Nicolas Poussin (A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts)
The Paintings of Nicolas Poussin: A Critical Study
Nicolas Poussin: Lettres et propos sur l’art
Le voir et le savoiressai sur Nicolas Poussin
In 1960 three large galleries in the Louvre were hung with 120 pictures and 120 drawings by Nicolas Poussin; the occasion remains in the memories of many of those who witnessed it as the most exciting of all the countless exhibitions that have been held anywhere since the war. It is odd that this should be so. Poussin has not been a discovery of our century like Caravaggio whose dramatic exhibition in Milan nine years earlier first brought him to the attention of a wide public, nor did he, as Caravaggio did, bring into being a train of distinguished followers who not only changed the course of European art but made us look with new eyes at apparently remote painters such as Vermeer. “Here is a man who paints with the fury of the devil,” said the poet Marino when he introduced Poussin to Roman society in 1624, and ever since then, almost without interruption, he has been spoken of with admiration—though, alas, it was not always expressed in such infectious terms.
Nor does there seem to be anything in the artistic, intellectual, or political climate of our times liable to make it particularly receptive to his work. It is true that great pictures came to Paris from all over the world, not least from Paris itself where so many had been buried for so long beneath dirt or in inaccessible vaults: but few of these were wholly new, photographs at least were generally available, and every textbook had always been ready to acknowledge his merits. Yet there had hung about him the most discouraging of labels: he was an “intellectual” painter, a classicist, an art historian’s artist, an “establishment figure,” used again and again over the centuries as a tool to beat down anything that was new and vital in the art of the day. Even the most famous of modern tributes—Cézanne’s reported wish “to do Poussin over again from nature”—carried with it the implication that the original was faded and stuffy.
In 1960 all that changed. Poussin emerged, glistening and fresh, to take his place in the company of Giorgione, Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and other favorites in most people’s private musée imaginaire, as an artist whose ravishingly beautiful poésie of the early Roman years competed in the affections of all who saw them with the sublime masterpieces of the last decade. He was, indeed, the “most poetical of all painters,” in the words of Hazlitt and it was to Hazlitt that one could turn most hopefully for deep love and appreciation without sententiousness—the Hazlitt who wrote: “His Giants sitting on the tops of craggy mountains, as huge themselves, and playing idly on their Pan’s-pipes, seem to have been seated there these three thousand years, and to know the beginning and the end of their own story.” It would need a Hazlitt to evoke Endymion clad in lilac who looks with such loving reverence into the eyes of Luna as the …