|A dance to the music of time. 1640|
|Et in Arcadia ego (The Shepherds of Arcadia), second version, late 1630s, Louvre|
|The Inspiration of the Poet, 1629–30, Louvre|
Nicolas Poussin was born in 1594 in Les Andelys, a small town in Normandy. Although we know little about his upbringing and early career, he is said to have come from a noble but impoverished family and to have studied Latin in his youth, training that was to have great influence in his art. He became a painter sometime around 1612, and shortly thereafter moved to Paris, where he had some success but won scant distinction. His fortunes only significantly improved in 1622 when he came to the attention of Giambattista Marino, the celebrated Italian poet then at the Tuscan court of Marie de Medici. Marino recognized and encouraged Poussin's genius and arranged for the painter to move to Rome in 1624.
Poussin's first years in the Eternal City were very difficult; he was poor, and gravely sick with venereal disease, an illness that affected him for the rest of his life. Poussin's extraordinary gift for inspiring friendship aided him in overcoming the crisis. One friend, Jacques Dughet, a cook, nursed him back to health, and another, Cassiano dal Pozzo, a preeminent antiquarian in Rome, helped him to gain patrons and win commissions. In 1627 Poussin finished for Cardinal Francesco Barberini a pair of large history paintings, The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem and The Death of Germanicus, and from then on Poussin's reputation as one of the leading artists in Rome was secured.
Poussin took an intense interest in recreating the appearance of ancient paintings. To this end he often based his figures on classical sculpture and included evocations of the few remaining fragments of Roman landscape painting. He strove, too, for perfect accuracy in depicting the details of classical and early Christian costume, ritual, comportment, and architecture. This required considerable antiquarian research, frequently in consultation with Cassiano dal Pozzo and others. Yet it is important to see in this activity not only a desire for scientific exactitude; it also has the poignancy of reaching for an unattainable ideal. The artist Peter Paul Rubens, who was another friend of Cassiano dal Pozzo, wrote in 1637 that the "examples of the ancient painters can now be followed only in the imagination"—they were elusive like phantoms in a dream. Presumably for Poussin too the desire to recreate ancient painting had something of the character of fantasy.
It was in 1648 that Poussin began to concentrate on landscape painting and from then until his death in 1665 it remained a chief preoccupation.
|Spring. The Earthly Paradise|
|Summer. Ruth and Boaz|
|Autumn. The spies with the grapes.|
|Winter. The Flood|
The landscapes he made in these years have been recognized as a sublime achievement ever since their creation. Already in the seventeenth century they were cited as the supreme examples of a new "heroic" style of depicting the world. In nearly every regard they differ visually from the early mythological pictures. They are much larger in size, typically several times bigger than the pictures from the first years in Rome, and the figures are on a smaller scale relative to the setting, so that the depiction of the landscape becomes paramount. In tone and color as well they mark a striking contrast with the earlier paintings: rather than reds and browns as before, now cool blues and greens dominate, so that many of the late images are soothing to behold.
Poussin was frequently ill and the ravages of venereal disease left him with weak arms and trembling hands that became ever more difficult to control. One room in the exhibition displays a poignant group of late drawings whose broken and jagged marks show that by the end Poussin no longer could form a straight line or maintain steady contact of the pen on the paper. So acute was the infirmity that Poussin knew while making his last works that soon he would have to abandon painting altogether.
It was with this knowledge, and in the face of death, that in 1660 Poussin began his last great series of paintings, the Four Seasons... With this series, the artist ponders the primordial cycles of time and nature: each of the pictures represents not only a different season, but also a different hour of the day, and a different stage in human life, from creation to destruction. As so often before, Poussin here was inspired by Philostratus' Images, which ends with an account of a painting of the seasons.
In the translation Poussin read, that picture is a meditation on three themes—the art of painting, the beauty of nature, and the character of human destiny—the very subjects that preoccupied Poussin throughout his career, and of which he sought to give final expression in this last series. The full significance of such profound works has been discussed by scholars and critics ever since their making. What is not open to dispute is the fixity of attention and the seriousness of purpose with which he completed these sublime paintings. Joshua Reynolds, William Hazlitt, and Kenneth Clark have each compared Poussin with the epic grandeur of Milton, and looking at these works, I am reminded of lines from the conclusion of Il Penseroso, which was written in the 1630s:
And may at last my weary age
Find out the peacefull hermitage,
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every Star that heav'n doth shew,
And every Herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like Prophetic strain.
Like the narrator of the poem, Poussin contemplated human character and natural order in search of the essential and the eternal.
|Landscape with Saint Jean at Patmos (Late 1630s)|
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 take one's time—that time to which Poussin paid so much attention.... He wanted the time one might spend reading and absorbing a text and in understanding its significance or its message to be spent contemplating his paintings, with the same complete attention, the same concentration, the same reflection, the same emotional engagement.
The promise is that if you will look, you will find that Poussin's landscapes are magical paintings of unforgettable affective power.
Magical Painting of Poussin
By Andrew Butterfield
Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions
An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 12–May 11, 2008.
Images from Wikipedia