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Exhibitions/ Poussin and Nature

Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions

February 12–May 11, 2008

Exhibition Overview

French master Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) painted some of the most influential landscapes in Western art. In them, nature is viewed "through the glass of time" and endowed with a poetic quality that has been admired by painters as different as Constable, Turner, and Cézanne. This is the first exhibition to examine the landscapes of this great painter. It brings together about forty paintings, ranging from his early, lyrical, Venetian-inspired pastorals to his grandly structured and austere works in which the artist meditated upon Nature, its transformations and its renewals. An equal number of drawings are on view, the most luminous of which were done en plein air.

The exhibition is made possible by The Florence Gould Foundation and The Isaacson-Draper Foundation.

It was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao.

The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

When Poussin arrived in Rome in 1624, he was thirty years old and had a number of commissions to his credit, including an altarpiece for the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. That meant little in Rome, however, a city where social connections were as important as talent, and talent was readily available. More important was the association he established in Paris with the Italian poet Giambattista Marino, who, back in Rome, recommended Poussin to the papal treasurer, Marcello Sacchetti. Poussin was also introduced to the papal nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, and to his extraordinary secretary, Cassiano dal Pozzo. Cassiano was both a fascinating man and an avid collector, as keenly interested in the natural sciences as in classical culture. He became the central figure in Poussin's early career, commissioning a number of landscapes with mythological themes, including several in this exhibition.

Poussin's early works reveal a close study of the great sixteenth-century Venetian Titian, whose pastoral subjects were much admired. In the words of a contemporary, Poussin's early pictures are primarily of "bacchanals, satyrs, and nymphs taken from [the Metamorphoses of] Ovid and shown amid ruins and landscapes." Sometimes openly erotic, the paintings vary greatly in quality, with many hastily done for sale on the open market. Although written in the first century A.D., Ovid's Metamorphoses was easily one of the most widely read texts in Europe. Its stories concern the loves of the gods and the transformation of their human lovers into plants and animals. Frequently interpreted as allegories of the cycles of nature, these stories provided Poussin with a poetic basis for his art.

From his first years in Rome, Poussin made trips into the countryside to draw from nature, a practice that had become enormously popular, especially among Northern artists. For Poussin, who disliked the competitive Roman art scene and came to value tranquility above all else, nature was also a refuge. As one well-informed contemporary observed, "He avoided company as much as he could and left his friends in order to retire alone to the vineyards and most remote places in Rome. … It was during these retreats and solitary walks that he made slight sketches of things that he came across."

During his four-decade-long career, Poussin's drawing style and attitude toward landscape changed dramatically. If his figural compositional drawings—in pen and ink, over which he sometimes brushed washes to indicate the lights and darks—are fairly easy to identify, such is not the case with his drawings from nature. Although a naturally gifted draftsman, drawing was a means of analysis for Poussin as well, and his pen work can seem remarkably inelegant for an artist of his stature.

The intellectual ambition and compositional structure of Poussin's landscapes throughout the 1640s open a new chapter in the history of landscape painting. Poussin studied nature less to imitate its surface effects than to understand its laws. Similarly, he chose his subjects for their moral content or the range of emotions they encompassed rather than for their familiarity. No one explicates the intentions behind his work better than Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses, published in 1797:

A painter of landscapes in this style … sends the imagination back into antiquity; and, like the poet, he makes the elements sympathize with his subject: whether the clouds roll in volumes …; whether the mountains have sudden and bold projections, or are gently sloped; whether the branches of his trees shoot out abruptly in right angles from their trunks, or follow each other with only a gentle inclination. All these circumstances contribute to the general character of the work, whether it be of the elegant, or the more sublime kind. … A landscape thus conducted under the influence of a poetical mind, will have the same superiority over the more ordinary and common views, as Milton's Allegro and Pensoroso have over a cold prosaick narration or description.

It has been persuasively argued that Poussin embraced the tenets of Stoicism, with its emphasis on reason and detachment in the face of the "storms of life." This philosophy deeply informs his work.

Poussin's output during his last fifteen years of activity possess a clarity of composition counterbalanced by a profoundly poetic sensibility that characterizes his finest work. The various aspects of nature are explored through myth and legend; the figures are as though embedded in the landscape.

The pen work of these drawings gives poignant testimony to the shaking hand that eventually caused Poussin to abandon painting altogether. Paradoxically, this tremulousness confers on them a haunting beauty—the appearance almost of artlessness. One is reminded of Diderot's observation: "All that is true is not naïve, but all that is naïve is true, with an exciting, original, and rare truth. Nearly all Poussin's figures are naïve, that is, purely and perfectly what they have to be."

The landscapes painted by Poussin in the last decade of his career constitute one of the benchmarks of Western art. In them mythology and the stories of the Bible are transformed into allegories of the regenerative powers of nature. What the essay was for Michel de Montaigne, that great observer of human behavior in sixteenth-century France, landscape became for Poussin: a means for expressing his thoughts on life.

Through his mastery of light and formal structure, a mood is created, while to the attentive viewer the story suggests a chain of associations. Poussin expected viewers to "read" a picture much as we would a poem. And as with a poem, the meanings we draw from these profound masterpieces will depend very much on what we bring to them and the degree to which we allow ourselves to be seduced by their exalted language. Small wonder that they have had such a profound influence on later artists and poets, including that great poet of nature Wordsworth, who, we are told, admired "the unity of design that pervades them, the superintending mind, the imaginative principle that brings all to bear on the same end," further remarking that "he would not give a rush for any landscape that did not express the time of day, the climate, the period of the world it was meant to illustrate, or had not this character of wholeness in it."

In summer 1665 the great Roman sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini was in Paris working for Louis XIV. His companion during his stay was none other than Poussin's friend and patron Paul Fréart de Chantelou. Bernini spent much of his free time visiting the major monuments and outstanding private collections of Paris. Chantelou kept a diary that gives us insight into the kind of engaged viewing that Poussin's paintings inspired. The following quote from that diary describes Bernini's visit to Chantelou's house, where the high point was the examination of a series of pictures depicting the seven sacraments, which Chantelou kept in a separate room, behind curtains, to enhance the viewing experience.

I had uncovered the Marriage, which [Bernini] examined … in silence, drawing aside the curtain which hid part of a figure that is behind a column. They [Bernini and his sons] admired its qualities of grandeur and majesty and studied the whole with the greatest attention. Coming to details, they admired the nobility and the intentness of the girls and women whom he has introduced into the ceremony. … I had the Extreme Unction got down and placed it near the window so that the Cavaliere [Bernini] could see it better. He looked at it standing for a while, and then got onto his knees to see it better, changing his glasses from time to time and showing his amazement without saying anything. At last he got up and said that its effect on him was like that of a great sermon, to which one listens with the deepest attention and goes away in silence while enjoying the inner experience. … On getting up he declared, "Today you have caused me great distress by showing me the talent of a man who makes me realize that I know nothing". … At last he said, "In my opinion these pictures are equal to those of any other painter in the world."

Poussin's landscapes invite and, indeed, require this level of engagement.