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.

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