Lithuanian composer and painter, a strange personality whose highly idiosyncratic paintings have sometimes been claimed as the first examples of abstract art. He was born in Varena, the son of an organist, and had a varied musical training, notably at the Warsaw Music Institute and the Leipzig Conservatory. His compositions include numerous piano pieces, chamber music, and orchestral poems. These works are romantic and nationalist in spirit, sometimes inspired by Lithuanian folklore. He began making pastels in 1902, influenced by Redon's work, and took up painting seriously in 1905. Although he briefly attended the Warsaw Academy, he was essentially self-taught. After suffering a mental collapse he died in an asylum near Warsaw. In 1912 the World of Art group devoted a section of its exhibition to his paintings, one of several tributes that helped to establish his fame.
About 300 paintings by Čiurlionis survive, all dating from a short period (c.1905–9) and mainly preserved in the museum named after him in Kaunas. Through visual art, he tried to express a transcendental mysticism that he felt he could not fully communicate through music. He gave his pictures musical titles, such as Fugues and Sonatas, and composed them in accordance with musical principles. Melody was expressed by line, tempi by flowing curves or short zigzags, and pitch by nuances of colour. These paintings clearly have precedence in date to the first abstracts of such acknowledged pioneers as Dove, Kandinsky, and Kupka, but it is doubtful to what extent Čiurlionis's pictures can be regarded as abstracts rather than stylizations of natural motifs.