Nicolas Poussin
Nicolas Poussin; drawing by David Levine

In 1960 three large galleries in the Louvre were hung with 120 pictures and 120 drawings by Nicolas Poussin; the occasion remains in the memories of many of those who witnessed it as the most exciting of all the countless exhibitions that have been held anywhere since the war. It is odd that this should be so. Poussin has not been a discovery of our century like Caravaggio whose dramatic exhibition in Milan nine years earlier first brought him to the attention of a wide public, nor did he, as Caravaggio did, bring into being a train of distinguished followers who not only changed the course of European art but made us look with new eyes at apparently remote painters such as Vermeer. “Here is a man who paints with the fury of the devil,” said the poet Marino when he introduced Poussin to Roman society in 1624, and ever since then, almost without interruption, he has been spoken of with admiration—though, alas, it was not always expressed in such infectious terms.

Nor does there seem to be anything in the artistic, intellectual, or political climate of our times liable to make it particularly receptive to his work. It is true that great pictures came to Paris from all over the world, not least from Paris itself where so many had been buried for so long beneath dirt or in inaccessible vaults: but few of these were wholly new, photographs at least were generally available, and every textbook had always been ready to acknowledge his merits. Yet there had hung about him the most discouraging of labels: he was an “intellectual” painter, a classicist, an art historian’s artist, an “establishment figure,” used again and again over the centuries as a tool to beat down anything that was new and vital in the art of the day. Even the most famous of modern tributes—Cézanne’s reported wish “to do Poussin over again from nature”—carried with it the implication that the original was faded and stuffy.

In 1960 all that changed. Poussin emerged, glistening and fresh, to take his place in the company of Giorgione, Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and other favorites in most people’s private musée imaginaire, as an artist whose ravishingly beautiful poésie of the early Roman years competed in the affections of all who saw them with the sublime masterpieces of the last decade. He was, indeed, the “most poetical of all painters,” in the words of Hazlitt and it was to Hazlitt that one could turn most hopefully for deep love and appreciation without sententiousness—the Hazlitt who wrote: “His Giants sitting on the tops of craggy mountains, as huge themselves, and playing idly on their Pan’s-pipes, seem to have been seated there these three thousand years, and to know the beginning and the end of their own story.” It would need a Hazlitt to evoke Endymion clad in lilac who looks with such loving reverence into the eyes of Luna as the curtains of Night are drawn back, in the marvelous picture in the Detroit museum; or the silvery glint of the leaves lit up by stormy sunlight behind the dying Narcissus in the Louvre’s Narcissus and Echo; or the spectral horses who frame the poignant love of Erminia for Tancred in the Hermitage masterpiece, or the pantheistic hymn to creation and sensuality in the Spring—one of the very last of all his paintings. “He is a man who paints from here,” said Bernini, indicating his forehead when looking at Poussin’s Phocion, but it was good to be reminded in Paris that Bernini could, in the presence of other pictures, have pointed with equal justice to his heart or much lower in his anatomy.

IT IS GOOD to remember again the sheer beauty of paint and color, the tenderness, the eroticism, the gaiety, and the depth of feeling in picture after picture when reading Sir Anthony Blunt’s masterly thesis that the old tag “peintre-philosophe,” so often applied to Poussin, can be given a new and profounder meaning. Blunt organized the great Paris exhibition, and his long-awaited catalogue raisonné and rewritten Mellon Lectures constitute by far the most impressive contribution that has ever been made to our understanding of the artist. But it is essential to emphasize the point made in his Introduction that this is not intended to be a straightforward monograph on Poussin, but rather an investigation into “the intellectual climate in which he worked and the ideas—religious, philosophical, or aesthetic—in which he believed and which affected his method of work as well as his paintings.” Though his book in fact does far more than that, the emphasis throughout is, so to speak, on the Poussin of Bernini rather than that of Marino.

Gombrich, Panofsky, Sauerländer (and Blunt himself) long ago demonstrated that certain pictures by the artist were not simple illustrations of secular or religious themes familiar enough to most other painters of the time, but were in fact extraordinarily complex allegories based on very wide reading. In this book Blunt considerably extends these researches and brings forward a vast amount of evidence to support two principal theories about Poussin: that from a surprisingly early date his pictures contain a density of “philosophical” meanings which are not apparent to the modern observer without deep study, and that, despite the great changes that occur in his paintings over the years, there is in all his mature work a basic consistency of outlook which underlies his choice of seemingly very different imagery.


IT IS IMPOSSIBLE without illustrations to summarize adequately the points established by Blunt, and a truncated quotation is liable to make his method sound insensitive and mechanical; but the risk must be taken if the reader is to be given any indication at all of his approach.

Poussin’s use of hidden meanings is most revealingly exemplified in the Venus with the dead Adonis (Caen). One of the most curious features of this painting is the resemblance it bears to the Lamentation in Munich in which the figure of Christ is, in reverse, very nearly identical with the dead Adonis. The putti are similar in type and pose; the Venus could almost be a Magdalen; and the landscape with the setting sun has exactly the same character in the two paintings…. Poussin has chosen an unusual moment in the story…[which] shows Venus pouring nectar into the wound of Adonis, from the blood of which springs the scarlet anemone, the flower in which his memory was immortalized. Now, the myth of the death and rebirth of Adonis, symbolizing the death of nature in winter and its rebirth in spring, became a widespread image for death and resurrection in general. The cult of Adonis and its implications were certainly well known to Poussin, for they are discussed at length in On the Syrian Goddess, a work traditionally ascribed to Lucian, which was widely read in the seventeenth century. Moreover, the parallel between Christ and Adonis would have appealed to Poussin’s friends, who were much interested in this kind of comparative religion. Several treatises on Oriental religions appeared at this time, and there are strong traces of syncretism in the writings of Marino….

The evidence, of course, is cumulative, and the more we are convinced by the analysis of one picture the more we are ready to accept the next. Nothing is quite what it seems at first sight: love stories from Ovid or Tasso may symbolize the struggle between Reason and Concupiscence; the Bacchanals and Triumph of Neptune refer to the idea of fertility and the creative power of nature; the Four Seasons provide an allegorical rendering of Man’s salvation…. And so each picture is shown to carry with it deeper and deeper implications, and just as we are about to protest in the name of plain, philistine common sense, Blunt anticipates us by firmly proposing that the London Landscape with a Man killed by a Snake does not (as many commentators have assumed) represent a classical story full of recondite allusions, but—a man killed by a snake: an episode which Poussin may well have seen himself during the course of a journey to Naples (with what horror one can imagine from the obsessional terror of snakes which is manifest in so many of his pictures). The arguments in fact are not strained and depend clearly on the paintings themselves, which are not forced into a preconceived scheme; and the literary evidence for so many ideas which now seem bizarre is presented with great clarity and—an exceedingly important point which is often neglected in this sort of study—we are always told how accessible it would have been to Poussin and his friends.

This sort of approach has often been applied in recent years, with varying degrees of efficacy, to the artists of the fifteenth century and the High Renaissance (and, on a more simple level, it is, of course, relevant to many other Baroque artists such as Rubens); but its application to the pictures of Poussin presents an entirely new set of problems. When we try to discover the “meaning” of Botticelli’s Primavera or Giorgione’s Tempesta we find at once that we have almost no direct contemporary evidence of any value. The personalities of the artists were unrecorded until long after their deaths and even their patrons remain shadowy figures. But Poussin is one of the most fully documented artists of the well-documented seventeenth century. More letters from him survive than from any other painter of the time except Salvator Rosa (the most interesting of these have been re-edited by Blunt for the admirable French series Miroirs de l’Art), and he was frequently described by articulate and intelligent observers, who were often his close friends and admirers. Although all this written evidence provides a great deal of useful information about his views on life and art, nowhere in it do we find any direct allusions to the syncretism and hidden meanings which Blunt has shown to exist in his work.


This raises a number of interesting questions of which discussion would have been welcome. How far, for instance, did Poussin intend some of his meanings to be accessible even to his immediate circle? Clearly in some cases it was felt to be not worth pointing out a doctrine that was bound to be familiar—for the interesting feature about most of the ideas he illustrates is that, unlike some of the very complex and abstract ideas which are held to have conditioned earlier painters, they are in general simple enough, however strange. Poussin once told a client how he should “read” one of his pictures, but, for all his love of allegory and strange lore, he seems, like many painters and poets of far more recent times, to have been not particularly concerned about communicating anything that was not observable to the well-trained eye.

IT IS THIS, more perhaps than the nature of his thought, which really distinguishes Poussin from the other artists of his age and brings him near to us. Salvator Rosa, for instance, who (in a more slapdash way) also tried to explore new subject matter, was determined to let everyone possible know of his Stoical convictions; whereas the Stoicism that Blunt (convincingly) deduces from Poussin’s letters is by contrast a negative, reticent affair, made up of hints only and an occasional quotation. Reading these letters, which are often full of information about his working methods and general outlook on the world, makes one suspect that he did not in fact give much away about his rich inner life or beliefs during those “curious and learned discourses with his friends” which Bellori tantalizingly describes for us. When we look at the pictures themselves, the Stoicism is evident enough in the scenes of Phocion, Diogenes, Eudamidas, and a number of others, but it is much more surprising to learn that the great mysterious allegories of his last years “are an extension of the Stoicism with which Poussin had been so deeply concerned in the middle years of his life,” for the Stoics had always regarded the gods as identical with the forces of nature. This is doubtless true enough, but it must be admitted that the whole tone of the late mythological landscapes (which Blunt associates also with the doctrines of Campanella) is so different from those of the middle period—as Blunt indeed stresses—that it is impossible not to suspect that the nature of his inspiration changed fundamentally at this stage of his life. To this reviewer the theory that the early pictures lack sensuality or eroticism (the Kassel Nymph, Satyr, Faun and Cupid unerotic?) is not convincing, and surely in the very late paintings and drawings this early sensuality returns, as it so often seems to do with artists, to give a new richness to the themes of fertility and agriculture which so preoccupied him.

Blunt’s Poussin will encourage us to see in him a peintre-philosophe of a kind far more interesting than that envisaged by the neo-classicists who coined the term, and it is backed up by a catalogue raisonné that appears just a little more than fifty years after the pioneering catalogue by Walter Friedlaender, who was nonetheless able, shortly before his death last year, to publish a “new approach” to Poussin. This last work of the great art historian constitutes a fine general introduction which can be warmly recommended for its acute and interesting observations. Some of his judgments are, however, surprising. Is “amusing” really the best adjective with which to describe Poussin’s paintings of Moses for Cardinal Massimi which are now in the Louvre? Does the “topographical landscape of the Spoleto Virgin” in Dulwich really “have no great value or originality”? Although Friendlaender’s book appeared before Blunt’s, it is presumably with the Mellon Lectures in mind that he went out of his way to assert that “In contrast to the enigmatic creations of his old age, the mythologies, bacchanals, and romances that Poussin invented so abundantly in his early Roman years are purely narrative and illustrative. They were meant to be easily understood and enjoyed; to use a Poussinesque expression, they are for ‘reading.’ No meanings are deliberately hidden—at least not from a public familiar with the tradition of the classics.”

There are other differences between the two authors, notably on the authenticity and quality of some of the pictures themselves. Blunt’s catalogue (which discusses in great detail the various controversies about chronology which arose at the time of the Exhibition) cannot be analyzed here, but its general tendency is to restrict the canon of authentic works, and the most notable—and surprising—of the dismissals is the Midas and Bacchus in Munich which Friedlaender reproduces and enthusiastically describes. The illustrations in all the books under review are, however, very disappointing in quality—many of Friedlaender’s color plates are really horrible and the coordination between the three volumes of Blunt is quite deplorable—so that even the timid opinions, which are all that can ever be based on a photograph, have to be withheld in this and other similar cases.

Blunt says in his Introduction that “I hope that at some time I shall write a book—a much shorter book—in which these [intellectual] matters can be taken for granted and Poussin’s supreme merits as a painter can be made the principal theme.” His necessarily very brief contribution to the popular series The Masters can hardly constitute what he has in mind (which will be keenly awaited), but it does distill admirably and with great feeling the gist of his approach to the painter. Meanwhile M. Schneider’s perceptive essay touches sensitively on the problem which lies close to the heart of our appreciation for him. Why is Poussin a great master and not the frigid bore we would expect from the praise of some of his early admirers—and sometimes from his own words? It is after all the most frigid and the most boring of all his pictures, the Louvre Judgment of Solomon, that he himself described as being his best. Schneider sees in his art the constant reconciliation of a series of opposing poles—Rome and Venice, mathematics and nature—which gives his classicism a tension and vigor, and in support of his argument he alludes lightly to many of the same points that Blunt’s great book explores in rich and absorbing detail.

This Issue

February 15, 1968