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.


To the small but very active international community of professional Poussinistes the painter’s development continues, even after his arrival in Rome, to present baffling problems (though they are not always acknowledged as such) both of authenticity and of dating: indeed, in his quite outstanding catalog of the Grand Palais exhibition, Pierre Rosenberg wryly points out that, until the recent discovery of a receipt, “all the specialists” (his italics) had radically misdated two of the finest pictures painted by Poussin—not in his early days in Rome but when he had already been living there for sixteen years and had reached full maturity. Most visitors to the first rooms of the Paris and London exhibitions will not have been too troubled by such chronological jolts (characteristic though they are both of the evolution of Poussin’s art and of the connoisseurs who have tried to detect some coherent pattern in it), for they will, after a bleak moment or two, quickly find themselves in the presence of some of the loveliest and most seductive of all seventeenth-century pictures. More of these could presumably have been borrowed had not the French organizers wished to lay particular emphasis on the later aspects of Poussin’s achievement—for monographic exhibitions, unlike most monographs, necessarily, and in this case intentionally, present very personal interpretations of an artist’s oeuvre.5

Most of these early pictures depict mythologies and scenes of romantic love chosen from the Metamorphoses of Ovid and from Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, but there are also bacchanals for which no precise literary source is known, and even a few episodes from the life of Christ. Very significant stylistic differences can be discerned among them: some are blond in tonality and others are more somber, some are “classic” in composition and others are more “baroque.” But despite these and further distinctions of a related kind, which often reflect the impact of the Old Masters and living painters studied by Poussin at this stage of his career, they are for the most part characterized by a sensuous richness of color and a delight in naked bodies—but also by exquisite refinement; by eroticism—but also by gravity and tenderness; by active participation in the joys and pains of life—but also by yearning for some unattainable goal. These scenes tend to be set in serene and flowery landscapes lit up by silvery blue skies streaked with gold.

It is customary to stress the Venetian influence on these paintings, but although it is right enough to do so—Poussin is believed to have spent some months in Venice on his way to Rome, and there were, in any case, marvelous Titians in Rome itself which he is known to have admired—it is not adequate. In fact one is tempted to resort to necromancy and to think of Poussin at this date as a sort of Titian redivivus, for no one since Titian so perfectly caught the very essence of his early poesie as did the painter of The Death of Adonis (in Caen) or the incomparable Tancred and Erminia (in the Hermitage). Yet these are works of the most poignant individuality, utterly different in appearance and feeling from the Venetian pastiches that were being turned out by some of Poussin’s contemporaries. We can perhaps come closest to an understanding of their nature if we adapt Berenson’s celebrated boutade that “Rubens is an Italian.” In that sense Poussin was, for a few years, a Venetian—but a Venetian of the seventeenth century, who appreciated, as Titian himself had appreciated a hundred years or so earlier, and as his imitators never did, the extent to which his art could be nourished by contemporary developments in Rome and elsewhere.

The sensuous enchantment of nearly all the works produced during these years makes it difficult to choose among them, but if I had to select one as consolation for life on a desert island, it would probably be the Diana and Endymion, which is now in Detroit, but which is first recorded in the collection of (and may well have been commissioned by) that most ardent of Italian lovers of art, Giulio Mazarini, known to history as Cardinal Mazarin, the shrewd ruler of France for nearly twenty years—a man who, as it were, traveled the same road as Poussin, but in reverse. Surprisingly, the Diana and Endymion was not one of the pictures to which, a month before dying, Mazarin went to bid an emotional farewell; less surprisingly, perhaps, the high French official (and rival collector) who recorded the words of the sick and aging Cardinal as he shuffled in his slippers past the masterpieces hanging on his walls (“It faut quitter tout cela! Et encore cela! Que j’ai eu de peine à acquérir ces choses! Puis-je les abandonner sans regret? Je ne les verrai plus où je vais.”)6 actually reproached him for not owning any works by Poussin. For it was not the “Venetian” paintings that were known or particularly admired in France.

The balance between warmth and calculated harmony of design, between lust and restraint, between pagan myths and Christian feeling—the balance that marked so many of Poussin’s early pictures—was difficult to maintain. And there is good reason to believe that he did not want to maintain it. Like nearly all painters established in Rome he soon began to pay ever-intensifying homage to antique sculpture (particularly sarcophagus reliefs), to Raphael (particularly as seen through the interpretations of engravers and followers), and to Raphael’s acknowledged successor among living artists, Domenichino. Visitors to the exhibitions in Paris and London will doubtless have different views of when these counter-Venetian influences first became assertive. But they will certainly agree that well before Poussin went to Paris in 1640 his colors had become more subdued or more frigid and his compositions more contrived, that the movement of his figures had become less spontaneous, their gestures more demonstrative, their expressions more strained, and that architecture was now more prominent: Ovid had begun to give way to ancient history and the Bible.

Within a year or two of his return to Rome the process was complete, and these varied stylistic changes which had once seemed to constitute a gradual process of development now combined to convey the impression of an overpowering conversion—although it was, in fact, the product of a supreme effort of the will. To move from The Kingdom of Flora of 1631 (Dresden) to The Infant Moses Trampling on Pharaoh’s Crown of 1645 (Woburn Abbey) was an unsettling experience because it is always unsettling to witness the renunciation of charm, elegance, and human frailty in the cause of an austere and (presumably) nobler ideal, whether that renunciation results in artistic decline, as with Tolstoy, or in new creative inspiration, as with the Picasso of Cubism—or the Poussin of the second set of Sacraments painted for his closest French friend and patron, Paul Fréart de Chantelou.

It is interesting that Poussin was worried that the Baptism in this series might actually appear to be “too sweet,” for the controlled energy and grandeur for which he so memorably strove in the 1640s sometimes led to pictures that appear hard and even forbidding. It is these that have often been looked upon as characteristically French. Of the little known Continence of Scipio (Moscow), which was in fact painted for an Italian abbé just before Poussin set out for Paris, Pierre Rosenberg wonders whether the choice of subject may not be making an allusion to the contemporary plays of Corneille.

I must admit to being surprised by the question and, still more, by its implications. After all, the subject was by no means unusual, and when Poussin painted it, and (somewhat later) other far more uncompromising pictures of a similar nature, there was no French tradition or taste in art to which he could turn for inspiration. It was he who (to use a phrase that has now gained wide currency) was “inventing the tradition” of French art as sober, classical, and rational. When Poussin began to work more for the French than for the Italians he himself created the taste by which he was later to be judged. His many surviving letters show him giving his new friends and clients the guidance that they needed in order to be able to appreciate his pictures.

In this he was certainly successful, and his success is hardly surprising, for what he told them was simple enough: the manner in which he painted each picture varied according to the subject represented in it; what mattered above all was that his narrative should be made absolutely clear through the attention he paid to differences of expression and gesture. Both the artist himself and his clients could only appreciate the value of this achievement by devoting the most careful concentration to it, and through this process the viewer became, to some extent, identified with the artist. The last point is of some interest because, although ideas of the kind had already been hinted at by writers during the Renaissance and were to be fully exploited in the eighteenth century, what those theorists invariably had in mind was the projection of the viewer’s defining vision on to a sketchy or “unfinished” surface. Poussin asked his patrons to “read”—his own word—paintings in which nothing had been neglected or left to chance.

Such analyses were to become tediously pedantic after Poussin’s death, but the immediate impact of his lessons in close reading was more fruitful. He rapidly became the only modern French painter to be enthusiastically collected in France alongside the Old Masters and to be able to command high prices.7 Although at first few in numbers, his French admirers (who were mainly bankers and merchants and civil servants) tended to collect large quantities of his work—the businessman Jean Pointel, for instance, owned twenty-five paintings and eighty drawings by him—and because their attention had been drawn to him only in the second half of his career, their collections necessarily included only the later works.

It was, for instance, for Pointel that Poussin painted The Infant Moses Trampling on Pharaoh’s Crown. When, however, two years or so afterward, he painted another, even more austere version of the same subject, along with a pendant of Moses Changing Aaron’s Rod into a Serpent (“among the unloved pictures in our national collections” is Rosenberg’s apt comment on them), it was in response to a commission from the Italian Camillo (later Cardinal) Massimi, a patron who also acquired some of his early paintings and drawings, and who appreciated the genius of Claude and Velázquez.

Even though Massimi was exceptional among Italian art lovers of his day, it remains true that the supposed “Frenchness” of these “classical” Poussins was, in origin, far more the result of contingent circumstances than of national taste. Nothing, however, is more permanent than the contingent, and once the fame of Poussin had been established in France, these pictures became an integral part of the national consciousness, to be followed in later centuries by the works of Chardin and Cézanne. It is therefore fortunate for the “Anglo-Saxons,” who are taxed with not sufficiently appreciating their qualities, that at much the same time that Poussin was wrestling with the conventions of narrative history he also began to venture into what was for him new territory—that of landscape painting—which he was able to imbue with a feeling for poetry that, unlike the lyrical works of his youth, can be said to attain the sublime. In Burlington House the rigors of chronology have been slightly relaxed and the landscapes are all hung together in a spacious, well-proportioned gallery which brings the exhibition to a wonderful climax.

All these landscapes include figures (often figures from classical history or mythology) which, however, tend to occupy only a minute amount of space in relation to their setting. Nonetheless they are of importance because it is their activities that—in Poussin’s eyes (and doubtless in those of his contemporary admirers)—gave significance to the natural world and conveyed those moral or emotional themes that were basic to the art of his maturity. It is clear from his own explanation of the powerful Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe (Frankfurt)—whose protagonists would never have been identified had it not been for the evidence provided by his letter—that he was just as concerned to choose appropriate gestures and movements for the tiny figures to be seen in his landscapes as he was for a conspicuous Moses or Solomon in his more conventional narratives:

I have tried to represent a land storm, imitating as well as I could the effect of a violent wind, of air filled with darkness, with rain, with lightning and with thunder-bolts which fall here and there, not without producing disorder. All the figures to be seen play their part in relation to the weather: some flee through the dust, and go with the wind which carries them along; others, in contrary fashion, go against the wind and walk with difficulty, putting their hands before their eyes. On one side a shepherd runs away and leaves his flock, seeing a lion, which having already thrown down some oxherds, is attacking others, some of whom run away while others prick on their cattle and try to make good their escape. In this confusion the dust rises in whirlwinds. A dog some way off barks, with his coat bristling, but without daring to come nearer. In the front of the picture you will see Pyramus, stretched out dead on the ground and beside him Thisbe, given over to her grief.

“Not without producing disorder”: the sudden effects of disorder on harmony, whether natural or man-made, haunted Poussin. Few of his pictures are more moving than Orpheus and Eurydice (Louvre) and Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (London, National Gallery) in both of which the full horror of serpents gradually becomes apparent to the inhabitants of tranquil landscapes. But disorder can be the product of excess as well as of fear, and as Poussin grew older the power of nature seems to become more and more dominating. Classicizing monuments, whose severe and imposing geometry had brought so much authority to bear on the narratives of his middle years, disappear almost entirely from his paintings.

The mythological subjects which now reappear in his work are, like those that he had painted thirty years earlier, mostly taken from Ovid, but the gods and goddesses, heroes and nymphs to be seen in them are no longer quasi-human lovers or revelers but are so closely integrated with the trees and mountains and lakes around them that they seem to be the incarnations of primeval forces. And although he chooses episodes from the Bible with which to represent each of The Four Seasons (Louvre), painted in the last years of his life and widely held to constitute his greatest achievement, these paintings also strike us as being essentially concerned with nature and not with moral or religious edification: in Spring the naked Adam and Eve emerge from the lush vegetation around them like timid, uncouth, newborn creatures from the wild. In the very last picture of all, the unfinished Apollo and Daphne (shown only in Paris), the illusion that the sprawling and mostly nude figures are themselves no more than emanations of the visionary landscape in which they find themselves is intensified both by the accident of their sketchiness and by the fact that they do not appear to be taking part in any comprehensible fable. In a picture such as this Poussin seems once again to be reincarnating an aspect of Titian—although it is one that he could not have known—who in old age had turned back to the mythological themes of his youth but had left them unfinished, evoking them in a spirit that haunts the imagination more than it stirs the flesh.


The notion that especially in his last works (but also in many others) Poussin was exploring private beliefs in a language that could be interpreted only by initiates is now widely attributed to Anthony Blunt, whose fundamental but virtually unobtainable monograph of 1967 has happily just been reissued in a paperback edition.8 Journalists have long enjoyed titillating their readers by proposing, with varying degrees of sophistication or idiocy, that Blunt’s view of Poussin was directly inspired by his own activities as a spy: both, it is said, were cold, calculating men who kept their inner visions as secret as possible. Although Blunt was by no means the first historian to suggest that there was much more to Poussin’s pictures than could be seen by the ordinary amateur, and although his interpretations were in fact far more cautious than the wild speculations that have proliferated in recent years, based as they were on a coherent view of the artist that is often missing from current analyses, it is true that, when read with hindsight, certain pages of Blunt’s biography of Poussin will inevitably recall for us what we know of his life when he was writing them. But most scholars—as well as artists—reach their goals by devious routes. If Blunt’s espionage did indeed stimulate him to explore certain mysterious facets of Poussin’s life and art, this does not mean (as is invariably implied) that Blunt’s conclusions were wrong.

In any case, whatever Blunt’s own motives for his approach to Poussin—an approach that has been pursued with sometimes reckless enthusiasm by many later scholars whose political loyalties are not in doubt—there are at least two reasons for suggesting that it has a certain logic behind it. In the first place Poussin seems, more than most other artists of his time, to have been allowed by his patrons to choose his own subjects or, at the very least, to have been given a remarkably free hand in his treatment of them.9 And, secondly, his choice of subjects was usually original10 and his treatment of them sometimes so idiosyncratic as to demand elucidation.

If, before looking at specific visual evidence, we assume that Poussin (more than most other artists of his time) could have painted pictures with concealed meanings, we still have to ask why he should have done so or wanted to do so. One potential motive might have been that he, and by implication his art, did not conform to the religious orthodoxy of his time. Blunt emphasized that the circles in which Poussin moved included a number of “libertins,” and although he never went so far as to maintain that the artist was himself a freethinker, he did suggest that his Christian beliefs were combined with a more powerfully felt attachment to Stoicism. This view has been widely accepted, but also strongly challenged—most recently by Marc Fumaroli, the great scholar of French seventeenth-century literature and ideas and a distinguished student of the art of the period.11 Fumaroli goes further than any serious writer known to me in arguing that Blunt’s interpretation of Poussin was conditioned by his own double life as a spy; in a recent article he accuses Blunt of having “toned down or suppressed the extensive evidence of the painter’s attachment to the Jesuits” as part of his argument that Poussin covertly had unorthodox tendencies.12

Fumaroli’s article strikes me as very strange. Nowhere in Blunt’s chapter on “Poussin’s religious ideas” can I find even the remotest suggestion that he thought of Poussin as being, in Fumaroli’s words, “apparently perfectly adapted to his surroundings, while in his heart betraying it [the Establishment] for a cause known only to himself and a handful of confederates,”13 or as “a precursor of Enlightenment rationalism living under cover in the obscurantist Rome of his time.” Blunt, we are told, failed “to appreciate the philosophical riches of French Catholicism at the start of the century” as well as the fact that this “Stoic freethinker”14 belonged at the very heart of Roman tradition: namely, the religious philosophy of Neoplatonism, which aimed to “reestablish the continuity between the myths and wisdom of paganism, and the mysteries revealed by Christ and His Church.” As a concept with which to understand Poussin’s pictures this strikes me as being quite persuasive, though not more so than the ideas that Blunt did in fact propose, as opposed to the ones that are here attributed to him. It is, however, indicative of the complexity of the issues involved that Fumaroli’s article appeared at almost exactly the same moment as a brilliant article on the subject (starkly called “Poussin et Dieu”) by Jacques Thuillier in the catalog of the Paris exhibition.

“Was he a believer?” asks Thuillier, and after elaborating some of Blunt’s hesitations about this question far more boldly than Blunt himself ever did, he provides powerful circumstantial evidence to suggest (despite the emotional intensity of some of his religious pictures) that the answer could well be that he was not—or that, at the very least, Poussin was prepared to make use of imagery that could accommodate the possibly unorthodox views of some of his admirers. Among such pictures Thuillier singles out The Exposition of Moses (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum), painted in 1654 for Poussin’s friend the painter Jacques Stella, in which we see, hanging on a tree behind the figure of the Nile, the pipe and bent stick of Pan, the cymbals of Bacchus, and the quiver of Diana. As Thuillier acknowledges, the “idée audacieuse, mais jamais condamnée” of religious syncretism was perfectly acceptable to the devout, but it was more usually associated with free-thinkers who liked to exploit any available evidence that all religions and superstitions could be put on an equal footing.

In fact many years earlier, near the beginning of his career, Poussin had painted two pictures which have also been held to express the same philosophy. In both The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Munich) and The Death of Adonis (Caen) Adonis and Christ are portrayed in very similar poses, and this has encouraged the theory that the artist was consciously alluding to analogies between the myth of Adonis, who was born again as an anemone, and the resurrection of Christ. I find this much less convincing. The pictures are of different sizes and seem to have been created for different patrons, who would not have been able to appreciate the relationship between the two works; and it is surely one of the major errors of modern historiography to maintain that every time a painter borrows a pose either from his own earlier work or from that of some other artist, he must be intending to appropriate its ideological content as well as its form.

Although Poussin would not have had to rely on cryptic imagery of any kind if, like so many thoughtful people of his time, he had combined views derived from the Stoics with perfectly conventional Christian beliefs, he could nonetheless have chosen to paint pictures capable of conveying some particular significance to those who shared his views—views inaccessible to us, and perhaps even to contemporaries outside his own restricted circle of cultivated friends. This was, in essence, Blunt’s conception of him, and it is one that has been constantly repeated in later studies. The trouble is that it is almost as hard to unravel the philosophical principles that influenced the life and art of this so-called “peintre-philosophe” as it is to gauge the orthodoxy of his religious faith.

Malcolm Bull has pointed out how perfunctory are the allusions in Poussin’s (surviving) letters to the Stoical values that, we are told, meant so much to him.15 Those values were certainly not called upon for reassurance when he had to confront problems that caused him serious anxiety: it is instructive to compare the almost hysterical letter that he wrote in 1645, well after his return to Rome, when he heard that the French were trying to repossess the house in Paris that had been assigned to him on his visit there a few years earlier, with a famous letter of Rubens describing his agonized struggle, and failure, to seek comfort in the doctrines of Stoicism after the death of his beloved first wife in 1626.16 It is, of course, easier to adhere to Stoicism in theory, and to enjoin it on others, than to practice it oneself at times of great distress, and it is certainly true that some of Poussin’s noblest paintings (having to do with the death of the Athenian general Phocion and with Diogenes) were inspired by heroes who were deeply admired by the Stoics.

This, however, is hardly surprising because Stoic subjects were popular with nearly all the leading painters of the time. It is, indeed, more surprising to discover (as Bull has also noted) just how few were the specifically Stoic themes treated by Poussin; for to define as an example of Stoicism any story that pits restraint against indulgence, virtue against temptation, is to deprive the term of all significance. Blunt’s conception was far more profound than that. He argued that it was the Stoics who gave the traditional myths a new lease on life by transforming them into allegories of the physical phenomena of the Universe. What seems to us to be so intensely moving and, sometimes, so intensely mysterious about the late mythological pictures of Poussin results from the genius with which he was able to create convincing imagery to illustrate doctrines that to us are obscure or pedamic, but that to him and his friends were doubtless of real significance.

No picture is more haunting from this point of view than the wonderful Landscape with Orion (in the Metropolitan Museum), in which the blind giant, with Cedalion perched on his shoulders, strides clumsily—for he has to rely on his guides—toward the rays of the healing sun (see page 43). In 1944 E.H. Gombrich identified the literary sources of the painting in a famous article17—“just four pages long!” notes Rosenberg, whose wistful exclamation mark provides a telling comment on the endless and turgid sophistry through which he must have had to wade else-where when writing his catalog. Gombrich demonstrated that this picture had initially been stimulated by one described in late antiquity by the Greek writer Lucian, but that Poussin had also drawn on an elaborate explanation of the myth of Orion provided by the sixteenth-century Italian mythographer Natale Conti (Natalis Comes, as he chose to call him-self). This accounted for certain details in Poussin’s painting that were not recorded in the version Lucian claimed to have seen. Moreover, basing himself on the assumptions of the Stoics, Comes interpreted the whole myth in terms of meteorological phenomena: “The circulation of water in nature, which begins with the rising cloud around Orion and returns to the earth in the form of rain once it has touched the moon,”18 as Richard Verdi writes in his entry for the picture in the London exhibition catalog.

Gombrich’s seminal researches which, as Blunt correctly pointed out, “gave the clue to the meaning of the whole group of [late mythological] paintings” inevitably encouraged scholars to assume that Poussin was accustomed to making use of arcane symbolism in order to convey esoteric concepts which would be comprehensible only to a learned elite. In fact, this is just the conclusion that we are not entitled to draw, for, in a passage that has been ignored by all those who have drawn on his discussion of the picture, Gombrich points out that the Mythology of Natalis Comes was “one of the most popular reference books in vogue with poets and artists.”

The extent of Poussin’s reading impressed his contemporaries, but none of them seems to have implied that his imagery was difficult to understand. Moreover, he himself went out of his way to emphasize the contrary, at least in those of his letters that survive. Like Rubens he was keen to draw attention to the accuracy of his antiquarian researches, but success in this respect obviously depended on their being recognized and appreciated. “In this picture,” he writes at the end of a meticulous description of the exotic rituals to be seen in his Holy Family in Egypt (Hermitage), “I have put in all these things to give pleasure through their novelty and variety and to show that the Virgin is in Egypt.” Surprisingly, however, he does not refer to the fact that, having taken so much trouble over the priests of Serapis and the sanctuary of Ibis, he has included at the back of the picture what appears to be some of the most famous buildings in ancient Rome.

Poussin’s “mistakes” (inconsistencies, rather), which would attract little, if any, comment were they to be found in the works of most of his contemporaries, are disturbing because he often insisted that his pictures had been thought out with the utmost care. Was he perhaps alluding, in the Hermitage picture, to the eventual triumph of Christianity in Rome itself?19 The suggestion is given some weight because of the inclusion in the distance of a medieval tower surmounted by a very small and barely visible cross, but it is odd that he did not bother to mention this in his detailed letter.

It is odder still that in the Oxford Exposition of Moses the architecture is entirely Roman. Could this be because Rome appeared to provide a timeless setting for his biblical narrative? But what about the papal palace of the Belvedere set in the landscape in which we see the ascetic Diogenes renouncing the last of his worldly goods? Or the reconstructed temple of Palestrina in the hills above the (heavy-handed) satirical scene depicting Achilles disguised as a girl among the daughters of Lycomedes, and betraying his true identity by showing greater enthusiasm for manly weapons than for a casket of jewels? It will surely be very difficult indeed to detect the symbolism that could account for such inconsistencies. In the absence of any convincing solution to them, it seems that we can do little more than accept the hypothesis that Poussin was not always the idiosyncratic artist that he himself and his early biographers made out and that the degree of his commitment to syncretism or to archaeological accuracy may have varied according to the expectations of his clients. To acknowledge this will only appear disparaging to those who believe that the moral stature of an artist is in some way to be measured by the intellectual complexity of his sources.

The most famous “mistake” to be seen in a picture painted by Poussin seems to have been the responsibility of a patron. In an essay which is rightly acknowledged as a classic,20 Erwin Panofsky suggested that whereas in the earlier, lyrical but also agitated, version of his two paintings of The Arcadian Shepherds (Chatsworth) the words ET IN ARCADIA EGO inscribed on the tomb are obviously uttered by the skull placed above it (“I, Death, am to be found even in Arcadia”), in his second, calm and meditative, treatment of the subject in the Louvre, the same words come from a former inhabitant of that happy realm who is now buried in the tomb (“I too once lived in Arcadia”). Panofsky’s theory is based on a sensitive and wholly convincing analysis of the two compositions, but—as he points out—the Latin phrase cannot correctly be interpreted in the way required by his elucidation of the later picture. Since there is powerful evidence that this picture (like A Dance to the Music of Time) was prompted by Giulio Rospigliosi, it would seem either that the Latin of this cultivated poet (and later pope) was at fault or that he was prepared to sacrifice strict accuracy for the sake of an image which, of all those ever painted by Poussin, has found a central place in the imaginations of art lovers throughout the world.

Among those is the eminent anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss who, however, has restored Rospigliosi’s credentials as a scholar by challenging those of Panofsky as an iconographer.21 Lévi-Strauss suggests that the young woman at the right, draped in yellow and blue, whose hand rests on the shoulder of one of the half-clad rustics trying to decipher the words on the tomb, is not their companion, but the personification of Death or Fate, who invites them to read the inscription (“Even in Arcadia I am there at your side”). This proposal, which is backed up by some perceptive arguments, has the advantage of drawing attention to a feature of the picture which has hitherto attracted little, if any, comment: the statuesque woman does, in some ways and at first sight, seem to belong to a different world from the other figures.

Ultimately, however, I do not find Lévi-Strauss’s argument convincing. Her sandals are, after all, almost identical to theirs and close parallels to her stance and expression are not difficult to find among those of ordinary mortals in other pictures by Poussin. Above all, her gesture seems to be of companionship rather than of doom and her position in the symmetrical group persuades me that she forms an integral part of it and cannot be seen as a tragic interloper from another sphere of existence.


After his return from Paris to Rome Poussin seems, paradoxically, to have turned away from Italian artists (his was never a generous spirit) and even—though to a lesser extent—from Italian patrons. His apparent seclusion—apparent, because the evidence for it is so patchy—has had a profound effect on those who have thought about him and his art, and the wonderful exhibitions in Paris and London (and all the attendant literature stimulated by them) will probably have intensified the isolation in which he has almost invariably been studied. Even in his lifetime he became a symbolic figure for those who wanted to assert the cultural supremacy of France at the expense of that of Italy and of Flanders—and it may be that we would understand him better if we could dispose of the lingering, but potent, traces of such concerns.

He also satisfied the need for a painter whose supreme mastery of figure composition could (like that of Raphael) serve as the starting point for the education of later generations of young artists—and this was unfortunate because, unlike Raphael and Titian whose examples meant so much to him, the achievements of Poussin closed rather than opened avenues for artists—at least until the time of David.22 And his extraordinary sensitivity, imagination, thoughtfulness, and intelligence (though not, necessarily, learning) have often made his admirers attribute to him ambitions and accomplishments which lie perhaps beyond the true possibilities open to a painter. This is evident in some of the more bizarre interpretations that have been offered of his work in recent years, but also in a few that were made in his own day. “If The Arcadian Shepherds is the most popular of Poussin’s pictures,” writes Lévi-Strauss, “Eliezer and Rebecca seems to be the one that has especially inspired the connoisseurs.” It is certainly true that contemporaries devoted particular attention to it. Félibien, who claims to have been present when the idea for the subject came to Poussin, describes the circumstances that led to its creation:

The Abbé Gavot had sent to Cardinal Mazarin a picture by Guido Reni in which the Virgin is seated in the midst of a number of young maidens engaged in various activities. This picture [now in the Hermitage] is notable for the diversity of the expressions shown in so many noble and gracious features and for the agreeable clothes, painted in that beautiful style that belongs to Guido. Le Sieur Pointel saw it and wrote to Poussin to tell him how obliged he would be if Poussin would paint for him a picture which, like that one, was filled with a number of young girls in whom different kinds of beauty were to be seen. In order to satisfy his friend Poussin chose that passage in the Scriptures in which Abraham’s servant met Rebecca…

Félibien describes at length the masterpiece that sprang from such humble, almost trivial, origins, and every visitor to the exhibitions in Paris and London will surely have endorsed his admiration for the perfect arrangement of the individual figures and groups in it. It ranks with the Stanze of Raphael—though, of course, only on a small scale—in the appearance of ease with which Poussin has managed to devise a composition of the most harmonious balance without a trace of monotony. And yet, despite the claims of Félibien (perhaps echoing those of Poussin himself and in turn echoed by those of Rosenberg in his catalog entry), are we really able to “read” it also as a sort of narrative in which we can detect in the features of the handmaidens expressions of envy and surprise, gratitude and admiration, and so on? I doubt it. We know that issues of this kind were of great importance to Poussin and, still more, to Félibien and the Academicians in Paris,23 but the absence of either a written story to tell us what we should be looking for or of a set of widely recognized conventions, makes interpretations of this kind hazardous and often deceptive.

In London, especially, reactions against Anthony Blunt and an under-standable desire to attract large public support for the exhibition of an artist who is often dismissed as excessively dry and intellectual have encouraged a kind of publicity designed to glorify Poussin “as a painter.” This is obviously desirable in itself, though the excesses to which so apparently innocuous a phrase has sometimes led can be as misleading as the now derided view of him as a “peintre-philosophe.” We certainly know more about him than ever before: whether we know him better is not so sure. But it is hard to conceive of anyone having been to either or both these exhibitions without having been unforgettably enriched by the experience.

This Issue

March 23, 1995