Emotional Intelligence: Lessons from Post-Impressionist Master Paul Cézanne

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“A work of art that did not begin in emotion is not art,” Paul Cézanne

I believe when the French Post-Impressionist master said that, he was referring to more than paintings or sculptures, perhaps he was advocating an emotional awareness in everyday life – the art of living. How we may connect on a more emotional level with people around us, how we should face up to our own emotions when we are alone.

Well, I could write on and on, but as they say, a picture paints a thousand words. Let us instead have Cézanne speak to us with his paintings. (A caveat: The following is a personal interpretation of Cézanne’s emotion state at various times of his life. Feel free to let me know how you would interpret these paintings in the comments section 🙂  )

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We’ll start with The Bathers (French: Les Grandes Baigneuse), often regarded as Cézanne best work even though the artist himself believed it was unfinished – despite having worked on it for seven years, up till his death in 1906.

The painting employs the popular triangular composition – also favoured by Leonardo Da Vinci, as seen in The Last Supper and Mona Lisa – where he made the trees meet each other at the top of the canvas, forming not just a frame around the bathers – thereby drawing the viewers in – but also makes it seem as if the bathers have gathered under a pavilion made by Mother Nature herself.

I wonder if that was Cézanne’s intention after all: Reminding us that we have nothing to worry about because Mother Nature will always provide for us. And yet, there is that bather leaning on the rightmost tree peering out of the pavilion, almost as if she knows there are people watching them – I wonder if this “vigilance” stems from the artist’s strained relationship with his wife and son.

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The general idyllic atmosphere and the languid ease with which her companions lounge about, however, is in direct contrast with the stiff pose and the hard line of the mouth of Mrs Cézanne, painted about the time difficulties in the artist’s family began to surface.

Mrs Cézanne is also depicted with a raised brow, possibly an indication that Cézanne himself is a little puzzled as to how he should deal with diabetes and familial stress – the latter, for lack of a better term, a replay of the artist’s relationship with his father in his younger days.

Compare, if you will, this earlier depiction of his father reading the newspaper

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with this later interpretation

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It’s the same subject, doing the same activity, but yet poised so differently. The latter with his ankles crossed has a natural ease and is very comfortable with his surroundings while the earlier work shows a stiffness in the back, as if he is aware that he is being studied and is thereby making a conscious effort to sit up straight. And notice the lightness in the latter while the former is practically bathed in darkness.

When we look into Cézanne’s relationship with his father, Louis Auguste, around the time the two paintings are painted, you’ll find that Cézanne senior objected to his son pursuing a career in art. But in the end, Cézanne senior approved of his son’s decision and even bequeathed him 400,000 francs (that’s a cool US$1,1000,000! in today’s terms).

Cézanne formed loyal and staunch relationships, with his friends and his wife, Marie-Hortense Fiquet – despite their stormy relationship towards the end of his life, Cézanne would work on making things better with her. He remained fast friends with Baptistin Baille, a professor, and famous novelist Émile Zola, and the three of them even earned the title “les trois inséparables” (the three inseparables).

The escapades of “les trois inséparables” inspired a male version of Les Grandes Baigneuse (The Bathers)

 

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which I believe to be the superior – at least from an emotional context – of the two.

Cézanne managed to capture the playful boys-will-be-boys spirit even though he gave no distinct facial expressions to the bathers. The bathers may have their backs to the viewer – perhaps to protect the conservative onlooker during his time – but the red-haired adolescent’s arm raised in victory while his prey struggles free, and the boy with the warrior stance (or is it praying mantis stance) in the background

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all point to a technically superior painter who managed to portray the jovial camaraderie between the youths, but also one who is connected to his emotions – and not afraid to show it.

And if his second renditions of the same subject(s) doing the same activity(s)

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Two renditions of Paul Alexis Reading to Emile Zola

tells us anything, it’s that Cézanne was willing to revisit memories – be they pleasant or unpleasant – and make peace with them, and perhaps even gain new insight from past events.

It would seem art has the ability to make us better equipped to handle our emotions after all. Are you listening?

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