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Poussin’s Season

Nicolas Poussin 1594–1665 Paris, September 1994–January 1995, by

catalog of the exhibition at the Grand Palais, Pierre Rosenberg, by Louis-Antoine Prat
Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 558 pp., FF350 (paper)

Nicolas Poussin 1594–1665 January 19–April 9, 1995, by Richard Verdi and others.

catalog of the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London,
Zwemmer/Royal Academy of Art, 336 pp., $70.00

Nicolas Poussin 1594–1665: Catalogue raisonné des dessins

by Pierre Rosenberg, by Louis-Antoine Prat
Leonardo Editore, distributed in the US by Ars Libri, two volumes, 1,217 pp., $700.00

Nicolas Poussin: La Collection du Musée Bonnat à Bayonne

by Pierre Rosenberg, by Louis-Antoine Prat
Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 86 pp., FF100

Poussin before Rome, 1594–1624

by Jacques Thuillier, translated by Christopher Allen
Richard L. Feigen, 190 pp., £40.00

Nicolas Poussin: La Collection du Musée Condé à Chantilly

by Pierre Rosenberg, by Louis-Antoine Prat
Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 240 pp., FF195

Nicolas Poussin

by Anthony Blunt
Pallas Athene/to be distributed in the US by Boydell and Brewer, 687 pp., $39.95 (paper)

Nicolas Poussin

by Jacques Thuillier
Flammarion, 288 pp., FF195 (paper)

Autour de Poussin Musée du Louvre, 1994, by

Dossier-Exposition du Département des Peintures, Gilles Chomer, by Sylvain Laveissiére
Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 120 pp., FF150

Poussin’s Paintings: A Study in Art-Historical Methodology

by David Carrier
Pennsylvania State University Press, 276 pp., $35.00

1.

The fourth centenary of the birth of Nicolas Poussin has been celebrated by a series of major, and also minor but important, exhibitions in Paris (a city that he abandoned at the earliest possible opportunity) and in London (where he had never been). Meanwhile in Rome (where he spent almost his entire working life) the anniversary has inspired the mounting of a small but—to judge from the admirable catalog1—enthralling exhibition, which contains superb pictures by some of his contemporaries (most of whom he appears to have disregarded or despised), but only one original painting by him—a small Midas at the Source of the Pactolus, lent by the Musée Fesch in Ajaccio.

Only one work of real consequence by Poussin remains in the city that, when he was alive and for a generation or so after his death, contained a large proportion of his finest masterpieces. This is the altarpiece of The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus (Vatican Picture Gallery), which he was commissioned to paint for St. Peter’s within four years of his arrival—but which does not seem to have met with much success. What was, on the other hand, one of the most admired and certainly the most influential of all his paintings, The Death of Germanicus (now in Minneapolis), did not leave Italy until 1958, when—through an oversight of scarcely believable stupidity on the part of the authorities—it was legally exported without any attempt being made to retain it in the country.

All these exhibitions have been accompanied by substantial and fully illustrated catalogs, while scholarly articles and monographs, as well as lavish publications aimed at a wider public, have poured from the presses of Europe and America. Meanwhile we still await the appearance in print of the papers presented at several conferences held in Paris, Rome, and London. None of this activity is the result of some sudden awakening to the qualities of an unappreciated artist. Ever since the impressive exhibition held at the Louvre in 1960, which was the product of precisely such a revelation, others of great importance but devoted to specific aspects of his paintings and drawings have been held in Rome, Paris, Rouen, Oxford, Edinburgh, Düsseldorf, Fort Worth, and elsewhere. It might well be felt therefore that there is nothing left to discover, and indeed the principal exhibitions in Paris and in London (where the display at the Royal Academy’s Burlington House is admirably presented) contain very few surprises to anyone who has scanned the catalogs of these earlier shows.

What has been rejected is perhaps more striking than what has been added: particularly a powerfully expressive drawing in red chalk of a man’s head and shoulders, inscribed in a seventeenth-century hand as being a self-portrait made by the artist when convalescing from a serious illness and as having been presented by him to Cardinal Massimi (one of his most appreciative patrons).

This drawing, which is in the British Museum, has been given great prominence in all the literature on Poussin, and, in his excellent new book, Jacques Thuillier, the leading authority on the artist, urges us to pay particular attention to this “anguished grimace” if we wish to get a balanced impression of a man who was not always as grave and detached as he represented himself in the famously impersonal Self-Portrait in the Louvre.2 He had, Thuillier reminds us, apparently caught some sort of venereal disease from the courtesans of Rome, and one side of his temperament was made up of “passions, enthusiasms, naiveté, torments and suffering.”

Pierre Rosenberg of the Louvre, however, an expert of equal authority, has dismissed the drawing as certainly not by Poussin and probably not of him, and has excluded it from the splendid exhibition in the Grand Palais for which he was responsible. However, with a few notable exceptions (whose names recur with almost comic regularity in the catalog entries), most scholars are not in dispute about the principal paintings (as distinct from the drawings3 ) attributed to Poussin, although their dating still arouses sharp controversy. It is the nature of his temperament and beliefs that seems to become more, rather than less, mysterious the more we see, the more we read.

So too does the interpretation of his art. It is probably because of this, as well as because of the great beauty of his finest works, and the moving and unpredictable nature of his development as a whole, that so much more attention has in recent years been paid to Poussin than to other artists of comparable quality. We cannot attribute the number of exhibitions devoted to him purely to the eagerness of French scholars and officials to promote the international standing of one of their great masters; but neither (if one can judge by appearances) can it be claimed that he exerts huge public appeal of the kind associated with the Impressionists: in Paris it was Gustave Caillebotte, also exhibited at the Grand Palais, rather than Poussin who attracted the crowds.

The facts of Poussin’s outward life are of little interest, and it is not until the late 1620s, when he was well over thirty, that any certain information becomes available about his career as a painter. What we think we know about his training and even about the works of his early maturity (works created when Géricault had only three, and Watteau only seven, years to live) depends therefore only on the accounts of biographers writing after his death. The two most important of these, Giovanni Pietro Bellori and André Félibien, were well acquainted with him personally, although not before he was already one of the most famous painters in Europe, and they evidently based their accounts partly on what he told them—not necessarily the most reliable of sources. Both, moreover, had theoretical axes to grind.4

It is from Poussin’s first biographers—and incidentally only from them—that we hear of the most decisive moment in his life—his meeting, probably in the autumn of 1622, with the eminent and famous Neapolitan poet, Giambattista Marino, who was then living in Paris. Marino, we are told, was so impressed by some canvases that Poussin had painted at breakneck speed for the Jesuits to commemorate the canonization of Saints Ignatius and Francis Xavier that he at once installed the impoverished and provincial artist in his house, commissioned from him a set of mythological drawings, and proposed that he should accompany him to Italy, and when, not long afterward. Poussin did arrive in Rome, he introduced him to the leading patrons in the city. All this, though not always strictly accurate in detail, is probably true enough in outline—though it has, perhaps, not been noticed how surprising the story is.

Italian visitors to France in these years showed no interest in inviting even the most talented of native artists to Rome—welcome though such invitations would invariably have been. Moreover, Marino was an exceptionally well-informed lover of the arts, familiar with the most admired Italian painters of his day, whereas the only surviving works by Poussin that have any serious claim to date from before his arrival in Rome are not remotely distinguished—indeed they are thoroughly mediocre. This became very apparent at a most valuable and instructive little exhibition Poussin before Rome, 1594–1624 at Richard L. Feigen’s gallery in London this winter. The paintings shown included several copies of a lost Saint Denis Frightening His Executioners with His Decapitated Head, a large altarpiece of the same saint, and a preparatory drawing in watercolor for another altarpiece, The Death of the Virgin, once in Notre Dame.

The status of these works has been much debated in the literature, but in an exemplary catalog—whose subtle analysis of the sparse documentation available is absorbing in itself, whatever one feels about the works to which it relates—Jacques Thuillier argues that they must be attributed to Poussin. The Jesuit paintings, alas, have not been traced, but one can only either hope that they were of incomparably higher quality or assume that Marino was gifted with almost superhuman insight if—as recorded by a seventeenth-century writer—he took to them with such enthusiasm and introduced Poussin to potential patrons in Rome with the words, “Here is a man who has in him the fury of a devil (una furia di diavolo).”

Marino’s advocacy was at first of little use. He himself died soon afterward and the patrons he had in mind for his protégé remained indifferent or had to leave the city on temporary business abroad. However, after little more than two years of hardship, this unknown foreigner began to win the keenest admiration from the discriminating amateurs who flourished in this most receptive of societies. It was Poussin’s “great knowledge of literature and the felicity with which his brushes could treat histories, fables and poems” that especially appealed to art lovers in Rome, and although he soon received major commissions from the papal family and for St. Peter’s, thereafter he broke with convention by confining himself as far as possible to relatively small paintings for private patrons. At first these were Italian—Cassiano dal Pozzo, his principal Roman admirer, was eventually to own more than forty pictures by him—but his fame, and some of his pictures, soon reached French collectors, Richelieu among them. It was not long before he was invited—summoned would be a more appropriate word—to Paris. The terms were flattering and he was promised that he would not be asked to paint vaults or ceilings.

Poussin, by now, after his recovery from illness, happily married though childless, was extremely reluctant to go, and the twenty-one months that he was forced to spend in the French capital proved to be even more unpleasant than anticipated. He was required to engage in just the sort of collaborative, large-scale, decorative work that he most hated, and he encountered jealousy from his rivals—not surprisingly, in view of his own caustic comments about them. Cunning and good luck enabled him to return to Rome long before his obligations had been fulfilled, and it was in Rome that he spent the last twenty-three years of his life, increasingly admired as one of the principal artists in Europe, but increasingly plagued by ill health—especially a trembling of the hand, the effects of which are notable particularly in the drawings of his later years.

The short time he spent in Paris, unhappy and relatively unproductive though it was, had nonetheless proved to be of decisive importance, for it brought him into direct contact with French art lovers for whom thereafter he painted most of his pictures. This in turn led to his canonization by French theorists and to strident claims—still endlessly debated—that he should, despite his almost lifelong residence in Rome and despite the homage paid in so much of his work to Raphael and to Titian, be acknowledged as a quintessentially French artist.

  1. 1

    Roma 1630: Il trionfo del pennello (Rome: Villa Medici, 1994).

  2. 2

    As well as a very lively text, Thuillier’s book contains an updated version of his catalog of the artist’s paintings, first published in 1974, and an invaluable corpus of the seventeenth-century documentary sources relating to him.

  3. 3

    The new catalogue raisonné by Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat drastically revises the five volumes of Walter Friedlaender and Anthony Blunt (published between 1939 and 1974) and is organized on entirely different principles. A splendid selection of drawings accepted by them was shown at the Grand Palais, and subsidiary, sometimes controversial and not very satisfactorily hung exhibitions of accepted and rejected drawings were held at the Musée Bonnat (Bayonne) and the Musée Condé (Chantilly), which are not allowed to lend. The Royal Academy regrettably decided not to include any drawings, but a group of marvelous ones in the Royal Collection is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London from February 15 to April 30.

  4. 4

    The four early lives of Poussin—by Bellori, Félibien, Passeri, and Sandrart—have very conveniently been republished in a single volume (in French), but without adequate notes or the serious critical analysis that is so greatly needed: Vies de Poussin, edited and annotated by Stefan Germer (Paris: Macula, 1994).

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