Poussin and Nature

New York, Metropolitan Museum, from 12 February to 11 May 2008.
The exhibition was previously in Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes, from 8 October 2007 to 13 January 2008.

The Poussin exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, which arrived here from Bilbao, cannot be reduced to its title alone. First of all because it is a veritable retrospective given the continuous presence of nature and landscapes throughout the different periods of the artist’s career and although the theme automatically excludes such masterpieces as Germanicus and the Judgement of Solomon, it is still possible to understand Poussin without these. The other reason that the subject is not in itself profoundly significant is that, except for some of the introductory essays in the catalogue, the problematics of Poussin and Nature are not really treated. In fact, the only reproach we might make concerning this otherwise admirable display is that the entries would have been the same no matter which works were assembled for a Poussin exhibition. One gets the impression that the theme was merely a pretext for Pierre Rosenberg to organize a monographic presentation once again, after that of 1994, of one of his favourite painters. No matter, it is after all remarkable.

1. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Venus and Adonis
On the left, piece belonging to the
Patti Bich 1991 Trust (on loan to the Metropolitan Museum)
On the right, piece belonging to the
Musée Fabre de Montpellier
Oil on canvases - 77 x 88 cm (left) - 74.5 x 112 cm (right)

We would highly recommend a visit to the Metropolitan Museum. Poussin is not easy to understand as an artist. He requires much effort and one has to enter his particular world. Bu those who make it will be duly rewarded by the marvels they find there, in this case ones that are rarely or almost never seen. The curators, Rosenberg and Keith Christiansen, have chosen to highlight discoveries, notably works from his early years. Visitors can enjoy seeing many paintings that were absent from the retrospective in Paris and London in 1994. The first room features these canvases, often published already but never before shown to the public. Particularly remarkable is the small Narcissus (cat. 16) which is so poetic belonging to an American private collection, the pair of Apollo and a Nymph and The Death of Eurydice also in private hands (cat. 1 and 2) and Apollo and Daphne owned by Sir Harold Lancer (cat. 4). In this first gallery, the most impressive painting is in two pieces : the Venus and Adonis from Montpellier has been reunited here with its left half, cut off in the 18th century most probably by an unscrupulous art dealer who managed to produce two art works (ill. 1). A common frame joins the two fragments. Surprisingly, the two pieces look as if they had been preserved together as they seem to have aged in the same manner. This fact will no doubt encourage Michel Hilaire, the director of the Musée de Montpellier, in his determination to bring them together permanently. He has the support of the museum authorities. The former owner, recently deceased, had almost decided to sell. Her heirs will now have to be persuaded. Their piece of Poussin had been on deposit at the Metropolitan Museum for some years. Philippe de Montebello, in a particularly generous gesture, stated that he backed the French museum’s initiative and would do all he could to help it acquire the work. Among the exhibits from other French museums, Midas at the Source of the River Pactolus from the Musée Fesch, sometimes underestimated, holds up well under scrutiny alongside other important early works such as the other version of the same subject at the Metropolitan Museum and The Arcadian Sheperds by Chatsworth.

2. Anonymous artist (G Group)
Two Birch Trees, One Broken
Pen and brown ink, brown wash - 25.6 x 18.6 cm
Vienna, Albertina

3. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
The Infant Bacchus Entrusted to the Nymphs of Nysa
Pen and brown ink, brown wash - 22.9 x 37.5 cm
Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museum

Another of the exhibition’s points of interest, though it may be disconcerting for less enlightened visitors, is the attempt to separate in a definitive manner Poussin’s drawings from those going by the name "G Group". These are a set of sheets ascribed to the artist for a long time but which critics – at least Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat in their catalogue raisonné of drawings – tend to atttribute to one, or even several, anonymous artists other than Poussin (ill. 2).
If we are to be frank, the demonstration is not entirely convincing. Although it is easy to understand why several of these are not attributable to Poussin, the criterion set here for separating one from the other is really only at times a matter of appreciation. We would not venture to call into question any of the hypotheses but there is no doubt that the issue is yet to be resolved. This in no way spoils the pleasure of admiring many of the sheets, whether or not they are by the master himself. The choice of presenting the drawings (ill. 3) in different rooms throughout the visit is an excellent one. Too many retrospectives overlook this aspect, thus giving only a partial vision of the featured artist.

4. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Landscape with Saint Jerome
Oil on canvas - 155 x 234 cm
Madrid, Museo del Prado

5. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Landscape with a Calm
Oil on canvas - 97 x 131.5 cm
Los Angeles, Getty Museum

The quality of the hang, entirely in the hands of Keith Christiansen, should also be commended. This is particularly obvious in the room preceding the G Group drawings which assembles some of the artist’s major masterpieces. There are of course fewer surprises here but seeing Landscape with Saint Jerome from the Prado (ill. 4), which was not at the 1994 retrospective, next to Landscape with Saint Matthew from Berlin and Landscape with Saint John in Patmos from Chicago is pure heaven. One might wonder if it was really necessary to add A Roman Road (Dulwich), a copy, and presented as such. Surprisingly, for someone like Poussin who was so careful in preparing and painting his canvases – he is the exact opposite of a Fa Presto – the technique he used has not survived the test of time as well as might have been expected. In several of the paintings, the brown preparation layer is resurfacing, rendering an unpleasant aspect to the overall effect. This is particularly true at the beginning of his career, but not only. For instance, in this room, The Finding of Moses from the Louvre is definitely at a disadvantage. A bit further, the marvellous conservation of Landscape with a Calm from the Getty (ill. 5) is in stark contrast and reveals the artist at his fullest powers.

6. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun
Oil on canvas - 97 x 131.5 cm
New York, Metropolitan Museum

And yet Poussin resists the passage of time and does not seem to age as witnessed by the extraordinary painting in the last room representing a Landscape with Three Monks, also known as La Solitude. Although it is known and has been published in all of the artist’s catalogues raisonnés, few people could boast having seen it. It hung for many years in Tito’s office ! Despite its poor condition – it has undergone a major restoration for this exhibition – it is nonetheless a magnificent work with its grand dominating landscape, almost crushing the three religious figures which seem so frail in comparison. With its all pervasive nature, if there is one painting which exemplifies the title of the exhibition, this is it. At the end of the visit, the museum goer will once again delight in the rich number of masterpieces, from Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe from Frankfurt to Blind Orion from the Metropolitan (ill. 6), without forgetting two of the four Seasons from the Louvre that made the trip here. These works also reveal Poussin’s ties with nature which seem almost to evoke a deistic vision of the world. Those who like Poussin will leave the exhibition with a confirmation of their feelings for him. For all the others, who were still indifferent to his talent, they will have a hard time resisting his attraction. Poussin is undoubtedly one of the greatest painters of the 17th century.

Pierre Rosenberg and Keith Christiansen (ed.), Poussin and Nature, Yale University Press, 414 p., $65 (hardcover) ; $45 (paperback). ISBN : 9780300136685 (hardcover) ; ISBN : 9781588392435 (paperback).

Visitor Information : Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street New York. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 9.30 - 17.30, Friday and Sunday 9.30 - 21.00. Suggested fees : $20 ($15 Senior ; $10 Students).

Didier Rykner, mercredi 23 avril 2008

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