The Landscape of Arcadia

John Haber
in New York City

Nicolas Poussin: Arcadian Visions

To modern eyes, landscape offers a choice. Will it be truth or fiction, Winslow Homer's seacoast or Salvador Dalí's melted watch, the picture of a nation or the picture of a mind at play? To look freshly at older art, however, one has to see past the whole dilemma. That is the challenge of a concise survey of Nicolas Poussin, as seen entirely through his landscapes.

If has to sound strange to remember a classicist like Poussin as a landscape painter. Modernism has surely changed how people look at painting, but you probably know a landscape when you see one. A landscape may not have been painted out of doors, and it may not even have begun with sketches or a photograph made on the spot. But it could have, and that is what matters, right, and not some story lifted from ancient Rome? Nicolas Poussin's Landscape with Saint John on Patmos (Art Institute of Chicago, 1640)At the same time, an equally important tradition still has its power, too, the ideal of nature as something close to the human spirit. Landscapes allow people to feel as if they had purchased a bigger house—or a larger imagination.

In other words, landscape invites more than one leap of the imagination. It lets art break out of the gallery and into the world. It takes painting and drawing closer to nature. But landscapes allow viewers to feel that they have broken out as well. Landscape, then, offers to bring viewers closer to nature—including their own. Landscape painting's search for human nature or human history has to do with more than outward appearances after all.

And so it does for Poussin. The Met calls its show "Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions." Does that make him a naturalist or a visionary? As always, Poussin kept his answers clear, crisp, short, sweet, and ambiguous. He helped give French painting a classical ideal, but like another Frenchman, Valentin de Boulogne, he went to modern Rome to discover it for himself. He set Baroque painting in the ancient world, but he brought out the dark side of Arcadia, the ancient ideal of pastoral simplicity.

Neither realism nor Romanticism

Like most empires, France had its vision of human destiny, and in 1640 Louis XIII ordered Poussin back to Paris to paint it. As First Painter of the Ordinary, Poussin established a model for others, and the Met makes its usual fuss over how much he mattered in centuries to come. Wall labels quote painters in the thick of realism and Romanticism, including John Constable. Golly, Sir Joshua Reynolds owned works on display. One has first, however, to disentangle Poussin from his distant followers. One also has to disentangle him from some preconceptions now.

For starters, one has to take care with what Poussin meant by landscape. L'École des Beaux Arts, founded under Louis XIV, led eventually to the French Academy and helped to set a hierarchy of genres. Moral history or religious painting mattered most, with landscape or, worse, domestic scenes ranking somewhere down the line. However, one should not think of landscape today—or even the great age of Dutch painting, with its specialists in cows, forests, or seascapes. Every one of Poussin's landscapes has a "serious" subject, often from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Asked to illustrate the four seasons, he chose four episodes from the Old Testament.

His rival in landscape, Claude Lorrain, made sunlight itself a Classical ideal. Poussin's landscapes have increasingly rich, darkening skies, but death lurks everywhere right from the start. Shepherds discover it on a gravestone, inscribed Et in Arcadia Ego—"and I, too, am in Arcadia." The myths that Poussin so cherished usually end in death, and his paintings combine myths freely, to say the least. At least two works show men fleeing a snakebite, with no clear source in Ovid or anywhere else. He likes architecture best when some of it lies in ruins.

However, the ruins have nothing at all to do with the origins of Romanticism, a movement far in the future. Nineteenth-century debates over Classicism and Romanticism would have meant nothing to the early Baroque. Poussin's contemporaries did recognize "the picturesque," long before today's art of endangered places, but the Met rightly contrasts that style with his economy. It includes an entire wall of drawings known only as Group G—after Gaspard Dughet, Poussin's brother-in-law, who may have had a hand in some. The unknown artist or, more likely, artists loved dappled sunlight and milky shadows across open terrain. In Poussin's own works on paper, even shadows function as drawing, contributing to a composition's overall structure.

Landscapes also demonstrate his powers of observation, from reflections on water to pen studies of natural history. Scenes set in Biblical times include the Castel Sant'Angelo and other buildings in Rome. However, Poussin is not out to deconstruct belief. The Renaissance had long ago inserted entire cities into religious scenes, starting with Fra Angelico. Landscape thus inspired individual belief, gave myth greater immediacy, and encompassed in one painting the paradox of a god's presence in human life. Besides, people did not call Rome "the eternal city" for nothing.

For Poussin, people and landscape belong together, because every landscape bears human significance. No doubt that holds in one way or another for any country and any period. Dutch artists like Jacob van Ruisdael used the land to express their pride in a nation—its economy, its freedom, and its place in the world. More modern landscape painters struggle with a sense of place amid city, country, and suburbia. However, while Poussin based his paintings on drawings of both pure landscapes and people, he felt that he had to combine them. He makes one ask just why that combination matters so very much.

The earth in motion

With Poussin, then, landscape amounts to a more or less arbitrary category. The Met could have excluded some early works, in which a clump of trees suffice as a stage set. It could have included Poussin's Holy Families, as evocative and mysterious as he gets. It has instead nobly ferreted out forty paintings and about as many drawings, including his Group G. Now that history painting seems remote to average museum-goers, Poussin's landscapes do as much as a museum could to get across a famously icy career. Somehow, it overflows the long galleries for special exhibitions of European paintings.

Poussin did not start as a prodigy, although he came to attention in Normandy in his teens. He turned thirty in 1624, when the show opens (and he married only at thirty-six). Like Peter Paul Rubens and others before him, he had just traveled from Paris to Italy, to witness at first hand antiquity and the Renaissance, especially Titian. Like Rubens, too, he fell just as much for the new art of Caravaggio and the Baroque. Like Camille Corot some three hundred years later, he found something else as well—the play of sunlight on the cylinders and planes of Roman architecture.

His paintings of the 1620s combine those influences, and they almost drown in Roman color. He surrounds his shepherds and satyrs with Titian's winding trees and a rush of leaves. The cast has unnaturally ruddy flesh tones, with olive underpainting to bring out shadows. A sharp yellow white adds highlights. Often a patch of sun marks the composition's center, as the only visible symmetry. Poussin uses limbs, urns, and trees in perspective to draw the space toward the viewer, and he gives his characters lots of musculature, but they appear to lack solid skeletons.

Everything, then, has as much bulk as possible, but everything is in motion. Landscape is an expression of human action and an active mind. Forests seem devoid of birds or animals, unless they have a role to play in human life. Sometimes a mountain peak or a tree echoes a pose, not just because Poussin takes so much care for structure, but also to bring humanity and nature together and alive. One could just as well say that the poses echo the spirit of a Classical landscape. The Romantics, too, consider representation as an imaginative act, not just passive reflection—but they were supplying a model for observation itself as much as for the intellect or for art. Nicolas Poussin's Summer: Ruth and Boaz seen up close (Louvre, 1660–1664)

Not that Poussin has a terribly optimistic view of human nature. Mythic heroes and heroines, like the satyrs, indulge in the usual hungers for vanity, alcohol, or sex. Still, nothing truly violent disturbs the calm. Nothing disturbs the artist's equanimity either. Rather, he sees Arcadia as more naive than either crude or ideal. The shepherds come upon death as if they had never heard of it before.

Next come most of the drawings. Maybe the Met knows that it has presented a slow learner. On paper, Poussin's terse, repeated pen strokes outline objects in space. They serve as a bridge from coarse light and flesh to the artist's maturity. Yet they, too, do not lose a lot of time in the study of anatomy rather than of motion. In the occasional pen wash, groups of figures flow happily together.

Decline and fall

The first break comes just around the return to France. For a king or for himself, Poussin turns to a larger scale—and to the puzzle of what constitutes a Classical world. Lighting and flesh tones normalize. The landscapes deepen, with a clear distinction between foreground, middle ground, and background, where Poussin gives more space to imperial Rome. He must have liked that the Castel Sant'Angelo dates from the Emperor Hadrian.

These busy scenes have no room for Renaissance symmetry and simplicity, but they have a command of geometry, a striking illusionism, and a clear focus. The main action usually takes place at center foreground, perhaps emphasized by a fallen architectural column. The nominal subjects include such right and proper characters as the Evangelists or Saint Jerome. A figure's seated pose, with a book or other prop projecting in depth, adds to his volume and dignity. A patch of trees to either side often frames the action in the upper corners, while subordinate scenes flit by in the middle distance. Their horizontal motion defines the composition as a sequence of staggered planes.

Still, Poussin sees the ancient world as an imagined world, an active world, and already a fallen world. In the Renaissance, Christian scenes often took place against pagan incomprehension or Roman ruins. Poussin, in contrast, loves the ruins at least as much as Biblical prophecy. Foolishly or not, people go about their business in the background, and much the same myths as ever proliferate in front. Diogenes the Cynic is as close as the paintings come to a philosopher and a hero. In his self-portrait of around 1650, Poussin looks like a cynic himself—or as Anthony Blunt argued, a stoic—amid the almost abstract geometry of picture frames, their backs turned to the viewer.

A touch of cynicism may explain why Poussin lost patience so quickly with career rivalries in Paris. Back in Rome after just three years, he deepens the landscapes. Finally, in his sixties, with pain in his fingers and painting a struggle, the limitations only increase his economy and add to his technique. These darker works are harder for the eye to navigate—and sometimes hard for even scholars to decipher fully—but more vibrant in naturalism and feeling. As ever, stoicism comes without violence, anger, or loss of sympathy. Storms gather, but they do not break.

Abstraction and photography have further cemented the connection of painting to the imagination. Only Sunday painters set up easels in Central Park anyway. However, America has always invested the land with myths of decline and fall. It has passed through the Framer's battles between central and agricultural economics, through the advance west, and through the sprawl and disappointments of today. Once the frontier leads only to globalization, what else is left but the imagination? The first great paintings of The Course of Empire, by Thomas Cole, preceded America's ambitions abroad—and the latest, by Ed Ruscha, may well have followed their collapse.

In myths like these, nature serves as something left behind, but also something people are fated to reclaim. Poussin understood that arc, but he did not romanticize it as tragedy or comedy. The curators—including Pierre Rosenberg, former director of the Louvre—stress Poussin's magic and all but dismiss his erudition, but can one ever really separate the two? Between observation and idealism, he creates a space for at once rationality and ambiguity. Human instinct comes and goes, but the imagination resumes its sway.

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"Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 11, 2008. Related reviews have looked at drawings from the French Academy, Nicolas Poussin's "Holy Family on the Steps," and the life of the greatest Poussin scholar, Anthony Blunt.


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