Just Looking

Just Looking

Mapping the difficulty, danger and beauty in the art of Nicholas Poussin.


I had never, until quite recently, been able to work up much enthusiasm for Nicholas Poussin’s art, despite the fact that friends whose judgment I respect–David Carrier and the late Richard Wollheim, philosophers and art critics both–have esteemed no artist more highly. A few months ago, however, an invitation arrived to the press opening of an exhibition of Poussin’s landscapes, and it featured a reproduction of one of his late paintings, which struck me as so beautiful that I fell in love with it immediately–like Tamino with the portrait of Pamina in The Magic Flute. What could I have been using for eyes? The beauty was immediate and global. Nothing in the painting compelled me to love it, though its depiction of an immense field of golden grain illuminated by a dramatic sky was at once luminous and breathless. When I looked more closely, I found details that put me off, but they somehow didn’t diminish the work’s beauty.

Poussin, who died in 1665, is viewed as a difficult artist, mostly because of the dense screen of allusions that falls like a cataract between viewer and painting. How can one respond to his work without mastering the specialized literature on his sources, artistic and intellectual, and his subtexts? Recently, T.J. Clark, a formidable theorist of art, looked hard and long at two Poussins that were at the Getty when he was a resident fellow there, just to see what meanings the paintings alone might yield without benefit of scholarly glosses. The paintings, both of which are included, together with the one that so moved me, in the great exhibition “Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until May 11), pretty much declare their meaning at once. Poussin shared an impressive literary culture with his French and Roman patrons, yet to repeat Clark’s experiment and scan Landscape With a Calm and Landscape With a Man Killed by a Snake for stubborn disclosures really obscures the experience, not to mention the pleasure, of looking at them. In Landscape With a Calm, a spirited horse is barreling out of a barn. Certain scholars cite Plato’s Phaedrus, in which the horse is a metaphor for the human soul, as a key to the painting. But why think there’s more than meets the eye here–an achingly beautiful day, in which life just goes peacefully on? Since Plato, in fact, spoke of two horses, isn’t there a problem of the missing horse in Poussin? If the horse stands for the soul, what do other things in the painting denote? There is a pendant to Landscape With a Calm, namely Landscape With a Storm, and it has no deeper message than what’s proffered by a boilerplate newspaper editorial after some fierce storm: we can’t take Mother Nature for granted. The sweetness of life under calm skies is certain to give way to thunderheads and high winds.

The painting that so moved me, that made me feel I must see it no matter what else I saw this season, is a set piece about summer in the Four Seasons, from late in Poussin’s career. Each season is a setting for a scene from the Old Testament. All four works are in the Louvre, Louis XIV having won them in a tennis match, but only Summer and Spring were, for physical reasons, able to travel to the Met. Autumn shows two men carrying an immense bunch of grapes meant to emblematize Canaan as the Promised Land. The grapes are as big as pumpkins, and hang from a stick like a slain boar. I still remember one of my children saying, “Surrealism, right, Dad?” during one of our ambles through the Louvre years ago. I was interested to learn from the catalog that Winter–a scene of people struggling in a deluge–was among the few paintings admired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a painting that must have left me cold, since I have no recollection of having seen it. Spring shows Adam and Eve in Paradise, and Summer shows Ruth and Boaz in what might be a duet, centered in an expansive and receding field of ripe grain; in the far distance are a castle surrounded by outbuildings, a mountain and backlit clouds in a dramatic sky.

Ruth and Boaz are not alone. A kind of three-way interchange is taking place between Boaz and (as the biblical text says) an overseer explaining to Boaz who Ruth is and why she’s there. Ruth is the daughter-in-law of Naomi, a distant relative of Boaz’s, and she had requested permission to glean in Boaz’s fields. She is now kneeling, in supplication and gratitude, while Boaz welcomes her, pointing to some reapers to indicate that she can glean next to them. On the ground, next to Ruth, are her earlier gleanings. The main figures are small relative to the dimensions of the canvas, which contributes to the expansiveness of the scene. If the three main figures were removed, the picture would be a harvest scene, more austere and tranquil than The Harvesters, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of the Met’s treasures. Were they removed, there would be no story, but everything else would remain the same.

Consider the women at the left of the picture, preparing a meal under the shade of a massive oak tree. In the biblical story, Boaz tells Ruth that she can partake of the repast with the others. The gesture indicates Boaz’s gratefulness to Ruth for her goodness to Naomi, whom she has followed to Judea rather than returning to her own people. If the main characters were taken away, the kitchen crew would still have a place in the picture: after all, harvesters have to be fed. There would still be puzzles in the picture, like why Poussin has placed a quadriga–a team of four prancing horses–in the upper right. A quadriga usually draws a chariot with a personage of high rank, such as an emperor. These horses are too fine for agricultural drudgery. Maybe Poussin wanted to show that Boaz was so rich that he could use racehorses to pull farm wagons. It’s either a joke or an unlikely mistake.

But when I think of removing Ruth and Boaz–and perhaps the overseer–from the painting, I have in mind a puzzle of a different order. Ruth seems to me appallingly painted, as if by some journeyman artist: her hands are too large, her facial expression unconvincing; and Boaz’s feet seem inexplicably huge. Compare them with the masterful way the great oak tree is rendered, leaf by leaf by leaf, or the wheat, stalk by stalk, grain by grain, as far into the distance as the eye can make out. I don’t know what sort of workshop Poussin ran, but painting in the oak leaves and wheat stalks would seem to be a task one might relegate to studio assistants. That would certainly not be true of Ruth, one of the most important figures in the composition. Poussin said of himself, in accounting for his high achievement, “Je n’ai rien négligé” (“I have overlooked nothing”). One might speculate that it was due to palsy, since at the time Poussin painted the Four Seasons, his hands shook uncontrollably, making it harder and harder for him to paint. Summer is still a beautiful painting, though in candor it would be more beautiful without the biblical couple, since Ruth’s awkwardness jars. In a famous essay on Poussin, William Hazlitt wrote, “the faces of Poussin want natural expression, as his figures want grace; but the backgrounds of his historical compositions can scarcely be surpassed.” It appears that the problem with the figures in these last great landscapes is, as it were, a signature eccentricity. They seem like Mannerist figures, whereas in the early 1660s, when they were painted, Rome, where Poussin lived, was in the High Baroque. Their awkwardness is willed.

Still, Ruth looks positively robust in contrast with the Eve in Spring, which shows Adam and his companion in the middle of a Paradise full of marvelous trees, including the fateful tree with fruit that would impart the knowledge of good and evil. Eve excitedly points at the apple as she places her right hand on Adam’s arm, unaware that God is hovering among the clouds. Again, the figures are relatively small amid the luxuriant foliage. Adam and Eve are as naked as worms, a state they will soon be ashamed of. Their crude nakedness is a witty touch, but in the great cavalcade of Adam and Eves–by Dürer, Cranach, Tintoretto, Michelangelo–
Poussin’s seem puny, boneless and weak. If they were removed, the painting would have been magnificent. As it is, the painting offers a collision in taste. Accepting Poussin’s small figures is the price one pays for the magnificence of his mise-en-scène. Or it may just be the case that Nature is the main character, with the humans placed here and there to amplify through their weakness a world that could rid itself of them–of us–with a shudder and a blast. Think of the Flood, in which God gave up on humanity. All but Noah–who ended up a drunken lout in the last scene Michelangelo painted on the vault of the Sistine Chapel, showing that even the best of men were a bad lot–were proof that humanity could be redeemed only by desperate measures.

I’ve always been unsure of how Poussin fit into the Baroque art of the Counter-Reformation, with its depictions of torture and martyrdom mandated by the Council of Trent. The strategy was to strengthen faith by enlisting human compassion for what Jesus and the suffering saints endured so that humanity would be saved. I once saw a painting Poussin had done for the basilica of St. Peter, early in his Roman sojourn. It is, unhappily, unforgettable: its subject is the martyrdom of St. Erasmus, which consisted of public disembowelment. The Mannerist human body was svelte and elegant: it was important that figures look good in clothes. But Baroque figures were muscular and as naked as taste would allow, in order to writhe heroically under torture for their faith. As the sinewy body of Erasmus in The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus shows, Poussin was entirely capable of this. Even Bernini praised the work. But Poussin’s heart was elsewhere, and he turned to landscapes, painted for a group of patrons, mainly French, that expressed an agenda entirely different from the flayings, grillings, amputations and corresponding miracles that animated the painting and sculpture of the Roman Baroque. Poussin’s taste was more literary and classical, and his temper more intellectual and poetic than that enjoined by the Council of Trent. Instead of arousing powerful feelings of pity for the sufferings of holy personages, Poussin’s paintings were intended to inspire detachment and Stoic fortitude.

The world’s beauty is correlative with its dangers–floods, eruptions and earthquakes, with death ever lurking, even in Arcadia, as Poussin’s most famous painting, Et in Arcadia Ego, shows. (It’s not in the exhibition, though Arcadian Shepherds, from the Chatsworth Collection, is.) In it, shepherds are scrutinizing the meaning of an inscription carved into a tombstone–“I too am in Arcadia”–a little reminder that even shepherds in a rustic refuge will die. I would surmise that the snakes that come from nowhere and take us unawares in Landscape With a Man Killed by a Snake are meant to reinforce the same Stoic message. In the foreground of the painting a man has been crushed by a powerful serpent at the edge of a stream, and is now being eaten by it. A second man, who has seen the horror, is running away, while a woman with a bundle of washing extends her arms as if to ask the fleeing man what is wrong. The question of the crushed man’s identity is less important than the recognition that the snake could have crushed anyone. The woman could have been at the water’s edge, doing the laundry, when the snake struck. In the middle distance, some men are in a boat, unaware of the foreground ruckus. As one’s eyes move toward the horizon, they fall under the spell of the beauty and tranquillity of the landscape. The news will spread; soon the people in the distant city will be discussing it. The painting incorporates the two faces of reality that define Poussin’s world, and ours: beautiful and fatal.

Next to Summer, my favorite painting in the show is the Met’s own Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun. Orion, a giant made blind in punishment for having attempted to violate a queen, was told by an oracle that he would be cured by the sun. The giant, carrying a bow and arrows that in his present condition do him little good, is shown at the extreme right of the canvas, as if he is disoriented. A person sits on Orion’s shoulders, giving him directions–“A bit to the right, now straight ahead”–as the giant plods toward the east and the rising sun. The sky is filled with dark clouds, though, as if to prevent him from “seeing the light.” Orion was evidently not a subject frequently shown, so it’s difficult to know what Poussin’s sources were, if he had any. I think it is a very deep idea, and I shall be flagrantly anachronistic in seeking an interpretation.

Recently, British sculptor Antony Gormley exhibited a singular work at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City. Called Blind Light, it consists of a large square enclosure with a single opening. The enclosure is filled with a manufactured fog made by water particles shot into it through nozzles. One enters the fog and, without penetrating the space to any distance, can no longer locate oneself. One cannot even see one’s feet. There is a slightly terrifying feeling of disorientation. In a commentary on this work, the poet Susan Stewart invokes a late text of Immanuel Kant, What Is Orientation in Thinking? “To orientate oneself,” Kant writes, “in the proper sense of the word, means to use a given direction–and we divide the horizon into four of these–in order to find the others, and in particular that of sunrise.” As I see it, if we find the sunrise, we know where east is, and from that point on we refer to our body to know where west is. North is left, south is right. Our conception of space is constructed with reference to our body. Once Orion sees the sun, he knows how to situate himself. Kant is so unrelentingly abstract in his writing that it’s a discovery of sorts to find a work like Blind Orion to be a magnificent illustration of Kant’s idea of what it means to be lost and to find one’s way. It’s a surprise to realize how central the body is in Kant’s philosophy, but what he based his view on, everybody knows: find the sun, and everything falls into place relative to left and right, up and down, front and back. Indeed, by locating the sun in Blind Orion through Kant, I am, in the end, no different from Poussin’s commentators. It is, evidently, impossible just to look.

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