In Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the snobbish Mme de Cambremer at one point exclaims, “In heavens name, after a painter like Monet, who is an absolute genius, don’t go an mention an old hack without a vestige of talent, like Poussin. I don’t mind telling you frankly that I find him the deadliest bore.” As Proust place it in time, that remark symbolized the disdain with which Poussin’s work was viewed by many people of cultural pretensions, not only then, but during the decades before and after. It was a reaction to the excess of praise heaped on Poussin during his life. After his death he was embalmed in pompous glory and petrified by this kiss of death, he gradually became smothered under accumulating layers of prejudice, ignorance and yellow varnish…
…With relentless logic, Proust carried his process of rationalization still further. Remembering that Cicero had called gestures “the language of the body” , he turned them into a downright semaphore. To make his pictures still more “understandable” , he specified the characters’ expressions with such precision that fear, anger, joy, or any emotion could be deciphered with ease on the faces of his heroes. A contemporary commentator went so far to claim that you could tell from the faces of the bystanders in his Baptism of Christ that a voice was speaking to them from heaven.
Only a short step was required to standardize this repertory of “faces” into a veritable code: a recipe for the depiction of states of mind, moods, feelings, became as regular a stand-by for the academic painters of the next two centuries as famous cookbooks are to chefs. It found its ultimate use in caricature. One wonders whether the creators of Mickey Mouse or Li’l Abner realize how much they owed to the severe Poussin.
“To introduce judgement everywhere,” was his aim, and he neglected nothing. Like a film director obsessed with authenticity, he made certain that every prop, every detail, was plausible and historically correct. In his eagerness to make painting talk, he multiplied allegorical figures as in Landscape with Polyphemus. His river-gods, as one of his collectors remarked, are like ” signs the painter places in the picture to make the meaning clearer.”
Poussin became incredible expert at such signaling. No wonder the learned members of the Academy couls spend endless hours reading the Manna! The danger inherent in Poussin’s fanatical purpose is obvious: it could, it sometimes almost does, make him the world’s most insufferable painter. He would have achieved this dubious distinction had he had his way:His favorite among his own pictures was The Judgement of Solomon, a work so frozen that it justifies even Madame de Cambremer’s yawn. Poussin was spared this fate, because ironically, what saved him was that things inevitably got out of hand.
Poussin had striven for correctness, propriety, versimilitude; yet he found himself exposed to almost grotesque misunderstandings. One critic pointed out that in the Mana he had given the Jews a starved look, although according to the Bible they had feasted on a miraculous flight of quail the previous day. Another carped at the omission of he camel in Eliezer and Rebecca. In short, Poussin’s reason got him trapped in fantasy. His striving for legibility backfired: the pious Madame du Housset, to owned the Vergilian Shephers of Arcady, had placed it in her chapel thinking it was an altarpiece.
The late landscapes are images of heavenly beauty, and yet many historians today believe that they were born of Poussin’s disgust for the evils of the earth. Certainly, his letters of these years are filled with bitter and angry comments about the political turmoil that beset Europe, especially the Fronde, the civil war that raged in France from 1648 to 1653. For example, in a letter in August 1648 Poussin wrote:
I fear the malignity of our times. Virtue, conscience and religion are banished among men. Nothing but vice, trickery and self-interest reign. All is lost. I have lost hope in the existence of Good. Everything is filled with evil.
It was in a state of despair that Poussin turned to making pictures of a more perfect world. Read More:http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/apr/17/the-magical-painting-of-poussin/?page=2