How smart was Poussin?

Malcolm Bull

  • Nicolas Poussin by Alain Mérot, translated by Fabia Claris
    Thames and Hudson, 336 pp, £65.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 300 04763 0
  • Nicolas Poussin: Dialectics of Painting by Oskar Bätschmann, translated by Marko Daniel
    Reaktion, 176 pp, £27.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 948462 10 8
  • Ideal Landscape: Annibale Carracci, Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain by Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlöf
    Yale, 256 pp, £35.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 300 04763 0

When Bernini saw Poussin’s Landscape with the Gathering of the Ashes Phocion, he pointed to his forehead and said: ‘Poussin is a painter who works from up here.’ Subsequent commentators have almost all endorsed this view, and the history of Poussin’s critical fortunes can be read as an elaboration of the sculptor’s telling gesture. The 17th-century critic Bellori noted that Poussin had the ‘most prized gifts of intelligence’. A few years later, the Comte de Brienne said of him that he ‘was endowed with a great deal of reason and a fine mind, a lively and strong imagination, a very accurate memory and very sound judgment, coupled with natural good sense’. By the end of the 18th century the artist had picked up the title of Pictor philosophus, and at the beginning of the 20th he was co-opted into a trinity of French Classicists along with Corneille and Pascal. But on what uncharted seas was Poussin’s great mind voyaging? No one really had much idea until the publication of Anthony Blunt’s monograph in 1967, which argued that Poussin ‘thought in terms of Stoicism’, set forth ‘his views on ethics ... with clarity and vigour in his letters’, and ‘applied his philosophy to the practical conduct of his life in the most exact manner’. One might have supposed that this was enough for anyone not professionally engaged in intellectual pursuits, but there have since been studies of the artist which explore his interest not only in Stoicism but also in Jesuit theology, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Parisian libertinage and Renaissance biology. It is no wonder that the Comte de Brienne thought of Poussin as a kind of philosopher-king who might have governed the nation.

The only problem is that although Poussin was a serious-minded man of some education, there is no evidence that his thought extended beyond the horizons of his contemporaries: Rubens was better educated; Pietro Testa had a more developed interest in art theory; Salvator Rosa had greater philosophical and literary pretensions; Domenichino was more introspective, and Claude painted subjects equally obscure. As for Stoicism, Poussin’s extensive correspondence mentions no ‘Stoic’ author save the eclectic Montaigne, his work contains no philosopher save the ever-popular Diogenes, and the depictions of Seneca, Democititus and Heraclitus so common in the art of the period are conspicuously missing. So on what do the claims made for Poussin’s mind ultimately rest?

To answer this question it may be worth considering the subject of the painting that inspired Bernini’s remark. Its pendant, the Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion, depicts two slaves bearing the shrouded corpse of the Athenian general away from the city that had sentenced him to death but refused him burial, and the Ashes of Phocion landscape shows Phocion’s widow retrieving her husband’s remains in order to bring them back to Athens to await honourable interment. The story of Phocion was an unusual subject, and many critics have suggested that the paintings can be seen as the artist’s personal testimony. Delacroix hinted at one way of looking at the Phocion/Poussin connection by comparing the French disregard for their native artists to that of the Athenians, and then describing how Poussin left une ingrate position at the French court to return to Rome, where he painted the body of Phocion being taken from Athens, son ingrate patrie. The implied analogy can be extended, for if Poussin’s unrewarding period in Paris parallels Phocion’s rejection by the ungrateful Athenians, the export of Poussin’s paintings (including the Phocion pictures themselves) from Rome to France corresponds to the gathering and return of Phocion’s ashes. Both Poussin and Phocion were, it seems, accorded recognition only in their absence, and the paintings reflect this by taking as their subject the absent body of the general, which appears first shrouded, then reduced to ashes.

The originality, perhaps perversity, of this representation easily passes unnoticed in an age accustomed to non-figurative painting. But, for the 17th century, the Ashes of Phocion was an unusual composition. The Renaissance had established the human body as the sole subject worthy of high art, and, despite the rise of genre painting, the articulation of the body remained (as Bernini’s work triumphantly demonstrated) the primary means of artistic expression. Even in a landscape, it was the figures that created significance. By making the principal protagonist of the Phocion landscapes invisible, and so constructing a narrative around the physical absence of its subject, Poussin was disobeying all the rules. It is therefore possible to see Bernini’s gesture as a response to this exclusion – a dualistic inference of the presence of a mind from the absence of the body. His comments were certainly interpreted in these terms by his companion, Poussin’s former patron Chantelou, who told the sculptor that Poussin ‘painted with his mind because he always had weak hands’. But while it is true that he suffered from trembling hands in later life, Poussin was not always so disadvantaged: he had once proclaimed that his hands were his sole means of livelihood, and in a letter to Chantelou some years before, he described himself as having ‘two hands and a weak head’. Why then did Chantelou invert the artist’s self-description?

Although he would never have admitted it to Bernini (to whom he had proudly displayed his collection), Chantelou did not always find Poussin’s work visually satisfying, and it was to make up for his patron’s disappointment that the painter first suggested to him that ‘we must not judge by our senses alone but by reason’. If Chantelou could not enjoy Poussin’s paintings in the way that he wished, he could at least appreciate the thought that had gone into them. As Poussin told another patron, ‘there are two ways of looking at objects, one is simply to see them, the other is to consider them carefully,’ and while the former is simply a function of the eye, the latter is ‘a function of reason’. Poussin’s ideal viewer, like the blind giant in the Landscape with Orion, was not to be guided by his own eyes, but by a voice speaking in his ear – the voice of reason speaking through Poussin himself.

Orion had been blinded as a result of his lust and, to judge from the case of that other lascivious giant, Polyphemus, the blindness required of Poussin’s viewers was also a form of sexual repression. Poussin depicted Polyphemus on several occasions: in the Marino drawing at Windsor, he sees Acis and Galatea locked in carnal embrace; later, in the Chantilly drawing and the Dublin painting, he sits behind the kissing couple with his pipes; and finally in the landscape in the Hermitage, he has turned his back and the lovers are nowhere in sight. As if to emphasise the point, the Landscape with Hercules and Cacus (possibly the pendant of the Leningrad picture) shows the hero stamping on the giant’s genitals. The voyeur, so often gratified by Poussin’s early pastorals, must, like the viewer, learn to do without his anticipated pleasure. When the burlesque poet Paul Scarron asked for a painting of a Bacchic subject, he received instead a picture of a saint in ecstasy – not a Saint Teresa like the one Bernini was then producing for the Cornaro Chapel, but a dignified Ecstasy of Saint Paul. A good joke perhaps, but not an indication that Poussin had sublimated the desire for visual and sexual gratification in religious emotion. On the contrary, his attitude toward religion seems to have been distinctly sceptical: his only comment on the jubilee celebrations of 1650 was to note ironically that nothing more remarkable was happening ‘than the miracles, which occur so frequently that it’s a marvel’. And if he doubted miracles, he also disliked gloomy religious subjects: he told a friend who asked for a picture of Christ carrying the cross that he ‘would not be able to withstand the deep and distressing thoughts with which one has to fill one’s mind and heart in order to paint such a bleak and dismal subject with any conviction’.

Poussin, it emerges, was a painter whose work (or lack of it) frequently deprived viewers of the visual, sexual or emotional satisfaction they sought, and Bernini’s reaction to the Ashes of Phocion can be understood both as a statement about its manufacture and as an admission of his own inability to engage with the painting on a physical level. There may thus be three missing bodies mingled in the ashes: those of the subject, the artist and the viewer whose physical reactions are suppressed. But by denying the possibility of bodily involvement, Poussin invited a more cerebral response. In so doing he may have hoped to enhance his critical reputation as well: for if, as David Freedberg recently argued in The Power of Images, the aesthetic appreciation of art depends on the repression of instinctual physical reactions, the construction of an incorporeal viewer is a demand for critical (rather than popular) recognition. And this is what Poussin received. Within the artist’s lifetime, Chantelou’s brother, the critic Roland Fréart de Chambray, explained that, although those ‘who have only a very superficial knowledge, but ... a very over-inflated view of their own judgment’ were bound to see the claim as a paradox, Poussin was, in fact, ‘the most accomplished and perfect of all our modern painters’, and easily recognised as such by ‘men who study and judge matters in the manner of mathematicians ... through analysis of the principles involved’.

The historical Poussin may not have been a ‘painter-philosopher’, but he has remained the philosopher’s painter, and his reputation continues to attract the attention of both professional philosophers and historians with an appetite for ideas. This has led to some eccentric speculation – the artist has recently played a supporting role in the bizarre cast of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and been discussed (by Kondrad Oberhuber) in the light of anthroposophical theories of human development – but it has also kept Poussin’s work at the centre of critical debate.

Current discussion takes the form of two distinct conversations. In one, a dialogue of the deaf that has been in continuous progress since the great Paris exhibition of 1960, connoisseurs argue about the attribution and dating of Poussin’s early work; while in the other, the philosophers, iconographers and art historians drawn together by the invisible magnet of Poussin’s mind listen all too respectfully to one another’s conjectures about the meaning of the artist’s mature paintings. It is to Alain Mérot’s credit that he is drawn into neither debate. Resisting the temptation to produce yet another catalogue raisonné, Mérot contents himself with an inclusive thematic catalogue and an admirably balanced text which exhibits a healthy scepticism on the matter of Poussin’s intellectual interests.

Although it constitutes the best available introduction to the artist, Mérot’s sumptuously illustrated volume will be of less interest to Poussin scholars than Oskar Bätschmann’s book, which is a translation (with three additional chapters) of an edition first published in Switzerland in 1982. In the foreword, Bätschmann identifies himself as a participant in the second debate. He is not concerned with seeing of the ‘simple and natural kind’, but with the ‘rational vision’ that Poussin expected of his spectators. The way this works is illustrated by the discussion of the Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe, a painting which Bätschmann thinks may depict the consequences of Pyramus’s failure to employ Poussin’s ‘rational vision’ when he discovered Thisbe’s bloodied veil. For the art historian, the equivalent of Thishe’s veil is the lake in the centre of the picture which remains inexplicably calm, despite the storm raging in the sky. The ‘simple and natural’ explanation is that Poussin failed to modify a feature which was a frequent motif both in his own work and in that of his contemporaries. The ‘rational’ interpretation provided by Bätschmann is that the calm lake refers to the Neoplatonic theory of the mirror of Bacchus. The sole evidence for this hypothesis is that one of the many buildings around the lake resembles the early Christian mausoleum of Santa Costanza in Rome which, in Palladio’s Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura, is described as a ‘temple of Bacchus’.

In the case of most artists, explaining something which looks out of place by reference to the theories of Plotinus would seem extravagant. But Poussin’s reputation is enough to guarantee the plausibility of almost any connection between his paintings and ideas current in the early 17th century, and the only difficulty experienced by Bätschmann is that of determining which ideas are to be associated with the artist. This is a genuine problem, for the Baroque age was a time of extraordinary intellectual diversity in which the theories of Antiquity intermingled with those of scholasticism and the new experimental sciences, and it is, as Bätschmann says. ‘virtually impossible to differentiate between a merely associative multiplication of relations and an exact determination of ambiguity’.

Landscape paintings pose particular difficulties in this regard. They rarely give any indication of their wider cultural significance, and it is hard to know what conceptual framework is relevant to their understanding. Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlöf’s book, which draws together many of the ideas relevant to the study of 17th-century landscape painting in Rome, sets out to address this problem. And, although the classification of the material, and the artists, as theatrical (Annibale), rhetorical (Poussin) and utopian (Claude) may be somewhat arbitrary, the omission of Domenichino and Dughet regrettable, and the numerous minor errors irritating, she deserves respect for having grappled with an intractable question. Of the Ashes of Phocion, Lagerlöf perceptively observes that ‘the emphasis on clarity and control ... suggests that there is something which needs to be controlled – something threatening or alien.’ On the facing page, a detail from the painting shows the kneeling woman gathering the ashes. It is an appropriate illustration, for what is threatening in this picture is the absence of the body, and it is by making what is absent present in some other form that, like the woman, we seek to relieve our anxiety.