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28.3.08

Ionarts at the Met: Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin, Self-Portrait, Musée du Louvre
Nicolas Poussin, Self-Portrait, 1650, Musée du Louvre
Part of my last day in New York was spent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, especially in the exhibit Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions. It opens with the Louvre's self-portrait of Nicolas Poussin (not officially part of the exhibit and not in the catalogue), a beautiful painting pregnant with meaning. Painted in 1650 for Poussin's friend and supporter Paul Fréart de Chantelou, it shows the painter in front of several of his paintings, crowded together. The only visible part of a canvas contains the allegorical figure of painting, identified by the crown she wears, bejeweled with the eye of discernment (see the close-up). Painting is enfolded into the arms of friendship, a tribute to the importance of friendly patrons.

Poussin may not be the most popular painter, a lesser status indicated by the small attendance in a museum generally mobbed with people, but he was revered by just about everyone who came after him. The exhibit, organized in conjunction with Bilbao's Museo de Bellas Artes, focuses on Poussin's skills as a draftsman, with a large number of drawings, and as the creator of a celebrated type of pastoral landscape, the Arcadian vision of the title. The paintings here are not his most famous, but the chance to see so many lesser-known works, drawn from private collections and small museums from all over the world, is worth the effort. For example, Poussin's most famous painting, Et in Arcadia ego, is not here, but a lesser-known painting, from the Devonshire Collection in Chatsworth, on the same subject is. Shepherds and nymphs in the carefree, idyllic realm of Arcadia examine the inscription on a tomb: death (or the dead person), too, has a place in Arcadia, one of the themes evoked in Jacopo Sannazaro's Arcadia and Philip Sydney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia.

Other Articles:

Holland Carter, Classical Visions, Romantic Eye (New York Times, February 15)

"And for a painting like Landscape With a Calm, no narrative seems intended. What we have instead is a Classical pastorale, an Arcadian souvenir, a golden-age snapshot of placid water, grazing flocks, palatial buildings and sun-brushed Olympian peaks. If the scene looks too good, too innocent of corruption, to be true, that is surely the point, and Poussin makes it clear. In the near distance a mounted horseman streaks out of the picture. Where is he off to, and why the rush? Shadows are seeping from the stand of lush trees to the left, casting a watchful shepherd in shade, dimming the color of his poppy-red tunic. Even in Arcadia time is passing, noon moves toward night. That’s why the painting’s mood is both sweet and stabbing, almost shockingly elegiac, like the sound of certain music by Handel, like Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Ombra mai fu."

Manuela Hoelterhoff, Snakes Strangle Mortals in Poussin's Serene Scenes: Interview (Bloomberg News, February 28)

Rachel Spence, Lord of the landscape (Financial Times, March 1)

Arthur C. Danto, Just Looking (The Nation, April 7)

Andrew Butterfield, The Magical Painting of Poussin (New York Review of Books, April 17)
More than one critic has singled out Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake for special consideration. Now in the collection of London's National Gallery, it was once remarked on by Denis Diderot for its evocation of terror in a peaceful rural scene. Paintings with similar compositions in this exhibit include a Death of Eurydice, from a private collection, and a Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe. Looking at all three of them on Wednesday, it occurred to me that perhaps Poussin is the background for Max Ernst's Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale: the odd juxtaposition of calm and panic, the tilted pose of the running figure.

A nice visual counterpoint to musical settings of the four seasons are Poussin's four canvases, matching the seasons of the year to four Old Testament stories. Two from the Louvre are in the exhibit. In Spring, the first couple, Adam and Eve, think about how the fruit of a certain tree would taste real good right now, as God the Father flies above on a cloud (his form directly recalling Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling). In Summer, the widow Ruth throws herself at the mercy of Boaz, not realizing that they will soon be happily married. In the two not shown at the Met, Autumn is matched with an image of spies bringing grapes from the Promised Land, and Winter with the story of the flood. Another major discovery is the moody Landscape with Three Monks (La Solitude), shown here outside Serbia for the first time since 1934. One of the curators of the exhibit claims to have seen it hanging in Tito's office. In return for the chance to show it, the Met has undertaken a lengthy restoration of the painting. Catch it before it goes back to Serbia.

Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 11. Here are some other images.

Also recommended at the Met:
  • Gustave Courbet (through May 18)
    Favorite images include the self-portrait (The Desperate Man) that is the promotional image of the exhibit, made at the time of his jury rejection from the Salon. Of course, any chance to see L'Origine du Monde should be taken, shown at the Met in an alcove with a polite warning about "explicit nudity." It is accompanied by a viewer showing one of the nude photos by famed 19th-century pornographer Auguste Belloc that was likely Courbet's inspiration.
  • Jasper Johns: Gray (through May 4)
    See the comments of our own Mark Barry last month.

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