Nicolas Poussin. The Flight into Egypt

Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 15 February to 19 May 2008.

1. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
The Flight into Egypt
Oil on canvas - 97 x 133 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts

The museum in Lyon managed to obtain the deposit of The Flight into Egypt by Nicolas Poussin, in danger of being sold abroad, after the Ministry of Culture listed it as a “national treasure” and as a result of Sylvie Ramond’s patient fundraising labours among patrons in Lyon along with the Louvre’s prestigious name and network of supporters (see news item of 18/7/07) that finally clinched the deal. Following its display at the Louvre, The Flight into Egypt has settled into its new home. And the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon has taken the opportunity to present a very intelligent temporary exhibition to honor this newly acquired work. The show is organized around a theme, and is more ambitious than the usual exhibitions on a single subject. In the hands of Isabelle Dubois, it assembles, around The Flight, works by contemporaries (Champaigne, Stella, Bourdon and Il Domenichino) that feature childhood scenes from Christ’s life and confronts them with versions of similar scenes by Poussin as well as other works by him done at around the same time as The Flight (which, it is generally agreed based on statements by André Félibien and various authors of the time, is from 1657, thus the artist’s last period since he died in 1665 at the age of seventy-one). The Louvre, as well as the National Gallery of Dublin, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge have all lent the museum in Lyon a rich selection of works reflecting one of the major sources of inspiration for traditional religious painting in order to help the museum-goer better understand Poussin’s originality and the importance of this canvas.

2. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
The Massacre of the Innocents, 1626-1627
Oil on canvas - 97.5 x 131.5 cm
Paris, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
Photo : RMN-Bulloz

As always in Lyon, the quality and insight of the visit are striking. But, this time, in conjunction with the excellent Internet website the museum has just put in place particularly for this exhibition, pedagogical interests are at the heart of the presentation : numerous explanatory signs impeccably written, computer monitors for “entering” the exhibition’s featured painting, free brochures providing all the necessary information – and even more – about the historical background of the Flight, comparisons, x-rays, analyses… All of these are far from being superfluous as the exhibition, alas, does not have an accompanying catalogue. It should appear this fall, welcome news !

The show opens with Poussin’s Self-Portrait lent by Berlin (a beautiful version painted the same year as the one at the Louvre, less formal and showing the artist at work rather than fixed in time), and starts with a section devoted to “Christ’s Childhood, from the Massacre of the Innnocents to The Flight into Egypt”, continues with a second one only on Poussin with six works from the same period as The Flight, before treating – in a poorly convincing manner due to a lack of documents - a “Presentation of The Flight’s patron, the silk manufacturer (soyeux) from Lyon, Jacques Sérisier” and finishes, after a short detour via three “Engravings after the painting” (Benoît Audran, Pietro Delpo, Pierre Landry – all three from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France), with a “Detailed study of the composition, the sources of inspiration and the work’s reception through engravings”. Forgetting the rather useless portion devoted to Sérisier, the stated purpose of the exhibition appears perfectly put together, well developed and, ultimately, fascinating.

In the section on Christ’s Childhood, as recounted by texts – canonical, apocryphal and even up till the late Légende dorée by Jacques de Voragine (15th c.) – the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, based on Poussin’s works (in this case, three canvases – The Massacre of the Innocents from the Petit Palais in Paris (ill. 2), The Rest during the Flight into Egypt from Saint Petersburg and The Return from Egypt from the Dulwich in London – plus The Flight into Egypt presented in the second section) sets up parallels and contrasts between these and other works on the same subject by contemporary artists : there is the superb Flight into Egypt by Champaigne (around 1655, Senlis) and another one by François Verdier from Orléans, three versions of The Rest by Il Domenichino, Sébastien Bourdon (Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon) and Henri Mauperché on loan from the Louvre, two Massacres of the Innocents (a terra-cotta by Ambroise Frédeau from the Augustins in Toulouse and a very expressive canvas by an anonymous Roman artist from the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence). The comparison continues with about ten engravings, inspired by Poussin canvases and produced by Bourdon, Blanchet, Dughet and Stella, some of which constitute a veritable “series” on the Childhood of Christ (Bourdon and, to a lesser degree, Stella), all of which reveal a marvellous depth of features that lends life to the human figures. After taking in these comparisons, it is quite obvious that, besides the strictly artistic quality of the works, Poussin has in each case made an original choice, favoring the human rather than the metaphysical aspect (the traditional angels are replaced by human servants in a environment that is also humanized and stylized). For instance, in The Flight into Egypt which presents the Holy Family walking next to the donkey (unlike the usual stereotypes which sit Mary astride the animal), the eye follows the looks of the three figures towards the Angel who is guiding them. He is firmly showing them the way but Mary is half-turned as if regretting the Promised Land they have left behind, Joseph is anxiously questioning the heavenly messenger while the Child, in the arms of His Mother, stares sideways at the spectator. The future, he seems to be saying, is elsewhere, neither ahead of them (Egypt) towards a present that will never be other than a stopping point, nor behind them (Palestine) towards the land of the old Religion, but somewhere else, towards the promise of a new Eden, still undetermined, and which will have to be constructed. And in the background on the left, a sky which is progressively clear of clouds seems to indicate that it is indeed behind them, towards the Romanized Judea symbolized by a portico, that the sun of a new dawn will rise.

3. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
The Annunciation, 1657
Oil on canvas - 104.3 x 103.1 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : Londres, National Gallery

There is no doubt that it would be useful to study Poussin’s paintings from the same period as the one highlighted here (1657) : The Annunciation at the National Gallery in London and, at the other extreme of Christ’s life, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ at the National Gallery of Ireland, as well as the engravings inspired by The Flight into Egypt. Nevertheless, this specialized exhibition, of remarkable quality in every aspect, opens the way for a larger thematic approach that would extend the current one : to be organized over several years, in thematic and chronological order around religious art and which would demonstrate in the same rigorous manner as this exhibition the different stylistic approaches in this Classical and post – Trident century of apparently traditional and non-innovative subjects for those who cast only a quick glance at it.

Visitor Informations : Musée des Beaux-Arts, 20, place des Terreaux, 69001 Lyon. Phone : +33 (0) Open Wednesday, Thursday, Satureday, Sunday and Monday from 10.00 to 18.00. Friday from 10.30 to 18.00. Tuesday closed. Fees : 6 € and 4 € (reduced).

Internet Website

Daniel Couty, vendredi 16 mai 2008

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Exhibitions : Charles Meynier

Next article in Exhibitions : Poussin and Research. A scholar day at the Met