Nicolas Poussin: Venus Weeping for Adonis, 1626

Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen/Erich Lessing/Art Resource

Nicolas Poussin: Venus Weeping for Adonis, 1626

He was without doubt the dominant figure of seventeenth-century classicism, and many consider him to be the greatest French painter of all time. As an artist he is the equal of Corneille and Racine; however, his is not an art that appeals to popular taste. Everything about him is out of the ordinary. The exquisite beauty of his works remains esoteric.

Nicolas Poussin was born in 1594 in the little town of Les Andelys in upper Normandy. After 1612 we hear of him in Paris, Poitou, and Lyon. But his artistic career really began only when he moved to Rome at the age of thirty. With the exception of one brief interval, he would never leave Rome again. There he lived an almost reclusive life as a French exile until his death in 1665.

Under the Italian popes, the Rome of that time was a world stage for the European baroque. In a profound sense, it was a stage Poussin never set foot on. Its pomp was not just foreign but morally repellent to his stoic nature. He never sought grandiose official commissions, never decorated a palazzo, and painted only a few altarpieces. His most important patrons were neither the court nor the princes of the church, but learned antiquarians like Cassiano dal Pozzo in Rome and ennobled civil servants and educated merchants in Paris. For these collectors, who were often also his friends, he painted—slowly and with reflective attention—subjects from ancient history and mythology and from the Bible (remarkably often from the Old Testament). His paintings were not meant to be objects of devotion, much less of mystic rapture, but rather of meditation. He has been praised as a peintre-philosophe.

His first years in Rome, however, displayed a very different character. Rarely has a painter come so near the sounds and moods of poetry. He listened to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered with a sensitive ear and translated them into the sensuous fervor of his pictures. In the golden light of Aurora, for example, Venus drips nectar into the ears of her dead lover Adonis (Venus Weeping for Adonis, 1626).1 A consonance is struck between the pagan and the Christian world, a consonance to be found again and again in Poussin’s paintings to the very end.

In another picture, Echo and Narcissus (1628),2 we see a dying Narcissus whose form mirrors the dead Christ in a painting by Titian’s student Paris Bordone (The Dead Christ Mourned by Angels, circa 1545–1555).3 Myth and gospel are reflected upon and compared. It is a game between love, time, and death that reaches its culmination in a painting in which Flora, the goddess of spring, dances in the middle of her garden (The Empire of Flora, 1631).4 She is surrounded by a circle of mythological figures who all turned into flowers when they died: Ajax into an anemone and Narcissus, Crocus, and Hyacinth into flowers that bear their names to this day. Clytie, whose love for Apollo was unrequited, gazes up yearningly at his sun chariot. Beside her is a basket of sunflowers—tournesols in French. The cycle of time in nature is one of Poussin’s often-repeated themes.

While baroque painting in Rome was becoming increasingly flamboyant, Poussin’s visual vocabulary was growing more and more austere. The mythological and erotic themes of his early period disappear. Now he chooses subjects that allow him to present the passions and fates of humanity on the stage of history. Only now does he become the neo-Stoic painter whom some writers—not completely convincingly—have compared to Montaigne. In a comment on his famous painting The Israelites Gathering Manna in the Desert (1637–1639),5 he wrote, “You will have no trouble identifying those who languish, those who are astonished, those who have pity and show compassion.” Then comes the enlightening sentence “Read history and the painting to see clearly whether everything fits the theme.” It is an injunction that today’s art historians should also take to heart. Reading Poussin’s “rational” history paintings is a task that combines reason with sensitivity.

His choice of subjects can be surprising. Besides a modest number of paintings of Roman antiquity, he presents highly dramatic or wonderfully poetic scenes from Jewish history: Moses Exposed by the River (1654)6 before the silhouette of pharaoh’s palace or The Judgment of Solomon (1649),7 a picture that achieves declamatory focus through the emphatic gestures of its figures and the balanced distribution of color. Some have justifiably compared the painting to a play by Corneille.

Poussin does not follow the formulas of conventional iconography, and allegory is not his usual mode. He thought through his subjects on his own or in conversation with his learned friends. Up to his time, the sacraments of the church were represented only in consecrated locations—above an altar or a baptismal font. Poussin liberated them from this restriction and painted them twice in small-format pictures for private collectors. Not surprisingly, it was Cassiano dal Pozzo, the antiquarian scholar and secretary to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who first commissioned such an unusual series. He was motivated by Rome’s newly awakened interest in the early history of the church. When Poussin chose the Last Supper to represent the sacrament of the Eucharist, his assembled apostles are not seated at a table, but recline on couches in a Roman triklinium (The Seven Sacraments I: The Eucharist, circa 1636–1640).8


He did the same for the supper at the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7: 37–38), which represented the sacrament of confession (The Seven Sacraments II: Confession, 1647).9 Extreme unction takes place in an austere room and the agitated figures, including the priest, are dressed not in liturgical clothes, but in the robes of classical antiquity (The Seven Sacraments I: Extreme Unction, circa 1636–1640).10 In its second version (1644),11 the last rites are administered in the middle of the night and a circular Roman shield with the Christogram hangs on the wall above the dying man, an early Christian and a miles Christianus—a soldier of Christ. Thus the painter supplies images for the “Christian archaeologist.” He opposes the flamboyance of the Roman baroque with the severity and spirituality of the early church.

In his wonderful essay “On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin,” William Hazlitt wrote:

This great and learned man might be said to see nature through the glass of time…. 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.

For the stoic painter, Fortuna reigns over nature. Landscape and passion belong together like stage and play. Terrified humans flee serpents, storms, and lightning. While ominous clouds gather in the sky, Orpheus plays his lyre and Eurydice is bitten by a snake. As in his early mythological paintings, it is a play of love and death.

In his final years, Poussin began to have a tremor in his hands but in spite of it he still painted his most poignant landscapes. With The Four Seasons (1660–1664),12 he returned to the cycle of nature he had depicted in The Empire of Flora. The seasons were a frequent subject of art from ancient Greece and Rome to the eighteenth century. Poussin transformed the gods of antiquity, under whose reign the cycle was often depicted, into biblical similes. For Spring, he showed the Garden of Eden instead of Flora; for Summer he replaced the Roman goddess of agriculture Ceres with the biblical gleaner Ruth; for Autumn he exchanged Bacchus for the spies with the grapes from the Promised Land (Numbers 13: 16–27).

The question is, should we interpret these transformations as part of the history of salvation in the spirit of Saint Augustine, or as cultural-historical comparisons in the spirit of Cassiano dal Pozzo? Poussin’s cycle of the seasons ends with the simile of the Deluge: a bolt of lightning against the night sky, a hideous snake on the rupturing rocks, terrified humans in the tumbling masses of water. The Flood was divine punishment for moral corruption. With this image of catastrophe, Poussin’s career between the Bible and Stoicism reached its end. On November 19, 1665, 350 years ago, Nicolas Poussin died in exile in Rome.

—Translated from the German by David Dollenmayer