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The Magical Painting of Poussin

Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions

An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 12–May 11, 2008.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Pierre Rosenberg and Keith Christiansen.
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 414 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)

1.

Nicolas Poussin has been studied and celebrated for more than three hundred years, and yet “Poussin and Nature,” now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the first show dedicated to his work as a landscape painter. It is a ravishingly beautiful exhibition, and one that attempts to renew our understanding of the artist. Today, as in the seventeenth century, Poussin is best known for narrative scenes from classical literature and religious history, idealizing images in which noble figures are posed like ancient statues. In few of his pictures do the settings, rather than the figures, predominate, and only about thirty of his two hundred or so paintings are generally called landscapes. Nonetheless, the thesis of the show is that the landscape pictures represent his most deeply personal meditations on the character and meaning of life and art.

To put forth this claim the curators of the show begin by rejecting a line of interpretation common in much recent scholarship on Poussin. Since Ernst Gombrich’s celebrated article on the painter’s Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun, published in 1944, it has been popular to see Poussin as a person of nearly boundless erudition who used his paintings for displays of learning, often through abstruse references that would have been unclear to all but his most learned associates. In the view of the authors of the exhibition catalog, this tendency has not only threatened to turn a great artist into a dull pedant, it has also opened up the pictures to a wild array of fanciful interpretations. “One sometimes wonders,” writes Willibald Sauerländer in his brilliant essay in the catalog, “if the hidden secrets…of these pictures were really invented by the artist or are rather the creation of all-too-erudite art historians.”

To be sure, Poussin’s friends admired his deep knowledge of classical art and literature, but they also praised his pictures for being “without obscurity”—to quote the words of André Félibien, the painter’s student and biographer. Rather than searching for the key to Poussin’s art in arcane writings, the authors of the catalog advise that we see his pictures in relation to the texts he loved best, those of Ovid, Virgil, and the Bible.

It has been common of late to regard Poussin as a kind of abstract philosopher. As presented in the exhibition, he comes across instead as an inspired poet. And like great poetry what his pictures demand—and what they reward—is serious engagement. The catalog asks that we look at the paintings as Poussin meant them to be viewed, slowly, deliberatively, and with unbroken concentration. Pierre Rosenberg, the former director of the Louvre and the principal force behind the show, writes:

Since the triumph of Impressionism, we have lost the habit of taking time to study paintings. We look at them in the same way we leaf through a book, which is to say, distractedly. It is important, then, to learn to stand before Poussin’s works for a long time, to relearn how to take one’s time—that time to which Poussin paid so much attention…. He wanted the time one might spend reading and absorbing a text and in understanding its significance or its message to be spent contemplating his paintings, with the same complete attention, the same concentration, the same reflection, the same emotional engagement.

The promise is that if you will look, you will find that Poussin’s landscapes are magical paintings of unforgettable affective power.

2.

Nicolas Poussin was born in 1594 in Les Andelys, a small town in Normandy. Although we know little about his upbringing and early career, he is said to have come from a noble but impoverished family and to have studied Latin in his youth, training that was to have great influence in his art. He became a painter sometime around 1612, and shortly thereafter moved to Paris, where he had some success but won scant distinction. His fortunes only significantly improved in 1622 when he came to the attention of Giambattista Marino, the celebrated Italian poet then at the Tuscan court of Marie de Medici. Marino recognized and encouraged Poussin’s genius and arranged for the painter to move to Rome in 1624.

Poussin’s first years in the Eternal City were very difficult; he was poor, and gravely sick with venereal disease, an illness that affected him for the rest of his life. Poussin’s extraordinary gift for inspiring friendship aided him in overcoming the crisis. One friend, Jacques Dughet, a cook, nursed him back to health, and another, Cassiano dal Pozzo, a preeminent antiquarian in Rome, helped him to gain patrons and win commissions. In 1627 Poussin finished for Cardinal Francesco Barberini a pair of large history paintings, The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem and The Death of Germanicus, and from then on Poussin’s reputation as one of the leading artists in Rome was secured.

The common path to honor for a painter at that time was to concentrate on prestigious commissions for public settings, such as altarpieces and large paintings for the walls and ceilings of churches and palaces. Although he painted an important altarpiece for St. Peter’s, The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, in 1628, Poussin rejected this course, and chose instead to make chiefly small and medium-scaled paintings and to do so mostly for a tight circle of learned friends who fervently admired his work.

The show opens with paintings from Poussin’s early years in Rome. All the pictures in this section are scenes from classical myth and literature, and many seem to be set in Arcadia, an imaginary place of love and song celebrated by Virgil and other ancient writers. In these paintings the landscape elements are chiefly in the background, and yet their lustrous beauty is fundamental to establishing their dreamy mood. Ever since their creation, it has been recognized that Poussin made these early pictures in emulation of Titian, specifically of the Venetian painter’s three great canvases Bacchus and Ariadne, The Bacchanal of the Andrians, and The Worship of Venus, which were then in the Aldobrandini collection in Rome. Poussin was inspired by the golden light, the intense color, and the active brushwork of Titian’s paintings.

Perhaps even more importantly, he saw in the Venetian’s works a model of what he wanted to accomplish as a learned and poetic painter. Titian based two of his bacchanal canvases on the descriptions of ancient paintings that Philostratus wrote in Images, a book from the early third century AD. This Greek text was precious testimony to the appearance of classical painting, which had since been nearly entirely destroyed: other than the decorative details from frescoes in Nero’s Roman villa, the Domus Aurea, just a handful of substantial fragments were then known. Poussin was intimately familiar with Blaise de Vigenère’s French translation of Philostratus, and all through his career he consulted this book and, like Titian, made paintings after Philostratus’ descriptions.

Poussin took an intense interest in recreating the appearance of ancient paintings. To this end he often based his figures on classical sculpture and included evocations of the few remaining fragments of Roman landscape painting. He strove, too, for perfect accuracy in depicting the details of classical and early Christian costume, ritual, comportment, and architecture. This required considerable antiquarian research, frequently in consultation with Cassiano dal Pozzo and others. Yet it is important to see in this activity not only a desire for scientific exactitude; it also has the poignancy of reaching for an unattainable ideal. The artist Peter Paul Rubens, who was another friend of Cassiano dal Pozzo, wrote in 1637 that the “examples of the ancient painters can now be followed only in the imagination”—they were elusive like phantoms in a dream. Presumably for Poussin too the desire to recreate ancient painting had something of the character of fantasy.

Titian’s bacchanals were also one of the first important responses in the visual arts to the new vogue for pastoral literature that had begun with the publication of Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia in 1504. The pastoral, with its celebration of an ideal life of bucolic ease, love, and poetry in the mythic Golden Age, was still immensely fashionable during Poussin’s lifetime, inspiring works by Cervantes, Marino, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others. More than any other visual artist since Titian in the early sixteenth century, Poussin combined the antiquarian dream of recapturing classical painting with the yearning for the mythic Golden Age in order to make serious art of real emotional intensity.

In these early paintings Poussin depicts nearly all the figures in attitudes of reverie or longing. Some are shown in states of moody contemplation or poetic musing; for instance, the nymph at the center of Landscape with a Nymph and Sleeping Satyr seems to be dreaming, while Midas in Midas at the Source of the River Pactolus looks lost in thought. In other paintings, such as Venus Anointing the Dead Adonis, the yearning takes on an elegiac cast; and in still other pictures, Poussin concentrates on erotic desire. This is especially true of Venus (or a Nymph) Spied On by Satyrs, where the satyrs lust for a beautiful nude who, with her head back, her eyes closed, and her hand touching her mons veneris, is shown enrapt in sexual fantasy. Poussin’s focus on the varieties of longing and dreaming is almost unparalleled in Renaissance and early Baroque art. By contrast, for example, Titian’s bacchanals are images of robust action, not of mental and physical desire.

In these early pictures Poussin makes the landscape elements seem to smolder with intense ardor. He achieved this effect by applying the upper layers of paint in relatively thin and rough brush strokes that allowed the red-brown ground layer of paint to show through, giving the entire image a warm and sensual glow. In European poetry the tradition of describing nature with amorous metaphors was an ancient one going back all the way to the Homeric hymns. This tradition was still very much alive in literature at the beginning of the seventeenth century, in no small part owing to the popularity of the pastoral. For instance, borrowing imagery from Ovid, Milton in his poem L’Allegro in the 1630s could write:

The frolick Wind that breathes the Spring,

Zephir with Aurora playing,

As he met her once a Maying,

There on Beds of Violets blew,

And fresh-blown Roses washt in dew,

Fill’d her with thee a daughter fair…

Poussin was extremely familiar with this tradition thanks to his friendship with Marino, whose poem L’Adone is a rich repository of the same vein of imagery. The artist read the book with the author, even making illustrations of it at his request, and Marino and Poussin also discussed how to translate the power of poetic language into the visual forms of painting. In L’Adone Marino wrote descriptive passages such as “Even the stones and the shadows of the place/sigh breaths of amorous fire.”1 In his early mythic landscapes Poussin sought to capture the same sense of pathos and inspiration as is conveyed by lush and elevated writing of this kind.

  1. 1

    Canto VIII, stanza 18: “le pietre istesse e l’ombre di quel loco/spirano spirti d’amoroso foco.

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