Point of Order

John Haber
in New York City

Poussin, Claude, and Their World

Since when did academic art look airy, almost indistinct, and constantly in motion? Oh, since about 350 years ago.

Drawings back then may not overturn Classicism's insistence on order or an academy's rigor. Yet an exhibition at the Frick offers fresh insights into what lay behind such lofty aims.

The course of empire

Claude's The Disembarkation of Aeneas and His Companions in Latium (École des Beaux-Arts, 1640–1650)It does sound like a recipe for anything but art from seventeenth-century France. French painting had long sought courtliness and court favor, and its Baroque flourished in an age of empire and magnificence. In style quite as much as geography, the nation stood between Italy's stress on the human figure, the outsize narratives of Flemish art, and Dutch stillness and contemplation. It draws from all of these, for an art of great aims, somber subjects, enameled surfaces, and reason's firm hold on the imagination. It looks forward to an age of reason without giving up its dedication to faith and authority.

Classicism naturally looks to ancient Rome, too, for models and themes. Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain still evoke a calm, if not downright cold perfection. Poussin's figures may gesture boldly or look within, but they demand silence, almost like statues. Claude's landscapes include castles, monuments, and towers, but the woods themselves might pass for architectural studies.

A fluid brush sounds stranger still when academic standards put it on display. Can Poussin and Claude be visiting America from a school dating back to 1648? L'École des Beaux-Arts has always intended its collection for study and instruction. Its 15,000 sheets now range through the nineteenth century and over much of Europe. Yet it remains strong in the period from about 1620 to 1680, when Classicism triumphed.

The Frick focuses on just that period. The show's very title, "Poussin, Claude, and Their World," evokes this art's elevation of ideas, an intangible world, above appearances. Its seventy-one drawings, arranged by artist, close in on techniques and ideas more than the evolution of a period. One sees all genres, from myth and the Bible to portraiture and landscape. Some works served as preparation for murals or tapestries, a notable specialty of François Boucher, rather than paintings. Clearly these artists must defer to the needs of state.

And well they should. Cardinal Mazarin and Louis XIV themselves founded the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In 1796, thanks to quite another frighteningly top-down government, it merged with the Academy of Architecture, taking the shape and name it still has today. Its purity lasted through the melt-down of the French Salon. Naturally it resides in a former convent.

Yet the drawings at the Frick have a stubborn freshness. Just how startling? Think again of an academy and France's more popular artistic neighbors.

Back to class

An academy must teach perspective, and Baroque art in Europe makes one expect that all the more. To the south, Italy's mathematical minds created an architecture for painting. To the north, the Dutch experimented with the camera obscura, if not nearly so mechanically as David Hockney likes to think. As Svetlana Alpers puts it, northern painters bring a mapping instinct to their detailed street scenes and intricate interiors.

Yet the French toss figures freely around a sheet. When they do not have enough going on, they toss in a few more. If one expects a static symmetry from Classicism, forget it. Of all the artists here, only a minor one, Grégoire Huret, troubles to work out a perspective grid. The rest begin with human action as the best expression of conduct and states of mind. If these draftsmen seek at once balance and movement, they are really playing moralists and psychologists.

The surprises extend to the role of a school. Certainly an academy knows the value of clarity. From the Italians, too, one learns an intense, downright unnerving focus on the central action. When Artemisia Gentileschi depicts an act of revenge, the blood all but spurts out of the canvas. The Dutch, too, delight in plain old storytelling. Think of those interiors, almost out of Upstairs, Downstairs.

Yet in France the extras take over the play. Staffage—those nameless figures that traditionally set off a composition, provide filler, stand in for the viewer, and guide one's reception—instead often carry the plot. Sébastien Bourdon's Christ might as well say, "Suffer little children to obscure me."

Most of all, the surprises come with the whole idea of drawing as the rendering of people and things. An academy has to teach just that. The Renaissance in Italy began with sculpture, and ever since human anatomy set the bar for a budding artist. Up north, Vermeer defines a woman's emotional crisis by the objects she holds. He and other Dutch painters give people and still life the intimacy of a private conversation.

Yet French drawing rarely starts with firm contours, and it rarely ends with strict observation. Instead of the brittle drawing that grew ever more rigid up through the Victorians, nudes have wiggly outlines. Figures all but melt amid brown washes. It all makes a rather casual excuse for musculature, but it turns the spotlight on motion—and the active imagination.

The active mind

I could almost take this easygoing naturalism for granted. Sure, drawings are like that—and not because artists necessarily have some sort of "natural" impulse once they lower their guard. Rather, modern art has made signs of personal expression the norm, especially when it comes with bitter self-parody. One with a little background in art may feel even more at home. Historians long defined the Baroque as the triumph of the "painterly" over the "linear." Diagonals and depth, insist the formalists, quickly displaced symmetry in two dimensions.

However, one makes a big mistake taking the French style for granted, and the first collectors, such as Goethe himself, knew better. These drawings give unaccustomed insight into an artist's world. I had a hint from the show's very first drawing. It shows a door, with panels filled in here and there, each more ornate than the last. This frame of mind starts with the general idea. Then it complicates matters as far as they will go—and then some.

This art values at once grandeur, complexity, imagination, clarity, and economy, and it refuses to sit still. Balance requires a little more over here, but that just throws the balance off a little more. The result argues for a human presence in nature or in things, and it puts that imaginative presence above naturalism. It couples balance with constant motion, as the finest expression of an active mind.

French artists bring that expression home in different ways. For Simon Vouet, it means the loose curls of hair and tense eyebrows that animate an official portrait. They suggest warmth and intelligence, qualities that go together in a Classical world.

For Laurent de La Hyre or Eustache Le Sueur, it means giving gravity to a character that one might well ignore in the finished painting. Le Sueur's man in a broad robe bears a pile of books with a heft equal to his own. One would never dream that he carries those books, from pagan authors, for a proper Christian burning. In the painting, Saint Paul will have preached, and this man may get lost in a crowd. His study has no less dignity for that.

As Le Sueur suggests, the Baroque gives actors moral choices, often with a discomforting side. For that very reason, art pushes its own ideal past the breaking point. In lesser artists on display, this too often seems by accident. Thankfully, the Frick gives most space to two artists savvy enough to anticipate their own deconstruction. Poussin and Claude cherish the ideal in action and catch it as it breaks.

Ideal and shadow

In Claude's imagined world, a warm light and a green shade make nature a human ideal. One senses the full colors of sunlight and trees even in pen, brown ink, brown wash, and a few white and pink highlights. The white, for the sun and its reflections, reaches across the water to touch Aeneas and his companions as they disembark in Latium. Trees and clouds echo one another to frame a castle perfectly at the right—all delicately calibrated against the slimmer but darker and more articulated mass of Aeneas's ship at the opposite edge of the paper. Birds fly in a perfect row, far above the tired soldiers, but the men alone grasp what it means to have at last reached shore.

As so often, Claude prefers a mythical landscape. Aeneas lets him off from recognizable scenes like those dear to the Dutch. In an overwhelmingly stagy The Sermon on the Mount, a painting upstairs in the Frick's permanent collection, it hardly matters that Jesus would have needed more amplification than an arena rock concert. His tiny figure sits high above the throngs below and the teeming land behind them. His densely wooded mountain rises up like a dark green mushroom cloud.

Not that Claude left sketches from nature to the Impressionists. He in fact made working outdoors into a necessary part of academic training. Still, he might have finished his drawing here in the studio, and one cannot so much as make out the kind of tree. John Constable's portraiture of clouds lies way in the future. Claude was out to observe the twists and turns of branches and leaves—but as feeling and not botany. The more elevated the scene, the more darkness and activity it must comprehend.

Poussin comes off best of all, at least to one with lingering discomfort at Classicism's stringency. On the one hand, he has unmatched economy. Brown washes define at once form, contour, and shadow. White from the paper gives a seamless illusion of highlights. On the other hand, he stages the most complex of dramas. I remembered again Anthony Blunt, the art historian and Soviet spy, who gave a creative lifetime to the study of Poussin. Did Blunt find an escape from the compromises of real life—or their fulfillment?

The lead actresses in Poussin's The Judgment of Solomon, one on each side, frantically plead their unequal cases. Solomon sits dead center and yet barely visible, in light ink, behind the confused and confusing onlookers. The sword of judgment rises above the child in the foreground, more important than anything the king could say now. When I finally stumbled on his throne and his delicate features, he looked more young, agonized, and vulnerable than commanding.

Poussin knows that one will put in the effort to spot him. He knows that art must reward this effort with a nobility equal to a kingdom, a king's judgment, and a fitting moral parable. And all that pushes the artist to the limits and terror of Solomon's wisdom.

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"Poussin, Claude, and Their World: 17th-Century French Drawings from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris" ran through December 1, 2002, at The Frick Collection.


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