Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665 
by Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat.
Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 560 pp., frs 350, September 1994, 2 7118 3027 6
Show More
Nicolas Poussin 
by Anthony Blunt.
Pallas Athene, 690 pp., £24.95, January 1995, 1 873429 64 9
Show More
Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665 
by Richard Verdi, with an essay by Pierre Rosenberg.
Zwemmer, 336 pp., £39.50, January 1995, 0 302 00647 8
Show More
Roma 1630: Il trionfo del pennello 
edited by Olivier Bonfait.
Electa, 260 pp., July 1994, 88 435 5047 0
Show More
Poussin before Rome 1594-1624 
by Jacques Thuillier.
Feigen, 119 pp., £40, January 1995, 1 873232 03 9
Show More
The Expression of the Passions 
by Jennifer Montagu.
Yale, 256 pp., £35, October 1994, 0 300 05891 8
Show More
L’Ecole du silence 
by Marc Fumaroli.
Flammarion, 512 pp., frs 295, May 1994, 2 08 012618 0
Show More
To Destroy Painting 
by Louis Marin, translated by Mette Hjort.
Chicago, 196 pp., £31.95, April 1995, 0 226 50535 9
Show More
Show More

They want him back. They always have, but now they want him more than ever: living in Rome for almost his entire career was one thing, posthumous residence in England is another. That the artist ‘qui incame le XVIIe siècle français’ should have become (as Olivier Bonfait’s essay in the Paris catalogue describes him) ‘un objet totalement “anglo-saxon” ’ is seen as a source of national shame. Interviewed in Le Monde, Jacques Thuillier of the Collège de France complained that, ‘à l’étranger’, Poussin’s reputation had been dulled if not sullied; the quatercentenary of his birth was an opportunity to clean and polish his image to its true lustre, to show the world that the artist was (in the words of Thuillier’s colleague, Marc Fumaroli) ‘at heart ever more loyal to that noble simplicity of form that Frenchmen in the 17th century were quick to recognise as one of the ... distinctive characteristics of their own kingdom’.

Such chauvinism may say as much about the anxious cultural politics of contemporary France as it does about the history of Poussin scholarship, and yet the underlying concern is not without foundation. The villain of the piece (now typecast by his starring role in other dramas) is Anthony Blunt, who wrote the standard monograph on Poussin’s paintings (now republished), co-authored the five-volume catalogue of the drawings, and, in 1960, wrote the catalogue for the largest Poussin exhibition ever seen. At the time, it seemed that the Francophile Blunt was paying homage to the artist rather than taking him away. But it soon became apparent that the study of Poussin had shifted location: the debate about the dating of his work took place between Blunt and another English connoisseur, Denis Mahon; investigation of his iconography was conducted in the Teutonic spirit of the Warburg Institute. The French Poussin, ‘the contemporary of Descartes and the master of Le Brun’, the Poussin of Paul Desjardins’s La Méthode des classiques français, seemed, inexplicably, to have emigrated.

Was he kidnapped or was he only ever a phantom? Last autumn’s Paris show was the culmination of two decades of French exhibitions devoted to early 17th-century painters. It could have addressed the question of Poussin’s place in French art, but the selectors, Pierre Rosenberg of the Louvre and Neil MacGregor of the National Gallery, opted to avoid controversy, and simply to include the ‘most beautiful’ works. Important paintings that didn’t make the grade were omitted, even when (as in the case of the Richelieu Bacchanals) preparatory drawings were on show. The result was a remarkably rich and catholic selection hung in dark and crowded galleries. In this all too plausible re-creation of 17th-century viewing conditions, some paintings glowed mysteriously; others, in which the grounds show through, merely glowered.

At the Royal Academy, where there are fewer paintings, no drawings, and the galleries are as bright as a hospital ward, the hanging is a great success. However, by reducing an already uncontroversial selection still further, the exhibition is in danger of becoming a bland array of ‘masterpieces’, all properly cleaned and certified free from the contagion of misattribution. The paintings quarantined in satellite exhibitions compensate to some degree, but the absence from the Royal Academy of any of the possible works from the first thirty years of Poussin’s life (some were on view at Richard Feigen till 3 March and will be at Yale from 23 May), all the highly commercial erotica of the 1620s (there are a couple of examples in the National Gallery’s little room of ‘Poussin Problems’), and every one of the major allegorical and religious commissions of the Paris period of 1640-2 (go to the Louvre), means that we only see paintings executed when the artist had congenial patrons. It is hard to understand Poussin (or any other artist) without some of the pictures produced when he was under economic, political or psychological pressure, and the London exhibition inevitably makes the precarious serenity of his work seem unmotivated – as unearned as the jewels given to the bimbo daughters of Lycomedes in the Richmond Achilles and the Daughters of Lycomedes.

Although both the major exhibitions diplomatically avoid the question of Poussin’s nationality, the same cannot be said of the numerous anniversary publications. Richard Verdi’s catalogue is an incautiously conservative attempt to keep Blunt’s stiff-upper-lipped ‘English Poussin’ alive. Blunt argued that Poussin was literally a philosopher-painter whose life and work were inspired by Stoicism. Undeterred by the absence of direct references to the Stoics in the paintings and correspondence, Blunt found in every mention of Poussin’s tidy and well-organised life allusions to the order created by ‘the Soul of the World which for the Stoics governs the universe’. His reading makes the artist’s letters into a kind of cryptic philosophical discourse while ignoring the pervasive but highly diluted presence of Stoic elements in the culture of the period. The commonplaces of Stoicism came as readily to Poussin as to anyone else with half an education, but the philosophy seems to have had less impact on him than it did on Rubens or the numerous other artists who, unlike Poussin, made a point of depicting or referring to Seneca. Recognising this, some have suggested that Poussin’s Stoicism is a projection of Blunt’s Marxism, either in its anachronistically sectarian character, or (as Fumaroli has recently argued) in its tendency to make the painter’s supposedly anti-establishment views the idealising mirror of Blunt’s own ‘carefully disguised duplicity’. It is difficult to know how much should be made of these parallels, and if there is anything worth saying it is probably not that Blunt’s Poussin was ‘an Enlightenment spy ... in Papal Rome’, but that Poussin, like Blunt, lived in one country while owing allegiance to another. It wasn’t always easy: as Poussin’s friend Guy Patin remarked, the Italians were liable to make fun of the French, and on one occasion Poussin was beaten up in the street for dressing alla francese.

His dual identity also influenced his work. Because he was employed chiefly by French patrons, Poussin’s priorities differed from those of most other artists in Rome. He did not glorify the Papal families, manufacture religious propaganda, or produce the picturesque ruins, landscapes and low-life scenes that were sold to locals and visitors alike. What he offered the French was the illusion of direct access to the traditions of Antiquity, undistorted by the political and religious concerns of the contemporary city. Rome and the surrounding countryside were thus transformed into a Classical theme park devoid of ruins or people in modern dress. If anything. Poussin was more Classical than the Romans themselves, but chiefly for the sake of the French, who sometimes disapproved of the casual attitude towards Antiquity they found in Italy. Like the Flemish sculptor Duquesnoy, he wanted to ‘vilify the Latin manner’ and encourage the ‘Greek’.

Verdi suggests that recurrent themes in Poussin’s work may reveal something of the artist’s life and psychological preoccupations. He mentions water, dominant women, endangered children and discovered heroes, but Poussin’s most frequently treated theme is probably that of the hero who moves back and forth between two locations. Queen Zenobia first flees and then returns to Artaxata; Phocion’s remains are taken from Athens to Megara and then brought back again; Achilles hides in Skyros but is recalled; Eliezer goes to Abraham’s homeland to bring back a bride for Isaac; the Holy Family flee to Egypt and then return; Moses, born an Israelite in Egypt, leaves, returns, and finally leaves once more to seek the Promised Land.

In Poussin’s constant reworking of these subjects (he painted several of them more than once, and devoted about twenty pictures to Moses and the Exodus) we may recognise the concerns of someone whose professional identity was forged by a similar dynamic. And in the land of Egypt, which features so prominently in these paintings (where it is given both Roman and Egyptian characteristics), we may detect the metaphorical scene of Poussin’s exile. Given that obelisks were all the rage at the time, and that the Roman Church was identified with Egypt by both Catholic scholars (who thought Egyptian religion prefigured the ancient truths of the Catholic faith) and Protestant commentators (who made Pharaoh into the Pope), the elision of Rome and Egypt seems unsurprising. But is it then safe to suggest that Poussin identified with Moses? There is no way to prove it.

Poussin’s role in French culture was, nevertheless, quite comparable to that of the ancient law-giver, and his disconnected thoughts on art were soon set in tablets of stone as academic doctrine. In the national mythology, Poussin’s toing and froing between France and Italy had a single goal: he wasn’t just offering the French a taste of Rome, he was releasing the art of painting from its Roman captivity and bringing it triumphantly across the Alps. Yet was it really Poussin who transformed Roman art and theory into the French academic tradition? There are problems at both ends. In an essay in the splendid catalogue of Roma 1630, Fumaroli locates Poussin squarely within the new clerical culture of connoisseurship represented by Mgr Agucchi, the theorist patron of Bolognese artists like Domenichino. But Poussin catered less to the Neoclassical tastes of connoisseurs like Agucchi than to the more eclectic interests of those in Barberini circles – intellectuals who collected art rather than the new breed of art-intellectual. The more direct link between what Fumaroli calls ‘I’âge de I’intenditore’ in Rome and the French Academy was Bellori, the adoptive son of Agucchi’s friend Angeloni.

Bellori wrote a life of Poussin which, by conveniently forgetting both the early Venusian subjects and the later landscapes, represented Poussin to the French (his book was dedicated to Colbert) as the heir of Raphael and the Bolognese. Félibien and Le Brun, who, along with Bellori, created the figure lauded in the Académie de Peinture, also concentrated on the Poussin of the 1640s. But (as the essays by Alain Mérot and Carl Goldstein in the French catalogue remind us) the theories they propagated in his name had only slender roots in the thinking of the artist himself. In the Academy’s discussions, Poussin’s paintings suffered the fate of all canonical works: they became a convenient peg on which to hang new ideas, such as Le Brun’s theories of physiognomy and expression (analysed in Jennifer Montagu’s valuable study, The Expression of the Passions).

Although Poussin’s career may not have led directly to the theories and practices of the Academy, belief in his essential Frenchness does not have to be abandoned. His relationship to French culture can be reversed. Perhaps he was a product rather than a producer. Thus Fumaroli, who in L’Ecole du silence and Roma 1630 argues for Poussin’s absorption in a Roman milieu, has done his bit for the centenary by suggesting that, thanks to his contacts with French Jesuits, he was ‘one of the last heirs to the Christian Platonism of the Renaissance, which flowered so brilliantly in France in the 16th century’. The basis for this conclusion is unclear, and the available evidence can also be used to support the alternative interpretation (favoured by Thuillier) that Poussin was a robust sceptic – a hypothesis which aligns him with another predominantly French tradition, that of the libertins érudits.

A more direct approach is the attempt to reconstruct the first thirty years of Poussin’s life, from which all the recorded paintings have been lost. Thuillier has already published a biography of the artist which manages to devote as much space to Poussin’s time in France as to the forty well-documented years in Rome, and he has now produced a catalogue of Poussin’s work before Rome which advances the claims of two paintings of St Denis. Neither is altogether convincing, and of the two, I find the ‘unanimously accepted’ St Denis Crowned by an Angel the more difficult to fit into any hypothetical account of his early development; the St Denis Frightening His Executioners with His Head looks less like a Poussin, but is perhaps a more credible example of the type of painting a young artist infatuated with Italy might have produced.

If these attempts to anchor the artist to the French tradition quickly seem to run adrift, is it because Poussin belonged to another national school? I think not. There is little point in setting up an Italian ‘baroque’ Poussin as an alternative to the French ‘classical’ one, or even in suggesting that Poussin moved between the two. Both designations suggest that the significance of Poussin’s work can be defined by a single category. This is surely wrong, not because his work is inherently uncategorisable, but because its interest lies in its awareness of itself as an object that is open to alternative interpretations. Today, of course, all art-objects are subject to innumerable readings, and many are produced with that in mind. But as Fumaroli points out, in the 17th century, the idea that paintings could occasion an informed exchange of opinion was relatively novel.

Poussin did not, by and large, execute public commissions to be seen simultaneously by large numbers of people, and there was little need for him to produce work that would elicit a single response from a varied audience. His paintings were produced for individuals and shown in private spaces. But this did not make them tokens in a dyadic relationship defined by artist and patron alone – there is no equivalent in Poussin’s oeuvre to Caravaggio’s Victorious Love hung behind a curtain in Giustiniani’s palace. More than most artists working at the time, Poussin consciously produced work that would be viewed by a multiplicity of individuals in a variety of settings. His work was rarely site-specific, and his paintings could be seen both in Rome, where they were executed, and in France, where they were displayed.

Although this pattern of consumption is more akin to that of printing than that of the theatre (the art to which his work is most often compared) Poussin was not producing for the open market, and with the possible exception of the early satyric scenes and battle pieces, his work did not need to sell itself to unknown purchasers. His paintings were commissioned, but also seen by viewers whose concerns were quite different from those of the original patron. Indeed, Poussin’s output was often determined by these divisions in his audience: not only did patrons living in different places compare one another’s pictures, they sometimes wanted a copy, or even their own version, of someone else’s painting.

Because a single work might offer conflicting experiences, it was vital that each viewer should understand a picture in the right way, but not necessarily in the same way. Poussin frequently advised his patron Chantelou on how to read pictures, both his own and those of a rival patron, Pointel. Yet he could not possibly have said the same things to Pointel, whose Self-Portrait he dismissed as inferior. For Poussin, reading correctly was not so much a matter of having the right opinion, as of establishing an appropriate understanding of the way in which a response was related to its object.

His position is set out in the famous letter to Chantelou on ‘the theory of the modes’. Poussin first emphasises that it is wrong to infer the feelings with which a painting was made from the feelings experienced when it is seen; Chantelou’s liking for Pointer’s Finding of Moses over his own Ordination, does not indicate that the artist prefers Pointel to him. Chantelou should rather attribute his feelings to the picture itself. Paintings can be differentiated according to the effect they produce on the viewer: some fill viewers with awe, others make them joyous, and so on. Each response corresponds to one of the modes. So whether the viewer feels grave or violent, melancholy or gay, it is safe to infer that the work is in the relevant mode. Chantelou should therefore trust his own response rather than devalue the work that occasioned it: the Ordination is not a poor painting, it is a good example of a painting in the mode corresponding to Chantelou’s reaction.

Read in context, Poussin’s remarks about the modes are not (as Le Brun and many others have taken them to be) primarily an attempt to formulate a theory about picture-making, but a comment on the relationship between viewers and pictures. He defines the various modes by their effect on the viewer rather than by the subject-matter of the painting – it could hardly be otherwise, given that the theory is borrowed from music, where the ‘subject’ was not at issue – and then suggests that because responses can be differentiated, the artist can choose a subject and a means of representation liable to elicit a particular response.

This account of response differs from the traditional mimetic theory (see a weeping figure, you too will cry) in that it argues from the definable nature of the response to the less definable mode of the painting. In Poussin’s paintings themselves, there is often a similar emphasis on the importance of response in defining the nature of the central event. Poussin may not consciously have painted pictures in different modes, but his work certainly embodied the theory that response defined content. The Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe, and the Landscape – A Storm represent the weather through the reactions of people and animals; the Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake is concerned not with the event itself but with responses to it; the Arcadian Shepherds represents death through the attempt to decipher its traces.

Relying on depicted reactions to define an event makes viewing more complex. The meaning of the whole is not to be found in a single image, but, as in a written text, in the co-ordination of its constituent parts. So in The Israelites Gathering Manna, where we see a variety of reactions to an event (the appearance of manna) that is itself of little visual significance, we have, according to Poussin’s description, ‘the misery and hunger to which the Jewish people had been reduced, and also the joy and happiness which came over them, the astonishment which had struck them, and the respect and veneration which they feel for their law-giver, with a mixture of women, children and men, of different ages and temperaments’.

For Poussin, reading meant sorting out the significance of all these individual figures and groups. He therefore insisted that the viewer learn the alphabet of painting: ‘Just as the 24 letters of the alphabet are used to form our words and express our thoughts, so the forms of the human body are used to express the various passions of the soul and to make visible what is in the mind.’ His tendency to produce pictures that require reading rather than looking is illustrated by his gradual substitution of the verbal for the visual in the Arcadian Shepherds. In Guercino’s Et in Arcadia Ego, the shepherds react to the skull on the tomb, and the inscription functions as a label visible only to the viewer; in Poussin’s Chats worth painting the skull remains, but the shepherds point to the inscription; in the later Paris version, the skull is absent and the inscription, now partly obscured from the viewer, has become the sole focus of the shepherds’ attention. As Louis Marin argues in To Destroy Painting, the Paris Arcadian Shepherds invites us to identify with the shepherds who are trying to decode the inscription as we are trying to decode the painting. But they and we do not necessarily have the same response: the shepherds are trying to interpret the letters, we can also interpret their reaction. They may not know the alphabet, but if we know the alphabet of painting, we can read the inscription better than they.

Insofar as Poussin’s painting of the tomb in Arcadia is about differential responses to inscription, its counterpart is the Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery. Presented by the Pharisees with the adulterous woman, Christ writes on the ground. Catching sight of this apparently meaningless Hebraic scribble, the Pharisees gesticulate excitedly like critics round a newly completed Jackson Pollock. But as each one discovers in the inscription the name of his own sin, they gradually drift away. Like the Arcadian Shepherds, this is a painting about reading for oneself: the Pharisees recognise their own sins, just as the viewers of the inscription on the tomb sense their own deaths.

Fumaroli suggests in L’Ecole du silence that the Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery sets up the same type of silent conversation between canvas and spectator as that depicted in the painting. The idea can be taken further. Because Poussin identified painting with writing, and viewing with reading, the dynamic of inscription and response illustrated in this picture may provide a helpful model for the interpretation of Poussin’s work as a whole. There is an obvious parallel between the affetti, defined by different ways in which figures in his paintings respond to events, and the modes, defined by the differing reactions of viewers to his paintings. The affetti form the alphabet of painting; the way a viewer responds to a painting determines the mode of a painting. Interpreting a painting correctly involves both reading the reactions of the depicted figures, and reading one’s own reaction. But can the responses to Poussin’s paintings be as varied as those of the figures in his paintings? How far does the artist allow for the possibility that his viewers, like the Pharisees, will each find their own meanings in his work?

Although it would be wrong to suppose that Poussin thought of his paintings as completely open texts, producing work for a fragmented audience meant doing so in the awareness that some features of a painting might have a different significance for different viewers. To cite just two examples. The Kansas Triumph of Bacchus includes Hercules, who is rarely included in depictions of this subject. Only Poussin’s Roman acquaintances would have known the sarcophagus at the Villa Aldobrandini which inspired the composition, and only French viewers would have picked up the reference to the patron, Cardinal Richelieu, who, in France, was ceaselessly likened to Hercules. Poussin must have realised that the iconography of the painting could be interpreted with reference to either its source or its patron. As far as he was concerned, it could be taken either way.

In another case, Poussin even allowed a seemingly personal message to be appropriated by other viewers. In the Self-Portrait for Chantelou, the artist ostentatiously proclaimed his devotion to his jealous patron by offering a glimpse of a canvas showing Painting entering the arms of Friendship. He nevertheless delayed sending the painting to Chantelou so that it could be copied for his Roman friends. For them, presumably, the painting was of interest less as a celebration of Poussin’s fidelity to his French patron than as a representation of the artist’s loyalty to each of his friends. Despite his protestations of exclusive allegiance to Chantelou, Poussin included nothing in the painting that tied him to a specific patron. (He might, after all, have decided to send this painting, rather than its immediate predecessor, to Pointel.) The ring of constancy he wears binds him to no one in particular. He is anybody’s, but he wants each of us to want him for our own.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences