Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 29, 2009
Pierre Rosenberg and Keith Christiansen, eds. Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions Exh. cat. New Haven and New York: Yale University Press in association with Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008. 432 pp.; 232 color ills.; 10 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300136685)
Exhibition schedule: Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao, October 8, 2007–January 13, 2008; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 12–May 11, 2008
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Nicolas Poussin. Landscape with Diogenes. Oil on canvas. 63 x 87 in. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures (Inv. 7308).

Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions brought to New York City about forty paintings by Nicolas Poussin, along with a group of drawings by the artist and some of his contemporaries, for a superb exhibition devoted to an aspect of his work better known to specialists than the general public.1 Beautifully paced and hung, the exhibition was large enough to do justice to the subject without being overwhelming. A group of mainly small paintings from Poussin’s early years in Rome filled the first two rooms, and introduced the theme with his first experiments and successes in landscape painting. The visitor could then turn left and study some of the drawings, or right to begin the sequence of his paintings in the two large galleries where they were arranged. The first large gallery was devoted to paintings made in the 1630s and 1640s, which are increasingly complex in conception and execution as well as much larger than those in the first two rooms. A connecting hall, which also had three paintings and access to another room of drawings, brought the visitor to the largest and most ambitious of Poussin’s landscapes, all made after 1650. Two of the set of the Four Seasons from the Louvre, the artist’s last completed works, made between 1660 and 1664, ended the exhibition.

The natural daylight in the two big rooms brought these canvases alive: seeing one of them in its home base two months later, it seemed diminished by the relative lack of light. The presence of the Landscape with Three Monks (cat. no. 53) from Belgrade was a treat for Poussin’s admirers as it has rarely been seen, even by specialists. It was restored for the show by Michael Gallagher (the photograph in the catalogue shows it before conservation). It is still a dark painting, but the grandeur of the design with most of the middle ground in shadow powerfully conveys its theme of contemplative isolation. Louvre’s Diogenes Casting Away His Bowl (cat. no. 62) has never seemed so spacious and full of observed nature as it did here. The pebbles along the edge of the water near Diogenes’s feet and the reflections of others below and above the surface of the shallow pond’s edge draw attention to his bowl, his bare feet, his abstemious way of life, and his young companion drinking from his cupped hand, unaware that his simple act is being observed and is a moment of great consequence to that observer (a full-page detail on page 269 is one of many superb color illustrations in the catalogue). The dating of the Diogenes as early as 1648, following André Félibien, was challenged in the exhibition by hanging it in the last room with works of the 1650s, a dating long preferred by many specialists, and now accepted by Rosenberg too. On another wall in the same room, the enormous Storm Landscape with Pyramis and Thisbe (cat. no. 57) held its own, and made the Spring and Summer from the set of the Four Seasons seem correspondingly small: they are in fact about half the size of the former, which is the largest of all of his paintings in which landscape plays a major role. The wording is deliberate because it may be argued that Poussin never painted a landscape as that term is usually understood, namely, that landscape is the subject, and human figures, if present, add little but scale. The exhibition’s title, Poussin and Nature, implied as much, though the added phrase, Arcadian Visions, suggests entirely pleasant views, which is deceptive as two depict storms.

Landscape paintings were becoming increasingly popular among collectors of many social levels in both Italy and northern Europe by 1620, but critics and artists’ biographers did not pay them much heed, even when made by artists whom they admired and promoted. Poussin was certainly aware of the ambiguous status of this genre when he reached Rome in 1624. It is significant that his landscape paintings after 1645 were almost all made for a small group of French patrons from Lyon who lived in Paris, above all Jean Pointel (d. 1660). Poussin’s early landscapes differ in important respects from the prevailing idiom: even his smallest figures are larger in relation to the overall format than those in the works of landscape specialists then working in Rome, yet not so much larger that the viewer’s first response is to them alone. They also represent mythological subjects rarely if ever seen in earlier landscapes. The slightly larger scale enables him to show enough of a head or hand to convey the emotions of his figures as they contemplate their fate or lessons learned. Venus, who knew what would happen to Adonis if he went hunting, kneels beside his dead body, preparing to clean his wounds before getting into her carriage where her doves are waiting (cat. no. 8). In the fading light of a momentous day, Midas meditates after rinsing away the curse of turning everything to gold, as a young man washes his face in the same spring (cat. no. 15). Almost always Poussin chose subdued light for these works, sometimes dawn, but more often the fading light of evening implying that a tale has ended. These two paintings are well known, but such perfect visual realizations of these myths cannot have been achieved without many experiments and false starts, some of which have been identified and published recently. If at first sight they seem unworthy of Poussin, for example the little Narcissus (cat. no. 16) that looks as if it took barely an hour to put down on canvas, they are acceptable as early works, for Poussin only learned to paint after leaving Paris, spending some months in Venice and settling in Rome in 1624. He was already thirty.

There is a pause in Poussin’s production of landscapes in the 1630s until the commission to contribute one (cat. no. 30) to the series of large landscape paintings made for Philip IV’s new Palacio del Buen Retiro in Madrid, along with every significant landscape painter then working in Rome. Unlike the generic and quickly painted plant life in works from the 1620s, the outdoor settings of all his paintings in the 1630s show close study of various kinds of plants and trees, and wonderful distant views. In 1640, he painted two medium-sized canvases depicting St. Matthew and St. John the Evangelist (cat. nos. 35 and 36), each in carefully structured outdoor settings, unprecedented for Matthew when taking notes from an angel. The one for John is based, as Willibald Sauerländer shows in the catalogue, on a careful reading of the sources about his life in exile on Patmos. It shows the cave behind him where he lived, and, in the middle distance, the town of Scala with Mount Elias beyond. Both works reveal much thought about how outdoor settings can explicate texts and enhance the deeper meaning of the subject, as does the Prado painting, where competing against many of his peers, Poussin took special care to do his best.

The essays accompanying the catalogue are intended not only to bring the serious reader up to speed in the world of Poussin and the genre of landscape, but also to offer some new insights. Keith Christiansen’s passion for the subject permeates his long and thoughtful essay, “The Critical Fortunes of Poussin’s Landscapes,” which discusses the variety of responses to Poussin’s landscapes since the seventeenth century. Christiansen is intrigued by the role of Pointel, who owned ten landscapes as well as eleven other paintings by Poussin when he died in 1660, the last of which may have been commissioned only three years earlier. By then most of them had been taken out of their frames and stored in an attic above the modest quarters near St. Germain l’Auxerrois, where he passed away (Jacques Thuillier and Claude Mignot have suggested that Pointel, who was a banker, lost money during the Fronde, possibly after lending substantial sums to his brother [Jacques Thuillier and Claude Mignot, “Collectioneur et Peintre au XVIIe: Pointel et. Poussin,” Revue de l’Art 39 (1978): 40]). Both Christiansen and Sauerländer quote splendid passages from William Hazlitt’s essay on Poussin’s landscapes, published in 1821, as the most sympathetic response to them since those of Félibien (1685). Fine as Hazlitt’s essay is, it is short, and Félibien’s few comments beyond subject and date are even briefer. Serious interest in them really begins in 1944 with Anthony Blunt’s essay, “The Heroic and the Ideal Landscape in the Work of Nicolas Poussin” (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 7 (1944): 154–68) and Ernst Gombrich’s solution to the theme of the Orion (cat. no. 63) (“The Subject of Poussin’s Orion,” The Burlington Magazine 84, no. 491 [February 1944]: 37–41). This interest has grown exponentially ever since, but the exhibition catalogue is the first catalogue or monograph devoted to the landscapes alone.

Alain Mérot’s catalogue essay, “The Conquest of Space: Poussin’s Early Attempts at Landscape,” seems aimed at readers new to the subject, as is René Demoris’s “From the Storm to the Flood,” which considers Poussin’s less Arcadian works. Anna Ottani Cavina’s essay, “Poussin and the Roman Campagna: In Search of the Absolute,” points out that the countryside Poussin depicts does not reflect reality, for it was a desolate terrain of marshes that barely sustained grazing animals, let alone profitable crops like wheat. Claire Pace’s contribution, “‘Peace and Tranquility of Mind’: The Theme of Retreat and Poussin’s Landscapes,” explores the literary sources of a constant motif in these works. Sauerländer makes many convincing suggestions about figures and settings in his contribution, “‘Nature through the Glass of Time’: A Reflection on the Meaning of Poussin’s Landscapes.” His explanation for the figures in the foreground of Polyphemus and Galatea (Hermitage, St. Petersburg) seems so obvious that one wonders how they could have been dismissed as mere nymphs and shepherds. Instead viewers can now see Galatea hiding with her lover Acis and her mother, rather than out at sea, hidden by a promontory, while Polyphemus serenades her from his mountain perch, all as described by Ovid. The craggy peak where Cacus hid his stolen cattle in a cave until Hercules arrived and killed him (Landscape with Hercules and Cacus, Pushkin Museum, Moscow) does not look at all like the Aventine today, and, as even Sauerländer notes, the Tiber looks like a calm lake, not a river; but his quotes from Virgil’s Aeneid and Livy provide possible explanations for the calm surface of the water and the identities of the women in the foreground. He proposes that Carmenta, mother of Evander, is the woman with a blue and red head covering, and that Diana, who was worshipped in a temple on the Aventine, is the standing woman on the right next to an oversized quiver with arrows. Diana is usually shown with a half-moon above her forehead, not leaves, and does not expose so much of her body except when caught bathing with her companions, so not all may agree. The size of the quiver also seems more appropriate for Hercules than for her.

Chronology is still an issue for some of Poussin’s landscapes. The Landscape with Juno, Argus and Io (cat. no. 26) belonged to Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani and thus was painted before his death in 1638. Rosenberg’s catalogue entry merely notes the dates suggested by Blunt (1636–37) and Thuillier (1634), but its position in this room implied a dating in the 1630s. At the Met’s scholars’ day, I suggested that it should be dated in the 1620s, where it makes an excellent match in design, palette, and detail with some of the first works in the exhibition, even nos. 1 and 2, Apollo and a Nymph and the Death of Eurydice. (They are reproduced on facing pages in the catalogue, and use a panorama with Prussian blue on the distant mountains framed by groves of trees in the foreground that in simpler form replicates that of the Juno, Argus and Io, which is roughly twice the size of these canvases combined. Many other formal and color parallels could be noted.) It looked out of place with works of the 1630s, when Poussin’s technique becomes far more refined and controlled. Given a commission by this important patron, Poussin used the extended horizontal format of the overdoor to make his most ambitious landscape to date. He also enriched the subject not only by showing a moment in the story not used before but also by adding figures on the left, where Venus reclines calmly with some nymphs. Their mood of detached contemplation echoes Juno’s quiet smile of victory as she gathers up the eyes of Argus for her peacock’s tail. Poor Io, still trapped in the body of a white cow, looks back as she runs away, wondering what will become of her next. These gods merely toy with mortals.

The setting of the Prado canvas, best identified as Landscape with a Hermit Saint (he lacks the standard attributes of St. Jerome), is a more somber treatment of a landscape in the beautiful Nurture of Jupiter in Dulwich of around 1634–35, which is more sunlit and allows viewers’ eyes to escape to the distance, where the enemies of the infant god may be lurking. It is the one figure painting whose addition to the exhibition would have added more than any other, showing how Poussin had mastered through long observation both the microcosmic and macrocosmic aspects of the natural world, and how easily he could now move from dominant landscape with a single figure to landscape as a setting for a narrative that the figures control. Pointel’s Finding of Moses (cat. no. 41), on the other hand, while a work of great importance in Poussin’s career for other reasons, could well have been omitted. It is a strangely monochrome work as a result of the setting darkening far more than the figures that stand out against a dull brownish backdrop into which the warm brown robes of Pharaoh’s daughter disappear. It is hard to see a “haunting morning light” (Rosenberg in his catalogue entry, p. 223) in this work in its present condition. Elsewhere too many descriptions by both past and present admirers of Poussin’s landscapes indulge in ekphrasis as they strive to make these works more appreciated. Even Poussin himself, describing the Pyramus and Thisbe in a letter to his friend Jacques Stella, mentions dust storms that are nowhere to be seen. The constant praise of Poussin’s lighting, which has none of Claude’s specificity to times of day or the degree of cloud cover, seems excessive: Poussin was certainly sensitive to light effects, and studied reflections in water with scientific care, as Denise Allen and David Jaffé have shown (Denise Allen and David Jaffé, “Poussin’s A Calm and A Storm,” Apollo 147 [June 1998]: 28–34), but his overall light is idealized and generic much of the time, like his trees.

Few of the paintings in the exhibition were controversial, but some were included to invite fresh responses to their status in the literature. The most difficult of these for me to resolve was the small painting from the Prado, Landscape with an Ancient Tomb (cat no. 40). The thick, dark green masses of trees to left and right with highlighted tips of leaves used to shape their silhouetted masses come very close to those in the Landscape with the Gathering of Phocion’s Ashes, which in New York hung nearby, but not to the advantage of the smaller work. The tonal contrasts seemed too strong, the color a bit too bright, and the spatial recessions oddly constricted by a scheme that blocked the viewer’s access to the distant areas. Would a temple have been built where its facade was almost entirely concealed from the approaching visitor by an inchoate mass of sandy soil and grass? Was it an experiment that allowed Poussin to try out stronger tonal contrasts made before he tackled the pair devoted to Phocion? The Prado painting is not as bland as the work of Jean Lemaire usually is (and to whom this painting had been attributed before), but if making it taught Poussin that “less is more,” as it surely is in the Gathering of Phocion’s Ashes (cat. no. 43), then maybe it should be accepted as an experiment of a different kind made a decade later than similarly scaled landscape studies with genre figures that preceded his first masterpieces of the 1630s (cat. nos. 28 and 29). The attributions of these to Poussin have, however, never been doubted.

There are still enigmas to resolve, above all that of the painting chosen for the cover of the catalogue, the Prado’s Landscape with Travelers (cat. no. 52). Is it Diogenes abandoning Sparta for Athens, as Charles Dempsey has proposed (Charles Dempsey, “The Greek Style and the Prehistory of Neoclassicism,” in Elizabeth Cropper et al., Pietro Testa, 1612–1650: Prints and Drawings, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988, xxxvii–lxv)? Is it an allegory of life’s journey and the choices made when the path ahead is unclear? Is that huge cave in the right distance the mouth of hell, and does the town on the left have a church with a small bell tower? Since Poussin made it, few scholars are willing to think of it as a casual assembly of motifs depicting a walk in the countryside of ancient Greece or Italy. Its most remarkable feature is the mound of land that blocks visual entry into the pictorial space, without precedent in landscape painting, I believe, and almost passive-aggressive in its effect. The path on the left seems dangerous: there is only a narrow ledge with a steep slope beyond the dead trees in the foreground. There is water in the foreground too, so even choosing to pass on the right side past another dead tree stump is not simple. The two men seeking directions can barely be seen. The reclining man giving directions wears crimson and lapis blue, and these bright colors lift the viewer’s eyes over the visual blockade. He suggests that the enquiring couple, dressed in dull hues, who face and point right, should turn back and go to the town in the left background. This dilemma is echoed in the group just behind them and slightly to the right, where color once more draws attention to the man in blue who has put his red cloak over his white horse’s saddle. He looks to the left, his companion to the right. There are two prominent dead trees in the left foreground, from which a few thin branches still produce leaves. On the right near the white horse is a healthy young tree, but there is also a dead stump in the right foreground. So which side represents the virtuous choice, and which the path of vice? Is it the choice between life in a city and life in the country, between worldly concerns and private meditation? Its original patron is not known, but even that knowledge would probably not resolve these questions.

The title of the exhibition, Poussin and Nature, implies correctly that Poussin’s attitude toward the genre of landscape painting differed from that of his contemporaries. He reflected deeply about the relationship of humans to the natural world, and as his work evolved found that outdoor settings gave his narratives a breadth of meaning not possible in the closed stages of interior rooms. His four paintings of the seasons, which interweave moral lessons from pre-Christian texts with universal themes about the passage of time and the inevitability of death, constitute an extraordinary summa of his goals. Rosenberg laments in his introduction that audiences who flock to shows of French Impressionism do not have the patience to absorb slowly the achievements of Poussin. This exhibition gave the public a chance to spend time with an exceptional group of canvases that are more accessible than many of Poussin’s later history paintings. These landscapes have enchanting passages of natural beauty that pull viewers into his world to consider the moral lessons that the artist believed all serious paintings should contain. Maybe Poussin will never attract the crowds that queue for names like Vincent van Gogh, but the two curators of this exceptional exhibition surely prefer a quiet expansion of patient admirers to throngs of viewers spending a few seconds in front of each work.

Ann Sutherland Harris
Professor Emerita, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh

1 The exhibition’s first venue was the Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao. Some of the drawings and a few of the paintings could not be shown in both places. I saw it only in New York. Works in the catalogue mentioned in the review are identified by the catalogue number, others by their location.

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.