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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.