Three People Coming Home: The Salvific Power of Art

Both Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso called him “the father of us all” (paul-cezanne.org). They were referring to Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). He is one of the most important painters of the nineteenth century, and is often credited as being the bridge between the 19th century conception of art and the drastically different aesthetic of 20th century art. He is often considered an impressionist, and sometimes even a post-impressionist because he is the one that bridged the gap between the two.

The term “impressionist” was first deployed as an insult to a ragamuffin group of artists. It consisted of those painters whose works were rejected by the art establishment, and thus recalcitrantly set up their own exhibition.   Many of their paintings are “landscapes, and scenes from modern urban and suburban life painted in bright, pure colors” (nationalgallery.org). Sometimes, Impressionists even painted outside rather than in a studio. Their worked signaled a change in content. Before they rose to fame, the middle class was not deemed an acceptable subject for serious art. Moreover, the peasants were always limned as “comic yokels, or timeless figures of rural life” (nationalgallery.org).

The same thing was going on in literature. Novelist such as Zola, who was Cezanne’s friend, and Flaubert, wrote about the middle and lower classes. As a whole, the French aesthetic was undergoing a great change that had started with the French Realism of Daumier, Millet and Courbet (who Cezanne says was a major influence on him, in particular). Ordinary people were now seen as worthy subjects in art and became tragic and even heroic figures of serious literature.

In this context, “An Old Woman with a Rosary” arose in 1895-6 by Paul Cezanne. In some ways it fits very nicely in the Impressionist ideal, but in other ways it does not (the painting is very dark and gloomy, at least on the surface). The title very clearly signals what the painting is about. Cezanne paints an old woman staring down vigorously towards the ground in deep meditation. She is clutching a rosary in her hand.  In one sense, this piece of art is very impressionistic in that it depicts the lowly and the rejected. Poet Joachim Gasquet claims that the sitter for this painting is an ex-nun who escaped from a convent and was wandering aimlessly until Cezanne took her in as a servant (nationalgallery.org). Gasquet found this painting in Cezanne’s house lying on the floor.

Cezanne, being the Impressionist he is, saw dignity in this woman. She was a woman caught between two worlds. On one hand, she was a member of the Church in which she escaped. Without the church, she is caught up in the swift nature of modernity, which she might not have been ready for either. Cezanne, at least for a short time, might have very well have been the personal savior she was looking for, and she might have been the savior Cezanne was looking for. Cezanne was a devout Catholic, as can be seen in his letters in Michael Doran’s Conversations with Cezanne (artsandfaith.com). He was raised in a Catholic home in the south of France, but went astray from his faith as he got older. Later on in life, due to his sister, he returned the Catholic Church.

Due to his faith, he stopped hiring nude female models because he was afraid of the consequences it might have on the community. He is considered an ingenious painter now, but most of his recognition did not come until after his death. He lived a very lonely life, and a Christian artist and friend of Cezanne, Emilie Barnard, wrote that Cezanne dedicated his life to art, but “found only derision, scorn, exhaustion, dissatisfaction, and death” (artsandfaith.com). However, he then says that people will realize his greatness one day; moreover, he realizes that “Cezanne was a Christian!” and is thus comforted by that verity.

In another letter Paul Cezanne writes a letter to his niece, he asks that she pray for him because now that old age has caught up to him, he can now find support in religion alone. His letters reveal a man who was deeply lonely, and found solace in the God of the Catholic Church (artsandfaith.com). During his lifetime, the old woman with the rosary and Paul Cezanne seem to be very identical: both people were considered rejects by the broader society, and clung to faith for hope. It is therefore no surprise that Cezanne drew her.

Her days are dwindling, and her life has been hard. One only needs to see the way Cezanne drew hew face to see this. The colors correspond with a somber mood also: pervasive darkness. She is looking down intensely, ruminating on life, with a great mix of emotions: angst and frustration, but also hope for tranquility symbolized in the rosary and her future life. The humanity found in this woman is well rounded and tender. She is an ex-nun, but still searching for a faith to cling to. She is dressed in dark clothes, but her face and hands show glimmers of light and highlights that she is still gripping a rosary. There may be a light at the end of the tunnel.

One critic makes the astute comment that, in many ways, this painting is a self-portrait, and claims, “he knew from inside his own heart what it means when despair of the past meets with the startling recognition of hope in spite of it all” (arttoheartweb.com). And just like Cezanne and the old woman’s faith, this painting itself was almost lost. Gasquet found it in Cezanne’s family house. It was lying on the floor of Cezanne’s studio, and it had a pipe dripping on it. If one looks closely enough, one case see that the lower left hand corner is marked by steam or water (nationalgallery.org). Ironically enough, “the painting was rescued and today hangs in one of the world’s greatest art museums,” The National Gallery in London, which is where I saw it just a month ago. It seems that the story of the painting, Cezanne, and the old woman, are all one of loss and redemption.

Whether or not one is a Christian – that is beside the point – this painting speaks to the power of art itself. When I saw it and read the description of the painting, I was very inspired because I am a man who has experienced much doubt in my own personal faith with God. Many miles away from home, in another country even, surrounded by people from all other the world in the National Gallery Museum, I was very quickly overwhelmed with hope and peace by looking at this painting. When I focused in on the painting, I felt like there was no one else in the room (even though it was very crowded). I felt like I was as close to God as I ever will be on this side of heaven while praying that I do actually see him on the other side after death. To put it simply, this painting took me home.

This painting did that for me, but I am well aware that it will not do that for everyone, and that everyone will not agree with my religious beliefs. Again, that is beside the point. The point is that one painting even had the power to do that to one person (me) is amazing. Everybody has been through a different set of experiences that has led to them believing different things about the world. Who knows the nun’s life story? I am sure it is as complex as yours and mine. Cezanne had the amazing ability to capture it all in one shot, and any piece of art has the ability to mean as much for somebody as this painting did for me, and that is the point: to highlight the power of art. It is a powerful thing that can move people just like Cezanne was probably moved when he actually met the woman and heard her story.

Art has the power of religion. It can embody an ideal so beautifully that is seamless. It can speak to a person in a tough situation and literally save them. I experienced that on a miniature scale when I saw this painting, and many people from all over the world can say the same thing about various encounters with art of various forms. It seems here that at least three people associated with this painting were saved: Cezanne, the old woman, and now me. Art knows no race or age or gender or time. It speaks beyond them, and I would encourage all people to expressly support art because we live in a world that is overly obsessed with the tangibly practical. Nonetheless, there is power in art in the same way there is power in romance and religion. In one sense, one can make a rational argument for it, but at the end of the day one must admit, “It just does.” If you are unconvinced, oh, just wait, and it will hit you one day, too. You may be watching a television show or a movie, reading a classic book, listening to a song on the radio, or roaming through the rooms in the National Gallery. There is power in art, and younger generations should be exposed to it frequently at a young age through the school system and in public entities that support it.

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Works Cited:

“An Old Woman with a Rosary.” The National Gallery. www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Web. 21 July 2013.

“Guide to Impressionism.” The National Gallery. www.nationalgallery.org.uk. Web. 21

July 2013.

“Paul Cezanne.” Arts and Faith. Artsandfaith.com. 25 Jan 2008. Web. 21 July 2013.

“Paul Cezanne.” The National Gallery. www.nationalgallery.org.uk. Web. 21 July 2013.

“Paul Cezanne: An Old Woman with a Rosary.” Art to Heart. www.arttoheartweb.com.

13 Sept 2008. Web. 21 July 2013.

“Paul Cezanne Biography.” Paul Cezanne – The Complete Works. www.paul-      

          cezanne.org. Web. 21 July 2013.

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