Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 20, 2000
Katie Scott and Genevieve Warwick Commemorating Poussin: Reception and Interpretation of the Artist Cambridge University Press, 1999. 240 pp. Cloth $85.00 (0521640040)

The evaluation of more or less heroic artists is still standard practice in studies of seventeenth-century French art. Consider, for example, the colloquium on Pierre Mignard at the Louvre in 1995, and the Georges de La Tour exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris from 1997-98. This focus on individual “masters” is, of course, hardly unusual in the discipline of art history. It seems, however, that many specialists of early modern French visual culture have not only remained dedicated to such an approach, but they have also paid regular homage to one artist in particular, namely Nicolas Poussin.

The persistent, even obsessive celebration of Poussin by art historians and other admirers is the subject of a recent publication, Commemorating Poussin: Reception and Interpretation of the Artist, edited by Katie Scott and Genevieve Warwick. As Scott notes in her introductory essay, the book itself directly participates in the continuing efforts to memorialize the painter. Its eight essays stem, after all, from a ten-week series of public lectures given in 1995 at the Courtauld Institute to complement the concurrent Poussin exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Scott goes on to argue that commemoration actually involves much more than the straightforward celebration of the past. The repetitive nature of the act demonstrates both a fear of forgetting and a sense of betrayal that can never be adequately allayed. Commemorating Poussin, she implies, is another testimonial to the absence of and longing for Poussin.

Scott’s lengthy introduction does not attempt to unify the diverse chapters that follow it. Instead, the author provides an insightful analysis of the public monuments dedicated to Poussin from the end of the eighteenth until the early twentieth century in Rome, Paris and his birthplace of Les Andelys. According to Scott, the earliest effigies of Poussin in Rome were primarily designed to reclaim the artist for France, even as they memorialized their patrons as much as—or even more than—the painter himself. Sculptures of Poussin in Paris, especially at the Louvre, a site of much “obsessive symbolic work” (18), were constructed for slightly different reasons. These monuments were meant to provide solid evidence of the movement of high culture from Italy to France, while positioning Poussin as the mythical origin of an independent French culture. Scott notes that practically all forms of political government celebrated Poussin and identified him with the French national spirit (however construed) because classicism could be associated with a range of meanings, from a rational style of moral instruction to an anti-establishment independence (17). Poussin, this introduction convincingly demonstrates, has long been a flexible site of memory, shaped more by present desires than his historical place (32).

The reader might well expect subsequent chapters not only to survey the various historical constructions of Poussin, but also to contemplate the ways in which the artist has more recently been reshaped for political, social or cultural ends. One might even assume that the authors themselves will consider, in a reflexive fashion, their own particular personal and scholarly investments in the commemoration of Poussin. The co-editor, however, ultimately retreats from these possibilities by suggesting that the essays in the volume partake of a different kind of remembrance:“If we may acknowledge that history more or less readily inherits the priorities of focus perpetuated and reinforced by commemoration, do we not also require that its stance be distanced and critical rather than cosy and affirmative?” (33). The work of the art historian is not self-serving, Scott argues, but can purify Poussin’s memory “by means of committed and searching historical inquiry regardless of the consequences” (33). The chapters in this book thus “clean up” the old monuments to Poussin and offer us more accurate and less flattering views of the artist. In the final line of her introductory essay, however, Scott also claims that “in the last analysis the past is irretrievable and the best that history can substitute is a horizon of probability” (37). At this point the reader is rather confused. How can a historical approach be “cleansing” and yet impossible at the same time? Are contemporary art historians inventing their own versions of Poussin or not?

I call attention to this apparent contradiction in Commemorating Poussin not to mount a criticism of the book, but because I think this tension remains at the root of much art-historical practice today. In other words, Scott has pointed to a problem within the discipline of art history. With the ever-increasing critical discussions about the nature of history writing, public memory, and museum practices, how can we continue to do business (i.e. art history) as usual? Should we, like Simon Schama, work to reshape the very understanding of what a historian does by blurring the lines between history and fiction (“story”)? Can those individual artists that we find so compelling (for reasons explored and unexplored) survive these critiques, or must we reluctantly abandon them? Will an artist like Poussin indeed become a hypothetical entity, forever encased in quotation marks?

The final essay by Michael Kitson comes closest, I think, to dealing with this dilemma head-on. He critically examines Anthony Blunt’s influential interpretation of Poussin, arguing that Blunt made the artist, at least to a certain extent, in his own image. Blunt emphasized in Poussin qualities that he had absorbed at University, namely “rationality, intelligence, learning, clarity, scepticism in matters of religion, exceptional powers of concentration, strength of mind and will, the subordination of emotion to reason, pleasure in friendship, and, not least, belief in the superior value of private over public life” (212-13). Kitson is willing to emphasize the imbrication of art historian with artist, of self with other, but does not, in the end, accept that Poussin has been entirely invented.

Most of the essays in between the introduction and Kitson’s “conclusions” in chapter eight are ultimately more concerned with “cleansing” than with the impossibility of “pure” history. In chapter two, Thomas Puttfarken argues that the inscription, De Lumine et Colore, on Poussin’s Berlin self-portrait (recently removed by a curator) was added between 1665 and 1678 by its then owner, Sérisier. This patron, deeply involved in the color versus drawing debate, wanted to claim Poussin as the true master of light and coloring, in contrast to those who would reduce the artist to dessin. Puttfarken argues that this broader vision of Poussin was likely a more accurate reflection of Poussin’s true thoughts on painting. In the next chapter, Claire Pace also attempts to understand Poussin within his contemporary context. She considers his work in terms of poetic inspiration and the humanist doctrine of ut pictura poesis in order to argue that the artist was as much a painter-poet as a painter philosopher. Charles Dempsey then revisits Le Brun’s reading of Poussin’s Ecstasy of Saint Paul (1649), made for Paul Scarron. He concludes that Poussin’s painting demonstrates three different states of grace, in dialogue with the contemporary debates between the Jesuits and the Jansenists about the nature of grace. In chapter five, Genevieve Warwick also employs textual sources to argue that Poussin’s use of historical detail was in keeping with the kind of contemporary history writing patronized by the Catholic Church. Todd Olson then explains Poussin’s shift from a sensuous handling of paint in the 1620s and 30s to a more difficult later style by investigating the political sympathies of his Frondeur patrons. Classical paintings that depicted siege warfare, like Coriolanus Entreated by his Mother (c.1650), “alluded to the Regency’s oppressive use of force against its people during the Fronde” (166). Richard Verdi, in the seventh chapter, considers modern interpretations of Poussin by the romantics and surrealists. Verdi argues that the more recent interest in the artist’s images of the monstrous Polyphemus replaced a rational Poussin with “one who inhabits a realm of fantasy and the imagination that is capable of evoking an irrational world” (200).

These essays certainly do offer different views of Poussin. He is alternately an innovative art theorist, poetical painter, theologian, politically engaged resistor of the monarchy and so on. A wider use of historical sources in part accounts for the changes. Dempsey refers to contemporary theological debates and Warwick invokes Agostino Mascardi’s treatise on history writing, while Olson employs the Mazarinades to good effect. At the same time, Poussin himself continues to anchor the most of the interpretations of his work, and several writers even attempt to determine his true thoughts (Semiotic readings like those offered by Louis Marin are notably absent). The Poussin who finally emerges from this collection is perhaps not so different from past incarnations. At once intellectual, painterly, and utterly learned, Poussin surfaces as a flexible master who is capable of anything. In the end, then, the heroic Poussin has survived intact; his monument has weathered another storm.

Lianne McTavish
University of New Brunswick