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.