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…


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