Poussin and Research. A scholar day at the Met

1. Poussin scholar day at the Metropolitan Museum

Exhibitions are quite often the perfect occasion to assemble not only works but also researchers by bringing them together usually for two or three days, be it at times in a fishbowl, close to the paintings. This is known as a colloquium. It is meant to encourage meetings and exchanges among specialists but can easily transform itself into a series of soliloquies, with texts which are prepared before seeing the works gathered there as an ensemble and orators who do not necessarily listen to what others are saying.

In order to encourage a reflection on the extraordinary group of paintings assembled by Pierre Rosenberg in the exhibition Poussin and Nature (a title that avoids falling into the more humdrum genre category of Poussin as landscapist), Keith Christiansen, who did a superb job of mounting the presentation in New York, organized a scholar day, a day spent studying the works themselves which was, by unanimous vote, considered a total success and no doubt more useful (and fun intellectually) than a colloquium. And yet it was not obvious to initiate a dialogue on Poussin’s landscapes : the drawings, many of which have recently been rejected from the catalogue, are still a source of doubt, even conflict, as concerns the attributions ; some landscapes, recently ascribed by Pierre Rosenberg, are not unanimously accepted, others still have uncertain dates, a few benefit (?) from complex iconographic interpretations which do not really convince museum professionals, and even more so when this new subject implies a change in dating ! Furthermore, by accenting landscapes from his early years, small “pochades” with a few vague figures, the curators of the exhibition were asking for endless debates... And that was the case, but they were always constructive and took place as an exchange of ideas.

Recipe for success

How then should one explain the success of the venture ? Some basic parameters should not be overlooked : the warm welcome along with a certain American informality contributed greatly to the smooth flow of these dialogues. When everyone, be it a student or a professor from Columbia, addresses each other by their first name, a French person might smile since he or she is used to the etiquette of Monsieur, Madame for senior colleagues (the Sorbonne still uses the “maître” form) but such an attitude surely predisposes to a free intellectual exchange (ill. 1). There were both exchange and dialogue since Keith Christiansen had taken care to invite (or generously admit) his collaborators for the exhibition at the Met, the curators of other New York museums and university professors interested in the subject (David Rosand, who is very familiar with Venitian pastorals..., and also David Freedberg), as well as Poussin specialists of all kinds, from Ann Sutherland Harris to Jonathan Unglaub, from Elizabeth Cropper to Peter Miller. Four conferences for the general public on the previous Sunday (an initiative that the Louvre no longer dares to try out and yet which filled all five hundred seats in the Met auditorium [1]...) enabled Christiansen to invite European researchers (including Helen Langdon and Richard Verdi) ; and a few Italian friends, landscape specialists, Patrizia Cavazzini and Francesca Cappelletti, had organized their visit to the exhibition in New York around the date in order to participate. Sylvain Laveissière was able to come from Paris on a mission from the Louvre. Philippe de Montebello was present for the greater part of the day proving that weighty responsibilities need not always keep one from attending scientific meetings. In all, about forty people were present, an interesting number for a discussion group. On the sidelines (breakfast and a frugal lunch in keeping with the activities, in the museum’s main hall with its doors wide open on a closing day...), the discussion of the main subject pursued further lines of inquiry. On the whole, the program was chock full. The precise themes were introduced with short presentations and were not just a simple account of the exhibition, more or less followed with comments as is usually the case with accompanying visits to colloquia.

We should also acknowledge two major advantages of this scholar day : first of all, the novelty of the subject. Everyone knows Poussin as a historical painter, and this was in fact the main idea of Anthony Blunt’s monographic study which remains unchallenged. It was also known that he had drawn and painted landscapes, a genre that he practiced starting in the 1640’s. But the exhibition was much more intelligent in extending the theme to include Nature, thus providing a link, if not a continuity, between the bacchanal scenes and the pastorals of the 1620’s, which Poussin sets in an idyllic nature, and the large easel paintings representing a landscape, which Blunt, for once seconded by Mahon, had classified somewhere between “heroic landscapes” (the 1640’s) and “idealized landscapes” (the 1650’s). The second advantage was Keith Christiansen’s intelligence and affability in knowing how to seize each idea, initiate a discussion, put everyone at ease, create a conversational environment, unify the gamut of opinions of art historians with their diverging points of view but who were all delighted to come together and exchange impressions.

Which Poussin ?

The morning session was spent discussing the paintings from the 1620’s. The first two rooms separated in an excellent pedagogical manner the lighter paintings from the early Roman years, of small format, from the bacchanal scenes of 1627-1628, larger compositions which are articulated around a group of human figures, more monumental. For the first, the landscape, even if it is always in the background, remains a fundamental element, the setting for the scene. The Dal Pozzo canvases had been assembled on one wall, notably with the two works from the Patti Birch collection and from Montpellier reunited again forming the landscape with a view of Grottaferrata (with the erotic embrace of Venus and Adonis reminding us by the sense of physical pleasure of the Molested Faun by Bernini hanging at the Met). Amid this remarkably coherent ensemble due to its sensual twilight harmony, recent discoveries fit in extremely well, even if painted rapidly such as The Death of Eurydice (documented) and Narcissus (non-documented). The group of scholars debated more heatedly about the attribution of the Pastoral Scene (cat. 19) and Bacchus’ Childhood (cat. 18), two paintings in which Jean Lemaire studied the composition of the figures and for which one might ask if these are not collaborations (a possibility that is still taboo among Poussin specialists). Whereas the landscape in the first looks good, in the second, constructed in long horizontal bands of paint, with the awkward figure of the young satyr entering the cave, half hidden by the tree, it is hard to understand what he is doing and several participants (scholars...) found it more than doubtful. Likewise, the Landscape with Pan, Midas and the Shepherds (cat. 5) with its anecdotal composition and the overly obvious figures of the shepherds in the foreground in a stark contrast of red and white left many perplex.

In the last ten years or so, attention has focused on the Dal Pozzo inventories (although a publication organizing the quoted works in the various inventories and identifications is still lacking) and enabled the rediscovery of certain paintings from the collection of this patron of Poussin’s. These works are loosely constructed, negligently executed, in a word run contrary to the image of a flawless Poussin. The speed with which they were produced, the artist’s financial straits may indicate that he whipped these out for the market, painting them in just a few days (even less than forty-eight hours according to the restorer Michael Gallagher). Still, is this a reason for ascribing more works to him ? Poussin remains a reference, a convenient one for attributing small mythological and sensual landscapes, with colours influenced by Venetian painting (what Cézanne called in fact his “couillarde” manner). But already in 1664 Monconys ascribed a Narcissus from his youth to the painter and in 1672 Bellori mentioned in his Vite that in the years around 1626 copies “after Poussin” sold better than the originals ! During the scholar day, Patricia Cavazzini indeed pointed out that Agostino Tassi’s inventory mentioned landscapes “after Poussin” as early as 1634, perhaps produced repeatedly in the painter’s Italian workshop [2]... There is no doubt that in the 1620’s there was a Poussin other than the painter of the Germanicus (and who continued even afterwards...) but too many things have been ascribed to him recently. The artist’s production may have been very similar to that of other painters working in the same vein, even collaborating together, as in the case of the drawings at the Museo Cartaceo. Jupiter and Antiope (displayed exceptionally by Christie’s for the occasion here [3]), formerly from Kingston House and ascribed by Anthony Blunt at the time of its auction at Christie’s on 27 May 1983 (lot 52) to the Heytesbury Master is typical of the uncertain advances put forth by the catalogue.

2. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
The Nurture of Bacchus
Oil on canvas - 97 x 136 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Without a doubt, starting in the late 1620’s Poussin focused more and more on the human figure and group compositions. The comparison between the two versions of The Nurture of Bacchus (only the one from the Louvre was here ; ill. 2), is strong proof : the landscape becomes more sketchy, nature provides only a framework and is no longer the setting for the scene. Hence, it is interesting to observe the Landscape with Juno and Argus and Io from Berlin, originally in the Palazzo Giustiniani, and the Landscape with Saint Jerome from the Prado. But the group was puzzled by these two canvases...The first one raises questions concerning dates : the style of the figures (all those on the left half of the canvas, as Pierre Rosenberg wisely pointed out, remain unexplained...) and their smallness recall the works from the 1620’s (the fact that the painting hung above a doorway is not enough to explain this choice as the Massacre of the Innocents in Chantilly was also meant to hang above a door) ; the landscape has little to do with the rather conventional one that reappears as a background in Saint John Baptizing the People (Louvre, 1634-1636) as well as in Armide Transporting the Sleeping Renaud from Berlin (circa 1637). For many of the participants a date around 1630 rather than 1634 seemed more likely for this work that hung next to an architectural scene ascribed to Tassi in the Giustiniani inventory. But right next to it, the Landscape with Saint Jerome from the Prado shows how the art of landscape in Poussin is difficult to grasp in the 1630’s : Keith Christiansen pointed out something which is probably very difficult for a French person to admit : the influence (perhaps even the collaboration ?) of Dughet, notably in the thick density of trees, bushes and rocks that make up the central point of a painting which was obviously meant as part of a series.

Which nature ?

3. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Landscape with a Burning Fortress
Pen and brown ink - 32.2 x 20.5 cm
London, British Museum

Given the absence of small landscapes without figures from London (but present during the show in Bilbao), it is difficult to understand when analyzing the works here how Poussin arrives at the large landscapes of the 1640’s and 1650’s in such an accomplished form as in the two Landscapes with Evangelists (Berlin and Chicago, from 1639-1640). But Keith Christiansen thinks that one should look in the drawings for preliminary stages to these painted landscapes, search in the graphic works for traces of drawings which he must have executed in order to achieve the large landscapes (and also leads to the assumption of a squaring for certain landscapes) and the demonstration by Perrin Stein, with the help of a video-projector in the same room as the drawings, was a memorable moment. By isolating certain details, by inverting motifs, it is in fact possible to reassemble the manner in which Poussin produced his landscapes, from the study of a motif to the ensemble composition in drawing and then finally to the completed painting. There are four distinct “places” in this work of Poussin : the study of the sites, as for example the drawing from Stuttgart with hills and a bridge (cat. 87), partially reproduced in Landscape with Three Monks from Belgrade ; but also the very simple topographical drawings from Angers, New York (cat. 73 and 74) which act as backgrounds for the landscapes from the late 1630’s ; leaf motifs : the manner in which he drew, in wash, dark foliage against a lighter setting in a drawing with a debated attribution (cat. 103) is a perfect forerunner for the foliage motif on the left in Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice ; the intertwining of leaves and rocks in the drawing which was recently reintegrated into the catalogue from Rome (cat. 88) can be found almost identically in Landscape with Three Monks ; the subjects that inhabit Poussin’s imaginary landscapes : the bathers, but also the cliffs that end in a fortress, most often circular and frequently too with escaping ribbons of smoke (ill. 3) ; finally, the elaborate compositions that are reproduced in almost the same way in his paintings (thus the right half of the drawing representing a landscape with a man carrying a net [cat. 45] is practically identical to the right half of Landscape with a Man Frightened by a Serpent).

This opens up a new field of fascinating studies which should facilitate the reproduction of details in certain paintings, particularly using computer imaging. But let us emphasize that it has been made possible by the discovery or the integration of new drawings (cat. 84-87), as well as by reintegrating drawings which had been refused in the Rosenberg-Prat catalogue, which had been forced, and rightly so, to make a drastic selection in order to start off on a sure footing, (cat. 88-92). The importance of these study sheets executed outdoors, acknowledged by Sandrart (thus in a statement prior to 1635) is superbly illustrated by a Poussin drawing showing Dughet sketching a tree (cat. 77) just as it became the custom later for painters at the time of Valenciennes and Goethe [4]... The restoration of Landscape with Three Monks, an intense recreation of nature by Poussin over the whole surface of the canvas, also played a considerable role in this rediscovery of Poussin as someone who observed nature. In this light, the presentation of the restoration by Michael Gallagher was fascinating and we can only hope that his scientific contributions will soon be developed in an article.

The representations of nature from the years between 1648 and 1664 raise fewer problems at first glance than the small landscapes from Poussin’s early years in Rome. The distinction suggested by Blunt between heroic landscapes and idealized or poetic ones was adopted by the exhibition here ; it should probably be modified ; Willibald Sauerländer has made a proposal in the catalogue as a matter of fact for the group from around 1650 of three different categories : moralizing landscapes, landscapes with horror and death, mythological landscapes. Different themes, solitude and retreat, the order of the universe, the power of nature, run through, at times together, all of these magnificent compositions. Problems of attribution are minimal : Pierre Rosenberg’s recent suggestion of ascribing to Poussin the Landscape with Antique Tomb and Two Figures from the Prado (cat. 40) was not approved unanimously although it is perfectly arguable based on an analysis of the stages leading to the work. For Richard Verdi for example, this composition which presents vertical levels runs contrary to the principles of landscape construction in Poussin, and the anecdotic aspect, an accumulation of motifs and references, is indeed far from Poussin’s usual universe which is always orderly. But did the artist wish to paint an antique landscape, imitating a mosaic from Palestrina, as suggested by Keith Christiansen ? Doubts remain concerning the chronology of the works : Félibien places many of the landscapes at 1648-1649, during his stay in Rome and these dates have troubled Mahon ever since he started researching some of Poussin’s canvases : the Landscape with Polyphemus or Diogenes. Dempsey’s suggestion of recognizing the subject of Diogenes leaving Sparta for Athens in Landscape with Three Men from the Prado should have enabled the painting to be identified with the one quoted by Félibien as being painted for Lumague in 1648. Although the style of this work does correspond to the 1650’s, it is nevertheless impossible to see here the “great landscape where Diogenes breaks his bowl” described by Félibien. A later date for the Diogenes from the Louvre, now accepted by Pierre Rosenberg, and suggested by the hang in the room for landscapes from the 1650’s, was not visually obvious. In order to resolve these chronological questions, it was unfortunate that the Polyphemus from Saint Petersburg was not present and, above all, that it will no longer be possible during such scientific meetings to make an exception in moving them just a few meters for testing new hypotheses (when certain museums do not hesitate to ship them longer distances for a few thousand euros) !

4. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Landscape with Three Men
Oil on canvas - 120 x 187 cm
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

There remain the questions concerning iconography. Some American colleagues have a tendency to systematically look for a title referring back to history or mythology for a landscape, and refuse to accept the fact that Poussin might have painted landscapes without a subject. The from the Prado (ill. 4) has thus become Landscape with Diogenes (a figure that is difficult to identify, especially since, as pointed out by Keith Christiansen, the building on the left strongly resembles a Roman church façade). The landscape from Ottawa represents Vertumnus and Pomona, according to Ann Sutherland Harris ; but why not see instead in the old woman and the satyr two different views of Pomona’s beautiful youth and therefore remain faithful to all of the 17th century descriptions of the painting, from Félibien to the Passart inventory and the engravings ?

Keith Christiansen’s remarks on the importance accorded by Poussin to the phenomena of reflections and refractions in his landscapes were more interesting. As soon as he returns to the landscape theme (drawing of Saint Zosimus Giving Communion to Saint Mary the Egyptian, circa 1634), the artist pays careful attention to this rendering of nature, and the almost scientific precision of the optical phenomena (for instance the boat in Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice, the architecture in Landscape with a Calm for the reflections ; the pebbles in The Exposing of Moses from Oxford and Diogenes from the Louvre for refractions) reveal Poussin’s very real interest, and in these vast spectacles of nature it perhaps replaces his attention to perspective in the rigorous constructions of the landscapes from the 1640’s, as pointed out by Silvia Ginzburg. On this point, the Birth of Bacchus from Cambridge is a true allegory of the sense of sight, from colour contrasts to optical phenomena, and Félibien’s account of colours and landscape which starts volume III (1679), not only shares a point in common with Poussin’s painting – the tempest theme – but also all of the reflections on the optical rendering of nature.

Thanks to the variety of subjects that were treated, the different approaches that were implemented and the new leads that were suggested, this session of intellectual exchanges, reflecting as a group, confirms the legitimacy of the new theme of Poussin and nature, already evident in the exhibition and catalogue. It is obvious that nature here is not to be mistaken for just a landscape, whether or not it is historical ; more than just a motif, it constitutes an actual subject for the artist and, just like poetry, accompanies him throughout his “profession of silent things” and the paths of his creativity. During this scholar day, the oral reasoning, the open discussion in front of the works encouraged comments, favouring a visual analysis over a more complex interpretation (but with a little bit of practice, it should be just as feasible to present the latter) although there is no need to oppose this spontaneous museum method to a colloquium, usually more that of a university atmosphere. The real problem behind a scholarly session like this one is how to keep a record of what has been said in the debates and their conclusions or findings. It is the reason for this long report which, unfortunately, cannot communicate the spirit of intellectual pleasure and stimulation found there. In concluding, let us say that the study day planned for Lyon in conjunction with the Poussin exhibition was just as successful and will soon be reviewed here [5].

See also the article about this exhibition.

Olivier Bonfait, vendredi 16 mai 2008


[1] Several lectures had been organized at the same time as the exhibition which the Met did not hesitate to list under its “Education Programs”.

[2] Let us point out that the Getty Provenance Index has just posted online in its database a series of Roman inventories, examined by the late lamented Luigi Spezzaferro, including two on Agostino Tassi.

[3] The painting was put up for auction under the name Poussin on 15 April 2008.

[4] A drawing even bears handwritten notes on the nature of the element represented there (cat. 73), just like the drawings done outdoors around 1800 have notes on the colours.

[5] The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon indeed organized one study days during the exhibition Nicolas Poussin, La Fuite en Egypte, 1657, on 13 May 2008 (a second day open to the public was canceled).

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