effective: the figure of Erzsébet Báthory.

The work also features in a central role in the painter's autobiography written continuously from the 1920s (published in 1944). In My Memoirs the Báthory appears as a “masterpiece” which, like Zola's highly influential novel (“L’Oeuvre”) gradually devours its author. In the narrative of the recollections, the picture becomes identified with the misconception of academism, “the temptation of Mammon”.

Csók relied on authentic historical sources for his painting. He drew on the records of the witnesses’ testimonies attached to the documents of the case published by Hungarian historians in periodicals from the early 19th century. To model the figure of the ruler, he used a portrait reproduced several times in the late 19th century but now lost. Its reproduction was also found in his estate. The elaboration of the composition coincided with the pivotal change in the ruler's evaluation his historiography: while earlier Erzsébet Báthory was described as a blood-thirsty monster, the analyses appearing from the late 1880s increasingly attributed her state to a mental disorder.

Csók's choice of this odd theme was a symptom of late- 19th century crisis of history painting. As against his fellow-painters of Munich and Nagybánya who tried to breathe life into this dying genre from the angle of plein air naturalism, Csók rejuvenated the great tradition of history painting with the sensational illusionism of salon painting and with the subtle psychological analysis of decadence. Contemporary critics received his work as a modern piece responding sensitively to up-to-date problems. On the basis of the then quite new sexual pathological researches most of the analysts described Erzsébet Báthory as a mentally deranged woman who committed acts of sadism in her fits of hysteria. In the analyses of the picture references are made to the father of hysteria research Jean-Martin Charcot as well as Richard von Krafft-Ebing who described sadism as a pathological case. To model the facial expression of Erzsébet Báthory, Csók drew on both the art academy tradition of “tête d'expression” and on the considerable pictorial material published by Charcot as the “iconography of hysteria” based on clinical case studies.

Csók meant his Erzsébet Báthory to be a “sensation” so he made sure it was first made public at the official Paris Salon. Then in autumn 1895 he also put it on display in Budapest, in a novel form of exhibition at that time: a one-man show. The press consequently devoted distinguished attention to it. Though the picture was originally ordered for the millenary festivities of 1896, the cultural ministry was reluctant to pay the promised price. Despite its ambivalent evaluation, it was eventually bought by the state in 1896 and sent to the representative Hungarian exhibition in Munich the next year.

For a few years the painting was included in the permanent exhibition of the National Museum. Upon the local mayor's request, in 1909 it was sent to Szeged on permanent loan together with several other works and it was displayed in the permanent exhibition of Szeged museum until 1940. Conservative circles in the town disliked it, and proposed already in the 1920s that being immoral it should be removed. Csók regarded the transfer of his painting to the countryside as “exile” and even tried to buy it back from the state. The last known station of the painting's “peregrinations” was Székesfehérvár where it arrived as a representative piece for the picture collection of the newly build Culture Centre in winter 1940. Its inclusion was partly justified by Csók's local attachment (he was born in the county) and also by the aim to create a spectacular collection of history paintings.

In spring 1944 the pictures of the gallery were put into a safe place but even rolled up the Erzsébet Báthory was too large to go through the air-raid shelter's door. During the siege it got lost. A note dated 1956 says that a one-time prisoner-of-war had seen it on the walls of the renaissance castle of Austrian Spittal an der Drau, Schloss Porcia, in the summer of 1945, framed and in perfect condition. The official search launched by the Austrian authorities on the basis of this information ended without result.

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