VIII. POUSSIN AND THE PAINTERS

French painting was still in bondage to Flanders and Italy. Flemish tapissiers dominated their art in Paris, and Flemish painters prospered in Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Montpellier, and Bordeaux. The best French portraits of this period were by Flemings in France: the lovely Elizabeth of Austria (now in the Louvre) by François Clouet, the proud Henry IV (in Chantilly) by Frans Pourbus the Younger, and, above all, the Riche-lieu of Philippe de Champaigne.

But the mastering influence on French painting in this period was Italian. Art students went to Rome, sometimes at the French government’s expense, and came back hesitating between the idealism of the sixteenth-century Florentines and the dark realism of the seventeenth-century Bolognese or Neapolitans. Simon Vouet, from the age of fourteen (1604), made such a name for himself as a painter that three countries competed for him. Charles I tried to keep him in London, but the Baron of Sancy took him on an embassy to Constantinople, where Simon made a remarkable likeness of Ahmet I from a secret study of the Sultan’s features in an hour’s audience given to the ambassador. Returning through Italy, Vouet fell in love with Venice and Veronese, then with Caravaggio in Rome, whose dukes and cardinals so favored him that he remained in Italy fifteen years. In 1627 Louis XIII, who had been paying him an annual pension of four thousand livres, summoned him to France to be court painter, and gave him an apartment in the Louvre. Soon all France wanted him. He decorated the chapel of Richelieu’s château, made an altarpiece for the Church of St.-Eustache, furnished designs for royal tapestries, and painted portraits for the court. Buried in commissions, he gathered aides into a school which grew into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture; there he trained and employed Le Sueur, Mignard, Le Nôtre, Bourdon, and Le Brun. His surviving works hardly vindicate his fame, but he has in French history the pivotal place of preparing the painters of the culminating age.

Three brothers, Antoine, Louis, and Mathieu Le Nain, varied the canvases of their time by picturing the life of the peasants with somber pity, finding in them the silent poverty and grim strength of seventeenth-century France. Georges de La Tour (recently exhumed by critical acclaim) also gave his brush to the lowly; his matching portraits A Peasant Man and A Peasant Woman stand near the top of paintings in these reigns; we may judge his current réclame by the $500,000 or more paid for his Fortuneteller by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (1960). Akin to this turning from court to cottage was the specific achievement of French painting in this age—the development of landscape as a major element in pictorial art.

The father of Nicolas Poussin was a soldier in the army of Henry IV. Quartered in the home of Nicolas Delaisement after the battle of Ivry, he married Nicolas’ daughter—a peasant woman who could not write her name—and tilled a farm near Les Andelys in Normandy. Their son learned to love fields and woods, and to catch some moment of them with pencil or pen. Quentin Varin came to Les Andelys to decorate a church; young Nicolas watched him eagerly and coaxed lessons from him in drawing and painting. When Varin departed, Nicolas, aged eighteen (1612), ran away to Paris to study art. There his months of near-starvation were glorified by finding Raimondi’s engravings of Raphael’s works. Here were two revelations for Nicolas: that line, not color, was the tool of art, and that Rome was art’s capital. For eight struggling years he tried to reach that citadel. Once he got as far as Florence, but, penniless, despondent, and ill, he returned to Paris. He tried again, but was stopped at Lyon by a creditor; he crept back to pay his debts and butter his bread by some minor painting in the Luxembourg Palace. In 1622 the Italian poet Giovanni Battista Marini, coming to Paris, employed him to illustrate the poem Adone. Poussin’s drawings won Marini’s approval, and some commissions. Nicolas painted portraits grudgingly and saved his francs reverently, and in 1624 he at last saw Rome.

Marini recommended him to Cardinal Francesco Barberini: “You will find here a youth who has demonic fury in him”—a young man “mad about painting” (to vary Hiroshige’s self-analysis). He was mad about Italy too, but not so much about the paintings of the Renaissance masters as about the perfection of fragments in the Roman Forum, and not about the frescoes surviving from antiquity but about Rome herself—her vistas, fields, trees, hills, her very soil. Like some later enthusiasts, he must have wondered why God had not let him be born in Italy.

Cardinal Barberini tested him with a commission to paint The Death of Germanicus; the result pleased, and soon Poussin had all he could do to meet the calls on his art. His patrons, lay or churchly, yearned for nudes; and for a time he appeased them with such feminine displays as The Triumph of FloraVIII for Cardinal Omodeo, and A Bacchanalian Scene for Richelieu. He settled down in Rome, married at thirty-six a girl of seventeen, and spent ten years of happiness with her and his oils. Then (1640) Richelieu and Louis XIII summoned him to Paris. “I shall go,” said Poussin, “like one sentenced to be sawn in half.”143 He was given high honors and a pension of a thousand crowns, but he was ill at ease in the rancorous competition of the Parisian artists. Surrendering rich prospects, he hurried back to Italy (1643). He bought a house on the Pincian Hill, next to Claude Lorrain’s, and there he remained till his death, quiet, domestic, absorbed, content.

His life, like his pictures, was a classic composition, a model of order, measure, and self-restraint. He had few marks of the artist except his tools; he was not an avid lover like Raphael, nor a man of the world like Titian, nor (despite Marini) a demonic genius like Michelangelo; he was a bourgeois who took care of his family and paid his debts. Cardinal Massimo, seeing his modest establishment, remarked, “How I pity you for having no servant!”—to which Poussin replied, “How I pity you for having so many!”144Every morning he walked on his hill; then all day he painted, relying on labor rather than inspiration. When, later, someone asked him how he had reached mastery, he answered, “I neglected nothing.”145

Considering his laborious and unaided methods, his production was immense. He must have painted four hundred pictures, for we know that some were lost, and 342 remain; add thirteen hundred drawings, of which Windsor Castle cherishes a hundred for their precision and purity of line. He did not excel in variety. Often his nudes are lifeless statues; we should have relished more sensuality. He was a sculptor using a brush; he tended to look upon women as sculptural figures—though at times he recognized them as the divine originals of art. “The pretty girls whom we see in the streets of Nîmes,” he said, “please our eyes and souls no less than the lovely columns of the Maison Carré, since these are only old copies of those.”146 Nor was he at home in Biblical subjects. Some he did well—The Philistine Struck Down at the Gates, and The Blind Men of Jericho; and how lovely, yet stately, are the women in Eliezer and Rebecca! His forte was classical mythology pictured amid classical ruins against a landscape of classic calm. He drew not from living models but from an imagination steeped in the love and illusion of an antiquity in which all men were strong and all women beautiful. See the perfection of the one female figure in The Shepherds of Arcady, which Poussin, on Colbert’s order, painted for Louis XIV. And note, in passing, the inscription on the shepherd’s tomb: Et ego in Arcadia—”I too [was once] in Arcadia”; was this Poussin dreaming that he too had lived in Greece with Orpheus and the gods?

The Funeral of Phocion is the most powerful of Poussin’s mythologies, but Orpheus and Eurydice, is the most moving, perhaps because we recall Gluck’s despairing strains. The romantic soul is disturbed to find the story so lost in the landscape. For in truth it was not man that Poussin loved, nor woman either, it was the chastening expanse of fields, woods, and sky—all that encompassing panorama in which change is leisurely or shamed by permanence, and human ills are swallowed up in the perspectives of space and time. Therefore his greatest pictures are landscapes, in which man is as minor an incident as in Chinese painting or modern biology.

These landscapes are majestic, but monotonous. We should hardly distinguish one from another if Poussin had not thrown in some identifying figures or a careless title. He loved line wisely but too well; he neglected the gamut of color, playing too much on brown; no wonder later artists have rebelled against this “brown sauce” dripping from his trees. And yet those softly lighted, softly colored vistas, so unsatisfying to a Ruskin fascinated by Turner’s glare,147 are a relief after the ideological fermentation of painting in our time. Here is the classic conception of beauty as the harmony of parts in a whole, not the youthful idea of art as “expression”—which might be a child’s daub or a hawker’s cry. Amid mannerism and baroque, and against the force and sentiment of Italian painting in the seventeenth century, Poussin clung to the classic ideal of nothing in excess: no shouting colors, no tears, no bizarreries, no theatrical contrasts of light and shade. It is a masculine art, resembling Corneille rather than Racine, and Bach more than Beethoven.

The self-portrait that he made in 1650 shows his eyes a bit weary, perhaps with painting or reading by scant light. He read much, seeking to know the life of ancient Greece and Rome in sedulous detail; not since Leonardo had an artist been so learned. As he entered old age he found his eyes weakening, his hand unsteady. The death of his wife at fifty-one (1664) cut a living bond; he survived her but a year. “Apelles is dead,” wrote a friend. On or near the tomb in the parish church of San Lorenzo, Châteaubriand (1829) raised a marble monument as one mortal immortal to another:

F. A. de Chateaubriand
à

Nicolas Poussin
Pour la gloire des arts et l’honneur de la France

His closest rival as a landscape painter was his neighbor but friend, Claude Gellée, named Lorrain from the province of his birth. He too felt the urge to Italy, accepting any position, however menial, to get there and live there, where every turn of the seeking eye revealed some monument of Christian art or some inspiring fragment of antiquity. In Rome he apprenticed himself to Agostino Tassi, mixed colors for him, cooked for him, learned from him. He made a thousand tentative drawings, and etchings now prized by connoisseurs. He worked slowly and scrupulously, sometimes a fortnight over one detail. At last he too was a painter, fed with commissions from appreciative cardinals and kings. Soon he had his own home on the Pincian Hill, and he shared with Poussin in meeting the new demand for natural scenes.

He responded willingly, for he loved the land and sky of Rome so passionately that often he rose before dawn to watch the daily creation of light, to catch the stealthy changes of light and shade made by each emerging inch of the sun. Light was to Claude no mere element in a picture; it was his major subject; and though he did not care, like Turner, to look into the very face of the sun, he was the first to study and convey the spreading integument of light. He grasped the intangible play of air upon fields, foliage, water, clouds; every moment of the sky was new, and he seemed bent on having each fluid moment still itself in his art. He loved the tremor of sails meeting the wind, the majesty of ships riding the sea. He felt the lure of distance, the logic and magic of perspective, the longing to see, beyond the visible, the infinity of space.

Landscapes were his only interest. On Poussin’s advice he inserted classical structures—temples, ruins, pedestals—into his pictures, perhaps to give the dignity of old age to a passing scene. He consented to add some human figures to Nature’s panorama, but his heart was not in these excrescences. The figures “were thrown in for nothing”; he “sold his landscapes and gave away his figures.”148 The titles and the stories they suggested were concessions to minds that could not feel the miracle of light and the mystery of space without the grace of Christian legend or some tag of classical tales. But in reality there was for Claude only one theme—the world of morning, noon, and eventide. He dowered the galleries of Europe with fond variations, whose names mean nothing, but whose pantheism is a mystic marriage of poetry and philosophy.

We may admit to Ruskin149 that Claude and Poussin show Nature deceptively in her gentler moods, missing her grandeur and ignoring her furies of pitiless destructiveness. But through their work a great tradition of landscape painting had been established. Now more and more this would compete with figures and portraits, with Biblical and mythical scenes. The way was opened for Nature’s procession from the Ruisdaels to Corot.

Richelieu and national unity, Corneille and the Academy, Montaigne and Malherbe, de Brosse and Mansart, Poussin and Lorrain—this was no scanty harvest from a land at war. Louis XIV would now stand on that rising heritage and preside over France in her greatest age.


I.The first edition, 1580, contained Books I and II; the second, 1588, expanded these and added Book III; the third, containing his final revision and edited by Mlle. de Gournay, appeared in 1595, after his death. The nine editions between 1580 and 1598 attest their popularity.

II. “But she was of the world, where the loveliest things have the saddest destiny. Herself a rose, she lived as lives the rose, a morning’s hour … Death has compulsions nowhere paralleled; we pray to it in vain; cruelly it closes its ears and lets us cry. The poor man in his cabin, under a thatched roof, is subject to its laws; and the watch that guards the Louvre’s gates cannot keep him from our kings.”

III. Dreaming philosophers, prattle loftily; without budging from the earth-leap to the stars; make the whole firmament dance to your tune, and weigh your discourses in the scale of the sky…. Carry a lantern into the recesses of nature; know who gives the flowers their lovable hues; … decipher the secrets of heaven and earth: your reason deceives you as well as your eves.”

IV. “I have lived without a thought, letting myself go sweetly by nature’s good law; and I know not why death should think of me, who never deigned to think of her.”

V. El Cid (i.e., Sayyid, noble) was the title given by the Moors to Rodrigo Díaz, the half-legendary hero who shared (c. 1085) in restoring Spain to Christ.

VI. “I am a Roman, alas, since Horace is a Roman; I took that title in receiving his hand; but this bond would hold me a chained slave if it closed my eyes to the place of my birth. Alba, where I first breathed the day, Alba, my dear land and my first love, when I see war declared between you and ourselves, I dread our victory as much as our defeat. If, Rome, you complain that this is to betray you, give yourself such foes as I may hate. When I see from your walls their army and ours, my three brothers in the one and my husband in the other, how can I form my prayers and, without impiety, importune Heaven for your felicity?”

VII. Note the fine specimens in the Wallace Collection in London and the Frick Collection in New York.

VIII. All Poussin pictures named are in the Louvre unless otherwise indicated.

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