peasant and poet : mind over matter

Monsu Pussino and the gradual retreat of instinct. The ideal is clear. Painting, as one of Nicolas Poussin’s admirer’s put it, must “talk”. A canvas should not only be visible to the eye but legible to the mind. Listing the components of his painting Manna, Poussin concluded: ” all which things, if I am not mistaken, will not be displeasing to those who can read them.” The he adds, ” just as the twenty-six letters of the alphabet serve to formulate our words and express our thoughts, so the lineaments of the human body serve to express the soul’s passions and to show outside what is in one’s mind.” ….

Few facts are certain about Poussin’s early paintings in Rome beginning in 1624, and their very variety makes it difficult for the experts to precisely date. Still, the general pattern of Poussin’s approach was clear. His seriousness made him shy away from the emphatic shallowness of Caravaggio and from the surface dazzlement of Pietro de Cortona. He shunned extremism, not out of timidity, but because both extremes attracted him equally.

Landscape with Diogenes. 1647.---The extraordinary amplitude of the world and sky in Poussin’s paintings was commented upon by his contemporaries. Félibien, for example, remarked that the early mythological pictures were set in a “delicious place”; writing of the later landscapes, he instead praised their illusion of a “vast field.” The deep magnitude and the measured clarity of the space in these paintings are fundamental for the sense they give that one is looking into some kind of ideal world. In a letter in 1665 Poussin compared the elements of painting to the golden bough carried by Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid. He does not elaborate on his comment, and perhaps it is only a suggestive coincidence, but in Book VI of the epic the golden bough serves as a magical aid that helps Aeneas reach the Elysian Fields. Virgil writes of the skies of that heavenly place: “What largesse of bright air, clothing the vales in dazzling/ Light, is here!” No description better fits the effect of the light and space in Poussin’s late landscapes. --- Read More: image:

Although we tend to view Poussin as a master of form, the paintings of the early 1630′s show him more to be a glowing colorist along the lines of Titian and Bellini. Or Giorgione. He fashioned a relief model in clay of Titian’s Wedding of Aldobrandini. This quaint undertaking may stand as a symbol of the taxing problems he had set himself: to reconcile Titian’s color with Raphael’s form. Unlike the eclectics, however, who achieved such a reconciliation by watering down these extreme terms, Poussin went back to the undiluted sources, where their conflict was sharpest.

Yet, in such well known works as Tancred and Erminia and Bacchanal with a Lute Player, Poussin resolves it. Roman firmness and Venetian mellowness, local color and over-all tonality are intimately wedded in a mood that is solemnly joyous. Thus Poussin’s most richly obscure and many-sided period already produced instances of a classic equilibrium. Anyone less intransigent would gladly have contented himself  with so superb a synthesis.

---Titian’s bacchanals were also one of the first important responses in the visual arts to the new vogue for pastoral literature that had begun with the publication of Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia in 1504. The pastoral, with its celebration of an ideal life of bucolic ease, love, and poetry in the mythic Golden Age, was still immensely fashionable during Poussin’s lifetime, inspiring works by Cervantes, Marino, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others. More than any other visual artist since Titian in the early sixteenth century, Poussin combined the antiquarian dream of recapturing classical painting with the yearning for the mythic Golden Age in order to make serious art of real emotional intensity. In these early paintings Poussin depicts nearly all the figures in attitudes of reverie or longing. Some are shown in states of moody contemplation or poetic musing... and in still other pictures, Poussin concentrates on erotic desire.... Poussin’s focus on the varieties of longing and dreaming is almost unparalleled in Renaissance and early Baroque art. By contrast, for example, Titian’s bacchanals are images of robust action, not of mental and physical desire. In these early pictures Poussin makes the landscape elements seem to smolder with intense ardor.--- Read More: image:

But there was in Poussin’s personality a germ which his vigor impelled him to develop , thereby upsetting this first solution and orienting his work into a direction most perilous for a painter. Peasant and poet: like the new townsman anxious to erase all traces of his rustic origins, Poussin increasingly forsakes his earthly home town Andelysian sensibility for learned Roman sense. He becomes Monsu Pussino, whose literary erudition was much admired.

His friends and patrons no doubt encouraged him to follow this new tack: Marino, who made him read Ovid; Pozzo, in whose library he could study books on perspective, geometry, optics, architecture, and anatomy and meet learned persons. Had not his beloved Raphael manifested his own intellectualism by glorifying, in painting, the “certa idea” ? Poussin’s admiration for the severe Domenichino worked in the same direction. Domenichino had once declared, “no line not previously shaped in the mind must come from the painter’s hand.”

Orphesus and Eurydice. 1650. While the divine lyrist woose his bride among her maidens, a passer-by standing between him and Eurydice conceals her from his sight just as she is fatally stung by a viper. An enchanted landscape surrounds the scene:in rear, Rome's Castel Sant' Angelo. Read More:

Everything in short, conspired to make Poussin subject by all possible means the act of painting to the will of the intellect. Poussin himself declared that ” a painter is not great if he only imitates what he sees,” and added “skillful persons must work from the Intellect.”

Elsewhere, he inform the French courtier Chantelou, about a projected painting: “Its idea is settled upon , which is the main thing.” Nowhere is this gradual ret

of instinct before thought, of spontaneity before calculation, more evident than in his drawings. Watching a work from first to final sketch, we can follow with what thoroughness he applies to his material “the office of reason.” In the successive steps of The Judgement of Solomon for instance, all picturesque incidentals are gradually removed, until only the heart of the drama remains visible.

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Man’s mind triumphing over matter: this is the very quintessence of the humanist attitude; and the definition of painting which Poussin gives at this stage conforms strictly to the humanist ideal. “Painting is nothing else than the imitation of human actions… ; the others should not be imitated in themselves, except by accident, and not as main elements but as accessories; and in this manner may be imitated not only the actions of animals, but all natural things.”

Judgement of Solomon. 1649. ---Poussin took an intense interest in recreating the appearance of ancient paintings. To this end he often based his figures on classical sculpture and included evocations of the few remaining fragments of Roman landscape painting. He strove, too, for perfect accuracy in depicting the details of classical and early Christian costume, ritual, comportment, and architecture. This required considerable antiquarian research, frequently in consultation with Cassiano dal Pozzo and others. Yet it is important to see in this activity not only a desire for scientific exactitude; it also has the poignancy of reaching for an unattainable ideal. The artist Peter Paul Rubens, who was another friend of Cassiano dal Pozzo, wrote in 1637 that the “examples of the ancient painters can now be followed only in the imagination”—they were elusive like phantoms in a dream. Presumably for Poussin too the desire to recreate ancient painting had something of the character of fantasy. --- Read More: image:

Of all the varieties of matter, the human form is the most faithful conductor of the mental message, the best actor in thought’s play. Poussin’s paintings therefore begin to look literally like a stage on which a dramatic event takes place. Indeed, Poussin took to working out his pictures in three dimensions: he had built a miniature stage on which he set up small wax figures. He then could study distance, relationships, attitudes, folds of dress, and even, by means of lattices behind which he placed candles, the play of light. Hence the waxen “tableau vivant” air that tends to overtake many works of that period.

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