Painting and the Algebra of Self-realization

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906)
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

A formula that we use to express the activities of a contemplative, especially in the later developmental stages of life is:

S + S + S = S
Simplicity + Solitude + Silence = Serenity

Of course, it works at any stage of life, but it is easier to apply after one’s societal obligations are discharged and the discipline of choosing response over reaction is established. We could say it is developmentally more “natural.”

It is interesting to note how close the formula above is mirrored in the paintings and the language used to describe paintings of 19th century Europe and America.

First, Paul Cezanne’s The Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Bellevue (1885).  Cezanne was independently wealthy and could afford the leisure that others can only enjoy late in life. “Thus he could dedicate his whole life to the solution of the artistic problems he had set himself, and could apply the most exacting standards to his own work. Outwardly, he lived a life of tranquility and leisure. The whole has a natural simplicity which looks restful and calm [emphasis added].”[i]  Self-realization is synonymous with present-moment awareness as we know, and Cezanne was beginning to grasp the importance of the vividness of the NOW and trusting his experience. “He, too wanted to surrender to his impressions, to paint the forms and colors he saw, not those he knew about or had learned about.”[ii]

There are other principles related to Self-realization that the Impressionists manifested. Among them are the importance of subordinating the intellect to intuition, the head to the heart (feeling), allowing for a direct experience of nature itself as a “teacher,” and that of being willing to “shift” one’s worldview and abandon the conformity demanded by the old and confining narrative that one is born into.

The Impressionists as a whole began to rely less on the intellect and tradition and more on a direct encounter with “reality.” “The impressionists had given up mixing the pigments on the palette and had applied them separately on to the canvas in small dabs and dashes to render the flickering reflections of an ‘open-air’ scene.”[iii]  We can see this vividly illustrated in Cezanne’s Rocky Scenery Near Aix (1886).

This new direct encounter with nature produced some extraordinary paintings. Van Gogh describes the experience that we today call “flow” which often occurs during the creative process. In his own words, “the emotions are sometimes so strong one works without being aware of working. Van Gogh used the individual brush strokes not only to break up the color but also to convey his own excitement.”[iv]

With Van Gogh as with other painters of this period, feelings or intuition became more important than an intellectual approach to painting. “Van Gogh wanted his painting to express what he felt, and if distortion helped him to achieve this aim he would use distortion.”[v]  We can feel this when viewing Van Gogh’s Landscape with Cypresses near Arles (1888) and The Artist’s Room in Arles (1888).  

The same was true for Paul Gauguin.  “For he had more and more become convinced that art was in danger of becoming slick and superficial, that all the cleverness and knowledge which had been accumulated in Europe had deprived men of the greatest thing—strength and intensity of feeling, and a direct way of expressing it.”[vi]  In Two Tahitian Women (1897), Gauguin was looking for simplicity. “So he simplified the outlines of forms and did not shrink from using large patches of strong color.”[vii]

These three artists were unconsciously searching for what we all long for and that is True-self identity. In the case of Gauguin, he even looked outside of his own European context. “He longed for something much simpler and more direct and hoped to find it among the primitives.”[viii]  Had they discovered our simple formula they might have found what they were seeking. But they nevertheless made their contribution to the unfolding of human consciousness through art. “Cezanne’s solution ultimately led to Cubism, which originated in France; Van Gogh’s to Expressionism, which found its main response in Germany; and Gauguin’s to the various forms of Primitivism.”[ix]

These gifted artists made the same mistake that most of us make by looking outside of ourselves in the world of form for spiritual self-fulfillment. As artists they were “literally” experimenting with form and they found mostly suffering. “Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin were three desperately lonely men who worked on with little hope of ever being understood. But the problems of their art about which they felt so strongly were seen by more and more artists of the younger generation who found no satisfaction in the skill they acquired at the art schools.”[x]

“We remember that Cezanne had felt that what had been lost was the sense of order and balance; that the Impressionist preoccupation with the fleeting moment had made them neglect the solid and enduring forms of nature.”[xi]

The perfection of living in the moment is not to be found in the world outside of ourselves, the world that is delivered by our senses and given meaning by our intellect. In fact, we must transcend both the impressions of the senses and the analysis of the false-self controlled intellect to be free of our afflictive emotions. A proven way to do this is to turn within, to the ancient formula of S + S + S = S.

Painting and the Algebra of Self-Realization

[i]     Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Publishers Inc. 1966, page 408.

[ii]     Ibid.

[iii]    Ibid., page 409.

[iv]    Ibid., page 417.

[v]     Ibid., page 419.

[vi]    Ibid., page 420.

[vii]   Ibid., page 421.

[viii]   Ibid., page 422.

[ix]    Ibid.

[x]     Ibid., page 421.

[xi]    Ibid., pages 421-422.


ILLUSTRATIONS in  The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich, 1966.

  • Figure 341 – The Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Bellevue (1885), page 410.
  • Figure 345 – Rocky Scenery Near Aix. (1886), page 415.
  • Figure 347 – Landscape with Cypresses near Arles (1888), page 418.
  • Figure 348 – The Artist’s Room in Arles (1888), page 419.
  • Figure 349 – Two Tahitian Women (1897), page 420.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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