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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.

3.

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. 1

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

  2. 2

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

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