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Summer 2008

Looking at Poussin

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Rachel Cohen

Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions,
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
February 12–May 11, 2008.

"Read the story and the painting," Nicolas Poussin wrote in 1639 to his friend and patron Chantelou, "in order to see how each thing is proper to its subject." How to think about that—I've been puzzling to myself these last three years, looking every week at Poussin, on my trips to the Met and sometimes the Louvre. "Lisez," Poussin commanded. What would that be, to read a painting? How would it feel in the mind?

Poussin was forty-five when he wrote the letter, living in Rome with a wife, Anne-Marie née Dughet, childless, and with the moderate but definitive success dear to his Norman heart: perpetual commissions from a small but devoted group of patrons, who hung the works in special rooms in their private homes and went to look at them every day. The early struggles in Paris; the failed attempt to get to Italy (turned back at the border for his debts); the first stay in Venice, enamoured of Titian; the eventual arrival in Rome, which was to be his city until his death; the months drawing from the statues of the antique with his friend, the Belgian sculptor Duquesnoy; the syphilitic, raunchy nights and the impoverished, jobbing days: all this had passed. Now, burgher of the erudite brush, he painted.

Bernini said of Poussin that he was a "grande istoriatore e grande favoleggiatore," sometimes translated as "narrator and storyteller," but I like better "historian and fabulist." Often, especially in the first two years, I struggled to feel the sunken fables, but I have been helped by the late green ones, by Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun at the Metropolitan Museum and the Landscape with Diogenes at the Louvre. Poussin was, I think, the greatest theatrical artist to work in paint, with the psychological precision and variegation of a great playwright, a spatial clarity approaching that of Raphael. And, in his understanding of the twinned elements of yearning and acceptance, which are part of every story of beauty and which together present a sinuous challenge to the viewer's mind, Poussin has never been surpassed.

"Poussin sur nature," Cézanne used to say, naming the height of his aspiration: Poussin was to be remade "by way of" nature or "engaged with" nature. Poussin himself did work from nature, and carefully drew actual trees and rock formations, painting most often the oak of his beloved Virgil: "unvanquished it abides / Even to children's children, and outlives / In vigorous age full many a mortal span; / Reaching its boughs far round like giant's arms, / It bears with bulk unpropped its burdening shade" (Georgic II). The later plein air painters loved the work of Poussin, and followed him on his walks; Corot painted two versions of the landscape outside Rome called La Promenade de Poussin. Still, all of Poussin's nature is clearly pulled toward his own vision. Cézanne—with, actually, a very similar principle of brushwork, that in every stroke of paint you could find the idea of the whole—was also pulling nature toward his own eye: it might clarify to restate Cézanne's remark as "Poussin, from my nature."

What was Poussin's nature? Classicism, formalism, narrative, all so easily misunderstood at a distance of three hundred and fifty years. And that which seems most familiar we in fact no longer really consider in relation to painting: namely, the story. Poussin's paintings take as their subject narrative moments of intensity—just as Solomon's judgment is to be enacted on the infant, or right before Boaz agrees to let Ruth glean— and each face in the painting is full of what is seen or about to be seen. Those portrayed realize what situation they are in—shepherds find that death is also in Arcadia, Eurydice knows she will be bitten—and it is the way each figure, in hands, feet, face, clothes, knees, arms, embodies this knowledge that gives the paintings their dramatic quality. Poussin told his friend and biographer Félibien that "just as the twenty-four letters of the alphabet serve to form our words and to express our thoughts, so do the lineaments of the human body serve to express the different passions of the soul and to make appear to the outside what one has dans l'esprit." Passions, ideas, perceptions: all this was melded in the corps, and the bodies that look to us artificial are expressing these felt combinations—as, say, in the world of fashion, heightened stylization may be the most acute expression of sensibility; or, in the world of theater, a Beckett play may feel like the most intensely real way to name the qualities of our existence.

"Formalism" in everyday speech can mean something related to this, something like "the sense that the patterns of existence have been sharpened a little, brought closer to the surface." Experiencing the formal qualities of a work is in part recognizing that we have before us a consistent and clarifying distortion, one that, like those offered by drugs and classical music, gives a heady feeling of being closer to the real reality—and you can in fact feel this from looking at Poussin.

Now, as to classicism, it has to do with education, in a sense. There is an understanding of Poussin, not incorrect, that having read quite a lot helps in seeing the work. Often referred to as a scholar-painter, Poussin came by his learning, as was then the fashion, in the company of learned men. Three of these close readers were also among his greatest collectors: Cassiano del Pozzo, secretary to Cardinal Barberini and creator of a museum of the world drawn on paper; and two Frenchmen, Pointel and Chantelou, for each of whom Poussin painted his own self-portrait. Works for these patrons were like letters, or like essays (Poussin read Mon-taigne closely) on the current state of the painter's understanding. In his actual letters, one feels Poussin's suffering—his crucial hand trembling from syphilis, political life painful and unpredictable, neck to the difficult yoke of austerity and desire—but a happiness of the working life was that his essay-paintings were received and known. "Besides this profit that I derive from writing about myself, I hope for this other advantage, that if my humors happen to please and suit some worthy man before I die, he will try to meet me," Montaigne said in Of Vanity, "truly I would go very far to find him; for the sweetness of harmonious and agreeable company cannot be bought too dearly."

For Poussin as for Montaigne, well-annotated editions are helpful in this era of classical disuse, but if one is willing to spend the time looking, formal intuition, though slower, will produce almost the same experience of the painting as would a close acquaintance with Ovid. Thus, for example, looking at Diogenes having thrown down his bowl, it is helpful to know the story of how the stoic philosopher watched a young man drinking simply from his hand at the river and determined to live more unornamentedly himself—but if one instead fights with one's eyes to understand the beauty of the two figures reflected in the water and to reconcile the at-first seeming jumble of classical architecture in the far distance, one will eventually get, visually, the sense of having struggled through to harmony with one's circumstances, which comes to much the same thing. Or, in the Blind Orion, it is good to know that Orion is groping his way toward dawn and sight, but regardless one's attention will immediately be taken by the soft clouds rising from Orion toward the green Diana poised in the sky above. E. H. Gombrich was the first to point out that Poussin's source was Natalis Comes and that the cloud was the manifestation of the deeper existence of Orion, born of the triple parentage of Neptune (water), Jupiter (air), and Apollo (sunlight). But, as Gombrich himself noted, "the picture has always imparted its inner meaning to sensitive observers," adding that Hazlitt needed none of this recondite information when he wrote his lovely essay on the painting. Hazlitt says of Poussin (and it is often quoted), "At his touch, words start up into images, thoughts become things."

Poussin often mentioned to Chantelou the frustrating inability to express his paintings' meanings in words: "I'm not going to describe the paintings, it's not right for a badly trimmed pen such as mine, it's for a paintbrush, gilded and with handle well-affixed." In the end he did not write the treatise anticipated by his acquaintances; he accepted the skeptical burden. He rolled up the canvases, wrote the price delicately on the back, and sent the pictures to his friends.

"They were his very great appreciators...he was always paid what he asked," Pierre Rosenberg said, twinkling, at the opening of the Metropolitan Museum's glorious Poussin show a few months ago. Rosenberg, director emeritus of the Louvre, and Keith Christiansen, with a long and distinguished career at the Met, might be seen to be making a similarly delicate gesture of friendship by having together curated, in the last year of the directorship of Philippe de Montebello, one of the most beautiful shows ever hung at the Met. The works were spectacularly placed and lit, and in the beautiful shaping of both catalog and exhibit the surpassing knowledge of Rosenberg was everywhere in evidence.

However, if you did not manage to get to New York, and if you live in London, St. Petersburg, Paris, Berlin, Liverpool, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston, Rome, Los Angeles, or Montreal, there are Poussins in your city. It takes a few technical skills of looking, which, over time, people seem generally to arrive at. (After years of working on my own method, it was a pleasure recently to come across the lovely passages of observation in T. J. Clark's The Sight of Death, and to see that there are just some natural ways of looking at Poussin, and the more time you spend with him, the more likely they are to develop.) But you may not have months, and so here is what you must do. First—and this is the only really important thing—you must agree with yourself that you will look at one painting for ten minutes. You shrug; you think, I've often done that; but in fact you have not. Ten minutes in front of a painting feels like an almost infinite amount of time. Your back will hurt, you will feel bored... take a friend, and certainly a watch: as with adjusting to a dark room, the eye cannot be hurried, and nothing will be accomplished unless you hold yourself to a single painting for ten minutes. Second, throughout, you must keep trusting your eyes and giving them freedom to rove about—they are figuring things out about how to look that your mind will not, for a while, be aware of.

So. Choose your Poussin, if you have that luxury, or take the one you are given, and shift around until you feel you are seeing the whole of the painting, and standing approximately where the painting expects you to stand—for Poussin, this is often, surprisingly, a bit left of center. Poussin avoided, sometimes strenuously, big church and palace commissions; his works for his patrons are on the small side of large, and the figures, too, are quite small: generally a distance of five or six steps back will give you one point of balance, and double that—ten or twelve paces—will be a second balanced point.

Now, let your eyes go over the canvas for a while, just trying to notice. If you are looking, for example, at Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, from the National Gallery in London, you will see that there are three figures in the foreground, that the running man's legs are quite beautifully reflected in the still waters to the front, that there is an occluded patch of darker blue and rust and green farther back in the lake, at some distance from where the fishermen's boat floats, and that the man lying wrapped in the snake in the left foreground wears yellow. When you and the painting have gotten used to each other, walk right up to it, and begin to look at very small areas of paint. It will surprise you how beautiful they are—the edge of that scarlet against the blue tunic (Landscape with Three Men, Museo Nacional del Prado); how fine—the pastel chalkiness of the white-robed woman, the irregular shape of the blue through the olive shimmery leaves (Landscape with a Man Washing His Feet at a Fountain, National Gallery, London) or the tiny archers in the incredible clarity of green mid-ground (Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion, National Museums, Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery). Try not to say to yourself, "How stiff—the light on the figures is strange." Try to say, "Is that blue the same as the other blue on the reclining figure? Am I looking at ducks on that distant pond?" And when, almost the way you would read a page of a book, you have let your eyes go closely over the whole painting, step slowly backward to about the distance you stood at before, or even a little farther away, and look again.

It may, if you are lucky, happen right away—that the space will suddenly wing open, giving a strange exhilaration, as if you were flying into the depths of the painting. But more likely you will simply have a sense of the larger arrangements, a clearer formal feeling. From the white clumps of earth between the fallen ensnaked man and the running man, you may feel, say, how the eye seems almost to bounce back to the light at the horizon, and then into the lit clouds, with the pleasurable leap upward at the end that it feels following a well-skipped stone. Erwin Panofsky, in one of the most beautiful observations ever made about Poussin, described his patterns of figures as "garlands thrown across space," and in this third stage of looking—perhaps four or five minutes in, now—you can discern the strands. Be patient; you do not have to think about the painting, it may even be good for your mind to wander, but you will have to hold your eyes to their task. Go forward again, because you would like to look at her face bending over the ashes of her husband Phocion; step back quite far, to see if you get new resolution. It is coming all the while, even if you do not feel it.

Sometimes it arrives gently. Looking at the Diogenes, you find yourself saying, "That light is awfully pretty back there near the horizon; that's just how it looks when I'm up early in the morning and take my usual walk in the hills"—and then your mind hesitates: "I've never been to those hills. Since when is my walk here usual?" Your eye has gotten in the habit of the space, and now you may sense a spiral or revolution, a sort of ecstatic centrifugal force coming from what the painting simultaneously renounces and claims. Or, the arrival may be momentous. Things that had looked wrong in the painting—the unnatural hesitation of the guide, the weird immensity of Orion—will suddenly resolve themselves and you will feel that the painting is continuous and harmonious. The sweet green hills will roll, the figures will seem as if they have just moved or are just about to move, you will be able to feel the soft transparent currents of air around them—your eye will almost be that air. A lift and soar will come to you, and for a while you will not care if it has been nine minutes or twelve—you will have your Arcadian vision.

Now that your eyes are trained for Poussin, many of the paintings will open right away. You may be able to stand in a room and look around and see the depths in each canvas on a wall; you will feel a little intoxicated, possibly slightly dizzy, and the people in the room may seem strangely proportioned, now that your eyes are accustomed to the language of this other world.

As he got older, when Poussin took his daily walk in the hills outside Rome, people would walk along with him asking questions. Félibien said that he was fortunate to have had his lessons while Poussin was at work on a canvas; the master showed what he meant by "une sensible démonstration." Poussin taught not by treatise but by hand, and all the hands in Poussin's paintings are remarkable, fine, sensitive instruments of understanding; sometimes it's nearly unbearable to see how they stretch forth for knowledge. In at least two cases, The Blind Orion and Christ Healing the Blind, the hands reach for sight itself, and of the setting for this latter painting Félibien said, touchingly, "He has chosen the morning, because it seems possible that God finds this hour the most beautiful, the one in which objects seem most gracious, so that these, the newly illuminated, will have the most pleasure, in opening their eyes; and so that the miracle will be the more manifest and evident." This, Poussin seems to be saying, is the world he will see when he opens his blind eyes—and, in the sense both enraptured and stoical, exactly here is the world being born, and borne.

Rachel Cohen is the author of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists. She has written for The Threepenny Review since 1999, and her essays also appear in The New Yorker and Bookforum. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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