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The Magical Painting of Poussin


In the early 1630s Poussin moved away from making small mythological canvases in a Titianesque style and began concentrating instead on producing larger narrative pictures of events in classical and early Christian history. In some of the pictures of these years the landscape elements have relatively less force, and the exhibition at the Metropolitan only displays three paintings made between 1635 and the end of the 1640s. It was in 1648 that Poussin began to concentrate on landscape painting and from then until his death in 1665 it remained a chief preoccupation.

The landscapes he made in these years have been recognized as a sublime achievement ever since their creation. Already in the seventeenth century they were cited as the supreme examples of a new “heroic” style of depicting the world. In nearly every regard they differ visually from the early mythological pictures. They are much larger in size, typically several times bigger than the pictures from the first years in Rome, and the figures are on a smaller scale relative to the setting, so that the depiction of the landscape becomes paramount. In tone and color as well they mark a striking contrast with the earlier paintings: rather than reds and browns as before, now cool blues and greens dominate, so that many of the late images are soothing to behold.

The biggest difference of all is in the depth of field. In the early pictures, the viewer’s attention tends to be directed almost exclusively to the immediate foreground; the landscape elements beyond this area are of distinctly secondary importance, like a beautiful backdrop behind actors on a stage. In the later pictures, on the other hand, there is a continuity of space that runs from the very front edge of the painting all the way into the farthest distance. Often, as in Landscape with Diogenes, Poussin paints a path that starts at the entrance to the picture and wanders into the background, so that the viewer can imagine walking into the image. Furthermore, within each section of the painting from the front to the back, Poussin carefully provides a series of clues indicating the relative placement of objects—people, trees, hills, bushes, buildings, and so on—thus making the recession of the space all the more distinct and easy to read.

Poussin is able to foster the impression of a vista so deep that the space even seems to continue over the horizon and out the back of the picture. He does this by showing the light of the sun, which itself has already set, streaking up and into the visual array from beyond the hills in the far distance. He thus makes it clear that the sky extends past the limits of what we can see, just as in the natural world.

The extraordinary amplitude of the world and sky in Poussin’s paintings was commented upon by his contemporaries. Félibien, for example, remarked that the early mythological pictures were set in a “delicious place”; writing of the later landscapes, he instead praised their illusion of a “vast field.” The deep magnitude and the measured clarity of the space in these paintings are fundamental for the sense they give that one is looking into some kind of ideal world. In a letter in 1665 Poussin compared the elements of painting to the golden bough carried by Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid. He does not elaborate on his comment, and perhaps it is only a suggestive coincidence, but in Book VI of the epic the golden bough serves as a magical aid that helps Aeneas reach the Elysian Fields. Virgil writes of the skies of that heavenly place: “What largesse of bright air, clothing the vales in dazzling/ Light, is here!”2 No description better fits the effect of the light and space in Poussin’s late landscapes.

Since the time he made these pictures it has been noted that they seem to unite precise observation of the surface details of the world with a profound sense of its underlying structures. In his biography of Poussin, Félibien reports that the artist would go out into the countryside to sketch “the most beautiful effects of Nature.” But then he immediately adds that Poussin was not content only to know “the things of the senses,” nor to base his art on the examples of great masters of the past, but also studied theory, optics, and geometry, as a means of correcting the data of appearances. It is the resulting combination of naturalism and vision of the ideal that has won praise from generations of critics, beginning with Roger de Piles in the seventeenth century. No one is more elegant in describing this accomplishment of Poussin than William Hazlitt, who in his 1824 essay on the artist famously stated:

To give us nature, such as we see it, is well and deserving of praise; to give us nature, such as we have never seen, but have often wished to see it, is better, and deserving of higher praise. He who can show the world in its first naked glory, with the hues of fancy spread over it, or in its high and palmy state, with the gravity of history stamped on the proud monuments of vanished empire,—who, by his “so potent art,” can recall time past, transport us to distant places, and join the regions of imagination (a new conquest) to those of reality,—who shows us not only what nature is, but what she has been, and is capable of,—he who does this, and does it with simplicity, with truth, and grandeur, is lord of nature and her powers; and his mind is universal, and his art the master-art!

The late landscapes are images of heavenly beauty, and yet many historians today believe that they were born of Poussin’s disgust for the evils of the earth. Certainly, his letters of these years are filled with bitter and angry comments about the political turmoil that beset Europe, especially the Fronde, the civil war that raged in France from 1648 to 1653. For example, in a letter in August 1648 Poussin wrote:

I fear the malignity of our times. Virtue, conscience and religion are banished among men. Nothing but vice, trickery and self-interest reign. All is lost. I have lost hope in the existence of Good. Everything is filled with evil.

It was in a state of despair that Poussin turned to making pictures of a more perfect world.

Paintings enclose in narrow places, the space of earth and the heavens,” wrote Cardinal Federico Borromeo of Milan in 1628, “and we go wandering, and making long journeys [in them] standing still in our room.” It was to serve as the locus of such journeys of the mind that Poussin made his extraordinary late landscape pictures. They were meant in part to be places of mental repose, images to dwell on, and to dwell in, at least for a while. The early mythological landscapes often depict figures in reverie; the late pictures instead are intended to be contemplated with reverie by the viewer. Longing is still present—indeed, more so than ever. But now it is not depicted by the gestures and emotions of the figures in the picture, rather it is experienced in the very space of the painting, as the viewer, rapt in concentration and full of yearning and expectation, travels mentally further and further into the picture.

Nonetheless, Poussin’s late landscape paintings rarely depict visions of a simple paradise; many contain reminders of evil, suffering, and death. In Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion the painter recounts the conclusion of a political tragedy in which the Athenian general Phocion, a nearly ideal man—military hero, pithy orator, and figure of absolute moral rectitude—has been destroyed by foreign intrigue and mob rule. We see Phocion’s widow who, with furtive movement and intense concern, kneels to gather her husband’s ashes. Behind her, trees of magnificent beauty frame a deep vista that reveals a classical temple and city, seemingly a place of peace and order, bathed in the cool light of a spring morning. Poussin seems to take bitter satisfaction in the disparity between the human suffering in the foreground and the apparent ideality of the view in the background. Likewise, in Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake he contrasts the fear and passion of the main actors of the picture with the tranquillity of the noble and majestic landscape that surrounds the scene.

Poussin wrote one patron of his interest in depicting tricks of fortune, and a number of the late landscapes tell stories of tragic irony. For example, in Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice the poet is shown blithely singing of love and beauty, oblivious to the fate of his wife, who has just been fatally bitten by a snake. Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe is an immense, dark, and brooding masterpiece, in which the furious power of nature dwarfs the insignificant doings of misguided mortals. As Keith Christiansen writes in his excellent account of the picture:

Anyone who has stood before it…is led inevitably to consider the larger subject of fate and the subservience of humankind to the capriciousness of nature (for Poussin, a storm was synonymous with Fate or Fortune). There is the lion, that, having bloodied Thisbe’s cloak but left her unharmed, turns instead on a horse, whose rider, aided by a companion, desperately tries to repel the beast. There is a herdsman fleeing this scene in terror while two others try desperately to drive their cattle and sheep to safety, and a man on a donkey, who, with head bowed and eyes covered, moves against the wind—blindly going toward the danger…. We are reminded of Poussin’s observation on the uncertainties of Fortune: “Only great wisdom or great simplicity can exempt man from these storms…. The ordinary man is subject to her rigors.”

It is often said that these pictures express Poussin’s commitment to the tenets of Stoicism, a classical philosophy of moral behavior that was popular with the intelligentsia in early-seventeenth-century Europe. Certainly, some of these paintings recount the character and fate of persons, such as Phocion and Diogenes, whose comportment perfectly represented the ideals of the movement: constancy, resolve, self-control. Moreover, some of the paintings seem to depict a state of mind or emotion as much as the physical appearance of the natural world, and their traditional titles, such as Solitude and A Calm, suggest the ideal of tranquillity so highly prized by the Stoics.

Even making these landscapes required a measure of philosophic resolve from the painter. Poussin was frequently ill and the ravages of venereal disease left him with weak arms and trembling hands that became ever more difficult to control. One room in the exhibition displays a poignant group of late drawings whose broken and jagged marks show that by the end Poussin no longer could form a straight line or maintain steady contact of the pen on the paper. So acute was the infirmity that Poussin knew while making his last works that soon he would have to abandon painting altogether.

It was with this knowledge, and in the face of death, that in 1660 Poussin began his last great series of paintings, the Four Seasons, of which Spring and Summer are on view in the exhibition. With this series, the artist ponders the primordial cycles of time and nature: each of the pictures represents not only a different season, but also a different hour of the day, and a different stage in human life, from creation to destruction. As so often before, Poussin here was inspired by Philostratus’ Images, which ends with an account of a painting of the seasons.

In the translation Poussin read, that picture is a meditation on three themes—the art of painting, the beauty of nature, and the character of human destiny—the very subjects that preoccupied Poussin throughout his career, and of which he sought to give final expression in this last series. The full significance of such profound works has been discussed by scholars and critics ever since their making. What is not open to dispute is the fixity of attention and the seriousness of purpose with which he completed these sublime paintings. Joshua Reynolds, William Hazlitt, and Kenneth Clark have each compared Poussin with the epic grandeur of Milton, and looking at these works, I am reminded of lines from the conclusion of Il Penseroso, which was written in the 1630s:

And may at last my weary age

Find out the peacefull hermitage,

Where I may sit and rightly spell

Of every Star that heav’n doth shew,

And every Herb that sips the dew;

Till old experience do attain

To something like Prophetic strain.

Like the narrator of the poem, Poussin contemplated human character and natural order in search of the essential and the eternal.

  1. 2

    Book VI, lines 640–641; translated by C.Day Lewis (Anchor, 1953), p. 148.

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