Tulips in a Vase by Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne

Tulips in a Vase, c.1890, Oil on canvas, 59.6 x 42.3 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection, 1933.423, Art Institute of Chicago / Bridgeman Images

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Consider the Lilies of the Field

Commentary by

In Paul Cézanne’s still-life paintings, ordinary domestic objects—here a bouquet of flowers and assortment of stray oranges—become the objects of contemplation. As viewers of this painting, we have nothing to do but look, and delight in, these forms of everyday life.

The Vase of Tulips is cheerful and serene as a field of floral colours emerges within a luminous environ of turquoise blues and lavender pinks. Delicate yellow meadow flowers jostle with white daisies, while red annunciatory tulips open triumphantly within a jungle of leaves. The clay vase in which they rest is clothed in a green glaze that mirrors the viridity of the life it contains.

This still-life painting enjoins us, with the Gospels, to be still and ‘consider the lilies of the field’ (Matthew 6:28; Luke 12:27). Without silent contemplation, the inherent beauty and radiance of such everyday objects remain mute, and ourselves unchanged. From his own sustained practice of sitting before Cézanne’s paintings, the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, articulated the wisdom he discerned thus:

[H]ow related one thing is to the next, how it gives birth to itself and grows up and is educated in its own nature, and all we basically have to do is to be, but simply, earnestly, the way the earth simply is, … not asking to rest upon anything other than the net of influences and forces in which the stars feel secure. (Rilke 2002: 69)

The art of still-life invites us to return to the miracle of the present moment, to remember amidst the everyday troubles of life that ‘there is a today; it is’ (Kierkegaard 2018: 76). What might it mean for us to ‘still’ our own lives so as to discover anew the daily gift and wonder of existence? Matthew 6 suggests that to ‘strive first for the kingdom of God’ (v.33; Luke 12:31) is, paradoxically, to learn the art of resting upon the Father in all things.

 

References

Kierkegaard, Soren. 2018. The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses, trans. by Bruce H. Kirmmse (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Rilke, Rainer Maria. 2002. Letters on Cézanne, ed. by Clara Rilke, trans. by Joel Agee (New York: North Point Press)


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