How the Great Artists Imagined Paradise Lost, and Regained

We are stardust. We are golden. We are billion year old carbon. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” sang Joni Mitchell in her song “Woodstock.” Every generation before and since has longed to return to the garden—the Edenic paradise found in every human culture and religion on earth. In Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia, we see how these three giants of modern art traced their own paths back. Along with a supporting cast of artists spanning centuries and crossing international borders, their journeys become a massively complex web of influences and dialogues that demonstrate just how deeply this vision of heaven on earth lies in the collective consciousness of humanity and continues to influence not only our taste in artists, but also our taste in presidents.

Joseph J. Rishel, curator of European Painting before 1900 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, explains in the introduction to the exhibition’s catalog that the show first began as a thematic continuation of the PMA’s 2009 Cézanne and Beyond exhibition (which I wrote about here) with the idea of pairing the PMA’s own version of Paul Cézanne’s The Large Bathers with Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River (shown above) because of Matisse’s admitted devotion to Cézanne and his bathers paintings, one of which Matisse himself owned. When Paul Gauguin’s epic Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? joined the growing garden party, the idea of a new exploration of Virgil’s conception of Arcadia blossomed in French art from Poussin on and beyond. “Our own exploration considers how this interest [in Arcadia] was confirmed in Cézanne’s love of Virgil, inherited by Matisse through association, and transformed, and in many ways intensified, by Gauguin’s creation of his own repertory of Arcadian longings, both fulfilled and thwarted, that replaced the classical idyll with exotic primitivism, often with remarkably similar ends,” Rishel contends. Modern art through these modern artists permanently transformed the ancient idea of Arcadia, yet the same longing for the return of a lost golden age remained more or less intact.

The exhibition opens with a series of quotes from Virgil’s Eclogues giving background on the idea of a people “older than the moon” who lived with divine beings and invented the pastoral songs celebrating their magical land of Arcadia, which is also an actual place located on the Peloponnese peninsula. You then walk through a gallery containing illustrations by Aristide Maillol to a German edition of Virgil’s Eclogues and by Matisse to an anthology of Virgil-esque pastoral poems by Stéphane Mallarmé—all of which lay the foundation for the union of words and pictures to follow. (If you take the audio tour, press “777” to listen to Debussey’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, inspired by Mallarmé’s work, to add music to the multimedia mix.) The exhibition then builds with paintings by Corot and Puvis de Chavannes—popular predecessors to the big three in the show’s title—and follows them with works by Neo-Impressionists such as Seurat and Signac, near contemporaries whose approaches to Arcadia represent different paths that were taken aesthetically to the same goal. In these galleries the curators sprinkle several small paintings of bathers by Cézanne like breadcrumbs leading you to the main course.

When you walk into the big room with all the big paintings from the big names, it’s quite overwhelming. There aren’t many rooms where Picasso gets shouldered into a corner, but this is one of them. The three star paintings of the exhibition’s title dominate the room in size and intensity, but it’s Poussin’s La Grande Bacchanale (aka, The Andrians) from 1627 that quietly calls your attention, just as it drew the eyes of Cézanne, Matisse, Gauguin, and many others as they viewed it in the Louvre. If Virgil provided the verbal template for Arcadia, Poussin provided the visual one. (Rishel wonders in the catalog whether Cézanne’s Arcadian vision was “stocked more by words or by images,” in what had to be a close race.) Henri Rousseau’s The Dream also demands respect in a way that Picasso’s wan Adolescents doesn’t. To stand silently in the middle of these paintings and look from one to another, you get the full sense of how these artists and these specific works speak to one another.

The catalog helps fill in the silences in that conversation for those looking for a better seat at the discussion table. Rishel’s essay “Arcadia 1900” develops the central narrative of the exhibition and even gives Picasso some love by explaining why the rough and tumble Spaniard only infrequently painted paradise. Charles Dempsey’s “The Painter’s Arcadia” provides important insights into the “melancholic nostalgia” of Poussin’s Arcadian paintings that influenced everything that followed. Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From?, etc. takes on whole new dimensions thanks to George Shackelford’s “Trouble in Paradise,” in which Poussin Et in Arcadia Ego becomes an enigmatic forefather to the Tahitian puzzler. In “Re-visioning Arcadia: Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River,” Stephanie D’Alessandro not only aptly outlines Matisse’s 8-year sojourn to achieve what she calls his “ode to Cézanne,” but also explains how the painting became Matisse’s personal battle during the years of World War I—an idiosyncratic idyll balancing ancient themes and modern methods. Finally, Tanja Pirsig-Marshall’s “‘Dream the Myth Onwards’: Visions of Arcadia in German Expressionist Art” shows how artists such as Franz Marc and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner adapted Arcadia for pre-World War I Germany, with an especially enlightening section on Kirchner’s nudes “embedded” rather than existing separately from the paradisal surroundings.

So many smaller works threaten to steal the show from the big three. Marc’s 1912 The Dream features one of the rare human figures in his animal-dominated art as a more harmonic and integrated reply to Rousseau’s work a gallery away. A landscape study sans people for Seurat’s La Grande Jatte (that Rishel jokingly called “Saturday in the Park”) strips down the beloved work to its natural foundation. A trio of bathers by André Derain finds a spot in the big room even if the artist himself remains confoundingly and fascinatingly a man without a neat category. Robert Delaunay’s City of Paris, which plucks the three graces out of time and plops them between the Seine and the Eiffel Tower, elegantly represents and earns new respect for “Salon” Cubism.

But, ultimately, why should we care about the Arcadian visions of the past, even when envisioned by the greatest painters? One big reason is the reality that today’s greatest “painters” of Arcadia are politicians. Candidates from every point of the political spectrum proffer better days ahead that usually involve a return to a golden age in the past. The faith we place through our vote originates in no small part from our belief in the ideological Arcadia peddled by the politician. Throughout the press preview tour, Rishel repeated returned to Simon Schama’s idea of the pastoral as being both “shaggy and smooth.” Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia shows us the “shaggy and smooth” sides of Arcadia in a way that prepares us to see through the promises of better times in a more realistic way, lest we lose ourselves in a vision and lose much, much more in the exchange.

[Image: Bathers by a River, March 1909-10, May-November 1913, and early spring 1916-October (?) 1917. Henri Matisse, French, 1869-1954. Oil on canvas, 102 1/2 x 154 3/16 inches (260.4 x 391.6 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection.]

[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the image above from, other press materials related to, and an invitation to the press preview for Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia, which runs through September 3, 2012.]

Related Articles

Quantum computing is on the way

Ready your Schrödinger's Cat Jokes.

Quantum entanglement. Conceptual artwork of a pair of entangled quantum particles or events (left and right) interacting at a distance. Quantum entanglement is one of the consequences of quantum theory. Two particles will appear to be linked across space and time, with changes to one of the particles (such as an observation or measurement) affecting the other one. This instantaneous effect appears to be independent of both space and time, meaning that, in the quantum realm, effect may precede cause.
Technology & Innovation
  • For a time, quantum computing was more theory than fact.
  • That's starting to change.
  • New quantum computer designs look like they might be scalable.

Quantum computing has existed in theory since the 1980's. It's slowly making its way into fact, the latest of which can be seen in a paper published in Nature called, "Deterministic teleportation of a quantum gate between two logical qubits."

To ensure that we're all familiar with a few basic terms: in electronics, a 'logic gate' is something that takes in one or more than one binary inputs and produces a single binary output. To put it in reductive terms: if you produce information that goes into a chip in your computer as a '0,' the logic gate is what sends it out the other side as a '1.'

A quantum gate means that the '1' in question here can — roughly speaking — go back through the gate and become a '0' once again. But that's not quite the whole of it.

A qubit is a single unit of quantum information. To continue with our simple analogy: you don't have to think about computers producing a string of information that is either a zero or a one. A quantum computer can do both, simultaneously. But that can only happen if you build a functional quantum gate.

That's why the results of the study from the folks at The Yale Quantum Institute saying that they were able to create a quantum gate with a "process fidelity" of 79% is so striking. It could very well spell the beginning of the pathway towards realistic quantum computing.

The team went about doing this through using a superconducting microwave cavity to create a data qubit — that is, they used a device that operates a bit like a organ pipe or a music box but for microwave frequencies. They paired that data qubit with a transmon — that is, a superconducting qubit that isn't as sensitive to quantum noise as it otherwise could be, which is a good thing, because noise can destroy information stored in a quantum state. The two are then connected through a process called a 'quantum bus.'

That process translates into a quantum property being able to be sent from one location to the other without any interaction between the two through something called a teleported CNOT gate, which is the 'official' name for a quantum gate. Single qubits made the leap from one side of the gate to the other with a high degree of accuracy.

Above: encoded qubits and 'CNOT Truth table,' i.e., the read-out.

The team then entangled these bits of information as a way of further proving that they were literally transporting the qubit from one place to somewhere else. They then analyzed the space between the quantum points to determine that something that doesn't follow the classical definition of physics occurred.

They conclude by noting that "... the teleported gate … uses relatively modest elements, all of which are part of the standard toolbox for quantum computation in general. Therefore ... progress to improve any of the elements will directly increase gate performance."

In other words: they did something simple and did it well. And that the only forward here is up. And down. At the same time.

Why Japan's hikikomori isolate themselves from others for years

These modern-day hermits can sometimes spend decades without ever leaving their apartments.

700,000 Japanese people are thought to be hikikomori, modern-day hermits who never leave their apartments (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images).
Mind & Brain
  • A hikikomori is a type of person in Japan who locks themselves away in their bedrooms, sometimes for years.
  • This is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, likely due to rigid social customs and high expectations for academic and business success.
  • Many believe hikikomori to be a result of how Japan interprets and handles mental health issues.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less