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Poussin in Texas

Poussin, The Early Years in Rome: The Origins of French Classicism September 24–November 27, 1988.

an exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas,, Catalog of the exhibition by Konrad Oberhuber, foreword by Edmund P. Pillsbury
Hudson Hills Press, 367 pp., $34.95 (paper)

To see the early works of one of the greatest of seventeenth-century painters inside a late work by one of the greatest of twentieth-century architects has its own heady appropriateness. In their art Nicolas Poussin and Louis Kahn, the architect of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, aimed at the same sumptuous austerity. The spectator who, slipping out of the Texan heat, observes, under Kahn’s silver-covered barrel vault, Poussin’s Diana and Endymion, in which the heavy curtains of night are pulled back to reveal the chariot of the sun racing across the sky, gold on gold, witnesses art conversing across the centuries with art in a common idiom. (See the illustration on this page.) Until November 27 the Kimbell Art Museum shelters about one hundred works on canvas or on paper, almost all from the hand of the great French master, and anyone who loves painting or drawing and can get there, should see them.

Poussin, The Early Years is the first major exhibition of Poussin on American soil, and it owes its existence to the coming together of two trends. The first is the emergence of the Kimbell Museum as a major art center. In the years, not altogether past, when the prevailing idea of an exhibition was for several containers of immensely precious objects, many of them often seen in reproduction, to be lugged in stages from one American coast to the other, the Kimbell was unsuitable as a caravan stop. It lacked the wall space to show off the merchandise, and it could not mobilize the jostling crowds needed to pay for the freight, the insurance, and the promotion involved. But now the blockbuster exhibition is itself under scrutiny, and curators and scholars question whether the risks to the objects are really offset by the cultural or educational benefits such a show provides, since people are likely to have seen more backs of people’s heads than fronts of works of art. Would it not be better, they begin to wonder, to have smaller exhibitions, with a clear theme, well chosen, carefully hung, and fully visible to all those within striking distance who are, or could be, interested?

For this new kind of exhibition the Kimbell Museum has already established itself as an ideal stopping place. It entertained the great collection of the Courtauld Museum from London. Four years ago I saw a marvelous Ingres exhibition, organized by Patricia Condon, which visited only Louisville and Fort Worth. Vigée-Lebrun, Cavallino, Crespi, minor artists of real interest, have been seen at the Kimbell. The present Poussin show goes nowhere else. Next spring the Kimbell shares with Bologna and Los Angeles an exhibition of Guido Reni, once one of the most admired painters of modern Europe.

The Kimbell is the ideal place for a small, well-designed exhibition for two reasons.1 First, the building is itself a magnified jewel box or reliquary, filled with light, in which virtually all works of art look to their best advantage. Second, the permanent collection of the Kimbell, though put together over a period when major works were becoming increasingly scarce, shines in range and quality. It contains fascinating works by Mantegna, Claude, Caravaggio, Manet, Monet, Cézanne, and Picasso, to name a few, and it possesses the only painting by Caspar David Friedrich in an American public collection. Some audacious acquisitions have been made.

The second trend making the current Poussin show possible is the new wave of Poussin studies by art historians in the US and in Europe.2 Most of the contemporary work on Poussin derives from the stupendous Louvre exhibition of 1960, in which about 120 paintings and the same number of drawings were brought together, and from the associated catalog,3 written jointly by Anthony Blunt, who had already devoted much of his life to Poussin, and Charles Sterling. An often acerbic controversy then took place, in which some of Blunt’s attributions and much of his chronology were disputed by the English scholar and collector Denis Mahon.4 However, as Pierre Rosenberg of the Louvre argued at the opening colloquium in Fort Worth, the differences over attribution and dating within the older scholarship, to which both Blunt and Mahon belonged, are ultimately less significant than the broad contrast between that generation and the new.

Scholars like Blunt and Mahon wanted to slash the number of works attributed to Poussin so as to reach a purer vision of his achievement. More recent scholars have been restoring many previously controversial works to the canon and adding their discoveries to it, showing Poussin as a much more various painter than earlier art historians allowed. Somewhere in this disputed territory—and this is where the two trends collide—lies a work of consummate elegance and flourish, showing Venus dallying with Adonis. Absent from the Louvre exhibition, it now hangs in the Kimbell labeled “Poussin,” and it is among the museum’s bolder acquisitions.

How has this turnabout been effected? Is it simply part of the cycle of inflation and deflation that one often observes in the art-historical economy, or does it spring from something about Poussin himself? The answer seems to be something of both.

The new scholarship, as the title of the Kimbell exhibition shows, has concentrated on the early years of Poussin with which, it claims, the older scholars—and Blunt for his part conceded as much—were less than at home. Starting with the early years of Poussin is likely, as the bare facts of his life make clear, to give a rather different picture of the artist from what we get if we concentrate on his mature work, and read back from there.

The first thing to be said about Poussin’s early years is how comparatively late they were. He was born in 1594 in rural Normandy, the son of a soldier of fortune and of the daughter of a local official who probably educated him to be a lawyer. In a nearby village and then in Rouen and Paris he had a conventional training in the northern mannerist style of art, working with such painters as Georges Lallemand and forming close ties in Paris with Flemish artists such as Philippe de Champaigne. (He later said that his most important encounter in Paris was with a courtier of Marie de Médicis who introduced him to Italian prints after Raphael and Giulio Romano.) In 1623 he left Paris for Rome, traveling by way of Venice. The well-known Italian poet and collector Giambattista Marino, for whom Poussin had made drawings of classical subjects in Paris, provided him with introductions in Rome; as a result Cardinal Francesco Barberini and his secretary Cassiano dal Pozzo gave Poussin his first commissions in Italy, and Pozzo later became one of his most important patrons. Except for a brief return to Paris between 1640 and 1642, Poussin lived and worked in Rome until his death in 1665. It says much for the vigor of French chauvinism that he is hailed as a central figure of French classicism.

It is standard practice to call the “early years” of Poussin the period that immediately followed his arrival in Rome when, at the age of thirty, without a formed style, he was confronted by the richness and self-assurance of central Italian art. The present exhibition conceives this period as lasting until 1630: others might have extended it by a year or two. Two major commissioned works were completed during these years, The Death of Germanicus, on loan to Fort Worth from Minneapolis, and the Vatican’s Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, represented in this show by a large oil-sketch. What Poussin brought with him to Rome is what is often described as a “northern attention to the surface,” by which is meant two things: first, in the represented scene itself there are very few objects or shapes that recede into space, and, second, though all the lines on the canvas have a representational function, it is their configuration, the aspect of design, that the northern artist stresses. We can see this at the Fort Worth exhibition in the Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, which may have been painted in Paris.

Given this starting point it was only natural that Poussin should have been drawn to Italian conceptions of space, of which in Rome of the 1620s there was a dazzling variety. These ranged from the lucid Raphaelesque organization of grouped figures in architectural space to a heavily baroque use of deep shadow and sharp recession to produce, as in the paintings of Pietro da Cortona, an effect of turbulent fullness. Between these various conceptions Poussin would have picked and chosen, so that we start to feel that we could map his early years completely if we only knew the order in which he did so and what he saw in each. An additional factor of great importance in Poussin’s development is that on his way to Rome he was overcome by the coloristic painting of Venice. This passion would have been kept alive in Rome by the Titians that he saw in the great Aldobrandini collection. It was like a wonderful sunstroke from which Poussin, fortunately, never recovered.

The first years in Rome must have been for Poussin years of innovation, of experiment, of sometimes rapid change in manner—changes that may, in some cases, be partly owing to the habits of patrons. The famous Death of Germanicus, for example, which Poussin painted for Cardinal Barberini, is well described in the catalog as “a grand historical and emotional drama,…a monumental relieflike composition of classical grandeur.” Yet it was done within a year as Rebecca Quenching the Thirst of Eliezer at the Well, a picture so spontaneous that the catalog observes, “we could imagine that Pozzo, the avid collector, who admired the Venetian freedom of brush…took the painting away from the artist before he completed it.” Once we see how such shifts in manner could have taken place, then paintings that were dismissed as too hasty or uncertain—or too Raphaelesque or too heavily baroque—to qualify as works of Poussin become more plausibly attributed to him. The Fort Worth exhibition suggests that only error can result when art historians project on to this diffuse period an older Poussin, more certain of what he was doing, and more deliberate, much slower, above all far less prolific, in execution.

A number of opportune art-historical finds support the view that investigation of Poussin’s early years will enlarge the corpus of his work. Take for example the mythological drawings, rather stiff in draughtsmanship, which for some years have been thought to be the illustrations of classical mythology that the young Poussin did for Marino while in Paris. Some of these drawings are at Fort Worth, and the catalog argues strongly, and the eye suggests, that they are copies. Once they are set aside as such, it is again an open question what an early drawing by Poussin should look like. The present exhibition therefore asks us at least to reconsider a number of great landscape drawings that were previously rejected as not by Poussin or assigned to others partly because they did no seem compatible with the drawing done for Marino. If they are admitted, they in turn seem to hold the door ajar for a number of disputed landscape paintings to enter the corpus. At the same time as this reconsideration has been going on, other scholars have turned over new archival material—most notably bearing on Pozzo’s relations with Poussin.

But as far as the Kimbell exhibition is concerned, just as powerful an influence as the shift in attention back to the early years of Poussin is a proposed shift in method. For one of the most brilliant of the new Poussinists and the organizer of the exhibition, Konrad Oberhuber, now head of the Albertina in Vienna, has, in the course of working out a new catalog and a new chronology for Poussin, brought a fundamental reconstruction of the core discipline of art history: that is, connoisseurship, or the art of assigning, on the basis of their appearance, individual works of art to individual artists.

From the beginning there have been two fundamental questions that confront connoisseurship. What aspects of the work of art should we concentrate on to determine its authorship? And, whatever aspects we take, what justification can we have for believing that they are constant in the work of any given artist?

The great Giovanni Morelli, naturalist turned art historian, whose ambition it was to convert connoisseurship into a science, held that the best evidence for authorship lay always in the fine, overlooked details of execution. He codified his answer to the first question in a series of schematic drawings in which he illustrated how this or that Italian artist characteristically depicted the lobe of the ear, the eyelid, the thumbnail, the index finger. Morelli believed that such details would identify the artist. These schematic drawings were much used by Berenson in the attributions of Italian painters that helped to make his reputation. If Morelli had an answer to the second question, which he probably did, he kept it to himself.

Morelli was a very subtle thinker, oblique and ironic in expression. (Not surprisingly Freud admired him.) And it is clear that any crude application of his method, using his schematic drawings as templates to be superimposed on the work of art, which Berenson favored, involves deep misunderstanding. Probably Morelli’s drawings were intended as examples from which we are to extrapolate further characteristic details in a painter’s work—much as we might extrapolate from a “q” in someone’s handwriting how a “b” is formed. But exactly what Morelli intended is elusive.5

Oberhuber’s reconstruction of connoisseurship comes in two stages, accompanied by the warning that we must always take account of the special circumstances in which any picture is created. In answer to the first question—what aspects of a work should we concentrate on?—he rejects the appeal to small detail, and for it he substitutes the kind of structural analysis that German-speaking art historians such as Alois Riegl and Heinrich Wölfflin carried to such a pitch of refinement. He elaborates in particular his own version of the difference that Wölfflin observed between an emphasis on outline in some works of art and an emphasis on the handling of masses in others—between what Wölfflin called the “linear” and the “painterly.” Oberhuber takes this analysis even further to give us not just differences between schools of art, which was what interested Riegl and Wölfflin, but differences between individual artists.

However, Oberhuber’s great breakthrough for art history is to recognize that the second question needs an answer. Connoisseurship cannot get by without psychological theory linking the different works of the artist: with such a theory it can make a good claim to encompass art history. The particular theory that Oberhuber supports is merely outlined in his long, brilliant, introductory essay in the Poussin catalog. It will not be to everyone’s liking. The theory comes, he tells us, from “some indications by Rudolf Steiner, widely dispersed throughout his writings,” and it connects different stages of a person’s life with the saliency of different dimensions at each stage: depth, horizontality, verticality. Two excerpts from Oberhuber’s essay will give some hint of his theory. In the first, he draws on it to compare Poussin’s development with Raphael’s. In the second, he suggests some of his reasons for formulating a theory based on phases of an artist’s perceptions:

It is tempting to describe the seven years of Poussin’s early development from 1622 to 1629 in terms of the perspective I have gained in the last ten years through my research on biographical rhythms. It must suffice to give just a few indications. The same period, from age twenty-eight to age thirty-five, marked for Raphael the discovery of Venetian color, of rich and realistic surface and texture, of dramatic narrative, of movement, and of the compositional forms of antique reliefs. Through completely different external circumstances Poussin experiences almost exactly the same transformation. This is his “Venetian” or “Titian” phase when he modifies the conceptual form of narration that is still present in the Marino drawings….

Poussin effects this modification by introducing into his work a dramatic coherence and unity typical of Italian history painting. He experienced them in the mature work of Raphael and in the paintings of his contemporaries Domenichino and Pietro da Cortona. The stiff shapes and sharp outlines of his previous phase in France are set in motion, and they gain roundness and space in a light-filled setting. His figures develop deep dramatic and lyric emotions. From 1629 on, painterly richness and streaming light as well as freedom of emotional expression are all slowly given up for greater spatial clarity, stronger definition of form, and a more specific observation of feeling. Using the terminology set forth to describe the developmental phases in Raphael’s drawings, we can say that Poussin’s work before 1622 is determined by outline, the period between 1622 and 1629 by an enlivening and connecting line or by surface, and the period afterward by spatial structure.

…We rhythmically pass through various attitudes toward space in the course of our lives. Of interest to our specific discussion here is that depth orientation prevails from age twenty-one to age twenty-eight, horizontality from twenty-eight to thirty-five, and verticality from thirty-five to forty-two. Even more interesting is the fact that these different attitudes toward space also modify in somewhat symmetrical fashion the individual years within each seven-year period. The second half of such a phase is always the more outgoing and expansive, when the achievements of the period come more fully to the fore.

Such excerpts, of course, cannot convey the subtlety with which Oberhuber deploys his theory within his writing and in informal talks. The theory also encourages flexibility in what we can regard as the products of the artist’s hand. But it is Oberhuber’s identification of the gap—the need for a psychological theory—if not the way the gap is filled, that deserves the gratitude of art historians.

In the passage I have quoted Oberhuber refers to the “deep dramatic and lyric emotions” of Poussin’s figures. To many art historians, Blunt among them, the presence of heavy eroticism in the early painting of Poussin is particularly disconcerting (for example, in the Mars and Venus at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston). For, they ask themselves, how can we fit this eroticism into our picture of Poussin the rationalist, the upholder of duty, the admirer of fortitude, the stern critic of concupiscence and self-indulgence?

In part this bewilderment comes from a persisting adherence to an absurdly mechanical psychology, which mindlessly contrasts reason and the emotions or desire, as though one excludes the other. But, more gravely, this attitude fails to recognize that, when Poussin, who very well might, as the child of his age, have been inextricably caught up in such a psychology himself, came to depict a moral theme like the victory of reason over desire, he unhesitatingly represented reason as drawing upon the energies of sexual desire. It was, I believe, the power of Poussin’s insight, fortified by whatever shrewd conceits lay around in the culture, that led him to such a conception of human motivation, and, since one of the paintings that I have recently used 6 to argue for such an interpretation of Poussin, the beautiful Dulwich Rinaldo and Armida of 1629 (see illustration on this page), is at Fort Worth, let me summarize how I believe it is to be seen, how he wanted us to look at it.

The painting illustrates an incident from Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, when the heathen sorceress Armida, about to kill the sleeping Rinaldo, a Christian knight, is restrained by his beauty. In an allegorical reading of the epic, which came naturally to Poussin, this incident celebrates the victory of reason, symbolized by the knight, over concupiscence, symbolized by the sorceress. But when we look at the detail of the representation of Rinaldo, we see that reason achieves its victory, that Rinaldo entraps Armida, through the florid display of a heavy, overripe sexuality: moreover, a sexuality which reason has appropriated from concupiscence, for, as we turn back to Armida, we observe that she is drained of eroticism and pores over the knight in a neutered condition. To complete the picture the putto, who restrains Armida, and is presumably an extension of Rinaldo’s will and thus an instrument of reason, is suffused with sexuality.

We see this same crossover of desire into the camp of reason in many of Poussin’s other early pictures, presaging a more spectacular treatment of this theme in the later paintings. The visitor to the Kimbell who looks at the Boston Mars and Venus, or the Dulwich Venus and Mercury, or (if it is by Poussin) the Fort Worth Venus and Adonis, will have cause to admire the depth of Poussin’s understanding of human nature. And he will be ravished by what he sees.

  1. 1

    See Patricia Cummings Loud, In Pursuit of Quality, The Kimbell Art Museum: An Illustrated History of Art and Architecture (Kimbell Art Museum, 1987).

  2. 2

    For example, Pierre Rosenberg of the Louvre, Elizabeth Cropper of Johns Hopkins, and Marco Chiarini of the Pitti Palace, Florence.

  3. 3

    Exposition Nicolas Poussin, on view May–July 1960, Musée de Louvre, Paris.

  4. 4

    Denis Mahon, Poussiniana: Afterthoughts Arising from the Exhibition (1962), and his remarkable essay “A Plea for Poussin as a Painter” in Walter Friedlaender zum 90, Geburtstag (Berlin, 1965). Mahon’s perceptive eye and his real sense of pictorial unity allowed him to construct a plausible narrative of Poussin’s development.

  5. 5

    I have discussed the interpretation of Morelli in “Giovanni Morelli and the Origins of Scientific Connoisseurship,” in Richard Wollheim, On Art and the Mind (Harvard University Press, 1973).

  6. 6

    Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art (Princeton University Press, 1987). Lecture IV is largely devoted to Poussin.

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