“Reason in the grass and tears in the sky”—this lyrical sentiment was Paul Cézanne’s self-stated ambition for his art and referred directly to the paintings of the French classicist Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), whose landscapes are the subject of “Poussin and Nature; Arcadian Visions,” an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Viewers coming into contact with a Poussin painting, let alone 40 or so, will realize how high the bar is that Cézanne set for himself. While no painting is perfect, Poussin came close, and not a few times. The unremitting clarity ofLandscape With St. John on Patmos (1640), for example, is almost painful to look at. What an affront to mere expertise, what otherworldly portent and poetry. The possibilities of art seem to expand.
Poussin knew he was good and that knowledge led to risky behavior. Rather than suck up to French courtier and patron to the arts Paul Fréart de Chantelou, the artist chided him for “the frequentation of the many insensate and ignorant people that surround you” and their contribution to his faltering sense of taste. Poussin had chutzpah.
Born in Les Andelys to a family of meager means, Poussin exhibited a gift for art early on. Encouraged by a hometown painter, Poussin traveled to Paris to study art. Setting out for Rome, Poussin made it to Florence and turned back due to illness and poverty. Through the good graces of the poet Giambattista Marino, he made it to Rome, where he impressed the locals with his brush’s “felicitous fashion.”
Poussin established a rapport with Francesco Barberini, the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, and the Barberini family’s secretary Cassiano dal Pozzo, but found himself without patrons when the two men were sent on a mission to Madrid. Poussin pitched his paintings to the marketplace, thought about Roman sculpture, studied the figure and drew from nature with Claude Lorrain.
Poussin would eventually garner important patrons through the offices of Barberini and del Pozzo. Cardinal Richelieu was a client, as was Philip IV of Spain, who commissioned Landscape With Saint Jerome, and which is included at the Met. France’s minister of the arts bestowed Poussin with the title of premier peintre du roi. Shuttling between Paris and Rome, he accrued significant and sometimes possessive patrons in both places.
To get an idea of Poussin’s importance to world of art, consider Poussinisme, a stylistic category coined for paintings that shared similar attributes: linearity, local color, precision, remove, brushwork put in the service of designo and (as art historian Anna Ottani Cavina has it) “the absolute” and “geometries of silence.” “Rubenisme,” another historical grouping, is, as you might guess, everything Poussinisme was not.
The rift between the two schools is oversold—categorization is always an iffy proposition—but it proved volatile all the same. In 1671, for example, the French Academy underwent dissension within its ranks over whether color was more important than drawing. Delacroix and Ingres would continue this combative dynamic. Poussin was a drawing man, true, but he didn’t neglect his palette. It’s great in fact, filled, as it is, with crystalline reds, sumptuous greens, keening blues and, in The Nurture of Bacchus (1628), flesh tones that underline its sleepy eroticism.
Poussin’s arcadias are contrived and contained. The land isn’t tamed; it’s immaculately orchestrated. No phenomenon is indistinct. The ominous drift of clouds in Landscape With a Nymph and Sleeping Satyr (1627) is a Platonic ideal and not something to seek cover from. The three trees in Landscape With a River God (1625) tilt with Rockette-like precision. Nature’s drama is rendered immovable and its surfaces clean.
All the same, its munificence and independence is recognizable—not from artistic precedent, but from experience with the real thing. An artist set on distilling every stalk of wheat or the intricate jags of a rocky cliff had better know his botanical and geological p’s and q’s; otherwise immaculate artifice becomes cliché and our wonderment is diminished. Direct contact grounds abstraction. Poussin’s hand gave credence to nature’s integrity. Those outings with Watteau paid off.
There are no pure landscape paintings at the Met—nymphs, satyrs, Apollo, Midas, an achingly sexy bacchante and other mythological beings populate them; Biblical figures are less predominate. But in 30 or so ink and chalk drawings, Poussin brings nature to the fore with thrilling concision.Landscape With an Ancient City (c. 1645-47) is brought to fruition with whispery strokes of thinned ink. Elsewhere you see Poussin condense, rhyme and respond intuitively to the scene spread out before him.
Poussin died at the age of 71 after having not painted for a year. His shaking hand, long a problem, became pronounced; he could no longer handle a brush. This led to depression and, it would seem, obsession: Poussin told his future biographer that death occupied his every thought.
Well, not every thought—painting occupied him as well. “The goal of [painting],” he concluded, “is delectation.”
Met curator Keith Christensen, the exhibition’s co-organizer along with former Louvre director Pierre Rosenberg, is a local hero. His contributions to the city’s cultural life can’t be overestimated. Sienese painting, Mantegna, Caravaggio, Correggio, Artemisia Gentileschi and her father, Orazio, and now “Arcadian Visions”—he put these and other exhibitions together, and deserves a cheer. But, as Mr. Christensen would surely agree, you should save a bigger cheer for Poussin.
© 2008 Mario Naves
Originally published in the March 4, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.