Nature in the eyes of Nicolas Poussin

hThree decades ago I had the opportunity to see a unique exhibition in The Museum of Fine Arts in Bilbaowhich could also be seen at the Metropolitan in New York, Pusen and naturewho had the scientific direction of the project by Pierre Rosenberg, president emeritus and director of the Louvre, and one of the great specialists in French painting (Les Andelys, Normandy, 1594 – Rome, 1665), one of the best landscape painters in Western painting.

They met in that unique show more than 80 pieces, including paintings and drawingsincluding many of his masterpieces from museums such as the Louvre, the Prado, the National Gallery in London, as well as collections and museums of London, Vienna, Rome and other Italian cities, Los Angeles and New York, among other cities. His casual contemplation allowed us to understand both his stylistic evolution and the transformation of his aesthetic thinking when faced with the presentation of naturel which he knew how to capture like few previous and subsequent artists in the last five centuries.

The Winter or the Deluge, 1660/1664. 118 x 160 cm. oil on canvas. RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Marechal

Poussin was highly regarded by both his peers and by determined artists of later centuries (Turner, Reynolds, Ingres, Cézanne or Picasso, among others) because their compositions radiate great sophistication. He began training in the Norman city and at the age of 18 moved to Paris, where he remained intermittently while in 1624 he left for Romeafter a visit to Venice, invited by the Italian poet Giambattista Marino.

“His landscape vocation intensified in the last decades of his life”

In the Eternal City he came into contact with Francesco Barberininephew of Pope Urban VIII, and s Cassiano del Pozzo. Later he had an affair with Domenichino and befriended Claudius of Lorraine during his excursions in the Roman countryside. Already in 1640, after his success in Rome, he was offered to move to Paris where he was received by Cardinal Richelieualthough two years later he returned to Rome, where he did not lack commissions and the patronage of kings such as Philip IV or Louis XIV. His landscape vocation intensified in the last decades of his life.

As Pierre Rosenberg wrote in the catalog for the Bilbao exhibition: “Poussin is a ‘difficult’ artist. He has set the bar very high. Pusen is without a doubt one of the most important painters of the 17th century, the most significant French artist along with Cézanne, but not discovered at first glance, not revealed to everyone. Poussin needs an intermediarysomeone who opens the viewer’s eyes (someone, or a book, or an event)”.

Moses Saved from the Waters, circa 1638. 94 x 121 cm.  oil on canvas.  oil on canvas.  RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Adrien Didierjean
Moses Saved from the Waters, circa 1638. 94 x 121 cm. oil on canvas. oil on canvas. RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Adrien Didierjean

Besides the landscape genre, he cultivated biblical, mythological and historical subjects where nature took pride of place or was a place where a little story takes place. Within landscapes, it is worth mentioning the difference between “heroic”, p references to classical antiquityand the most poetical, in which Poussin was much freer and gave free rein to his overflowing imagination.

They are visual stories that require knowledge and time to enjoy them, as we can judge when we contemplate one of his last series dedicated to the seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter or deluge, in which the Norman artist reveals his great historical knowledge, knows how to interpret the passage of time, the colors he associates with each season, the meaning of life and the harmony of man with naturealways with a mysterious note between his intention and our perception.

maybe it’s inside Winter or the floodconceived as a nocturnal, quasi-musical that doesn’t involve snow, although it hints at the end of the world with it Noah’s ark as a symbol of hope. The composition is dominated by the shades of gray that the rain emits and brings basic elements like waternight or death in a flood scene, alarming because there seem to be people drowning and others swimming trying to hold on to a plank, a boat about to sink and touching scene where a woman raises a child to be held by a man on top of a cliff and that child can be saved from the flood.

Self-portrait, 1650. 98 x 74 cm. Oil on canvas.  RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Mathieu Rabaud
Self-portrait, 1650. 98 x 74 cm. Oil on canvas. RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Mathieu Rabaud

It is in this harmony and this connecting thread between Poussin and nature He reveals his ambition as a creator, his uniqueness, his extensive culture, both in religion and in the great writers and historians of Antiquity or in sages like Montaigne. Equipped with subtle observational ability to capture human passions or the violence and tranquility he observed in the microcosm of nature, he knew how to convey beauty with his brushes and such a harmonious color paletteue seems to be confused with what is represented, for, as Cézanne, a great admirer of his art, wrote: “I would like, like Poussin, to water the grass with reason and the sky with tears.”

His works are widely scattered throughout museums and collections around the worldbut there are three places where the best of his work is collected, at louvre, perhaps the one who values ​​Poussin’s paintings and drawings the most; on Meadow, which has a good sampling of his masterpieces; and on national gallery From London. We can mention just about the great Parisian museum self portrait from 1650, painted in Rome, as revealed by an inscription on one of the artist’s canvases in his Roman studio, along with other finished or prepared canvases. The image the artist projects exudes seriousness, aware of the authority he exudes a figure so recognized by collectors in Rome and in the main European courts.

Saint John Baptizing the People, 1635/1637.  94 x 120 cm. oil on canvas.  RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Marechal
Saint John Baptizing the People, 1635/1637. 94 x 120 cm. oil on canvas. RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Marechal

The Louvre Museum has numerous works and drawings from several decades of Poussin’s career as Saint John baptizes people1635-1637, perhaps one of the strongest paintings of this decade, which was inspired by an elegant artist such as Guido Reniand who filmed a scene from the Gospel, p Saint John the Baptist as the main figure. On the left we see a group of men undressing to receive this sacrament, while on the right a group of women watch and attend the scene, with its silhouetted figures on the river, because there the landscape is the scene of what is happening.

Another great example from those years is Moses saved from the waters1638, in which Poussin displayed boldness, not only because of his color and the way to correct the expressions of the main characters but because of the depth of the biblical story, it is not devoid of complexity and at the same time of simplicity when it comes to throwing light on the religion of the ancient Egyptians and on the fate of the daughter of Pharaoh and Isis. introduced warm and bright colors in dressesand provided light to represent the Nile River as a god next to the sphinx.

Parnassus, 1630 - 1631. Oil on canvas, 145 x 197 cm. © Prado National Museum
Parnassus, 1630 – 1631. Oil on canvas, 145 x 197 cm. © Prado National Museum

There are more than a dozen paintings by the French master in the Prado Museum and among them it is worth mentioning Parnassus. 1630 – 1631, oil painting depicting a mythological mountain dedicated to Apollo and the Muses. As such, it represents a celebration of the arts, especially poetry, and represents Apollo offering nectar to the gods to a poet, possibly Homer, crowned with laurel stones by Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. Putti seems to offer bards inspiring water that flows from the Castalia Fountainpersonified by the naked woman.

Landscape with buildings, 1648 - 1651. Oil on canvas, 120 x 187 cm.  © Prado National Museum.
Landscape with buildings, 1648 – 1651. Oil on canvas, 120 x 187 cm. © Prado National Museum.

In the Prado there are works that symbolize Poussin’s creative flow in nature. On the one hand, Landscape with ancient tomb and two figures or ruined landscape (1642), where nature and buildings in the background take center stagewith two painted figures, to the left, one seated by the wayside, and that of the traveler walking to an ancient tomb, and who seems to address the one seated, near a funerary monument, and a temple with a portico reminiscent of the buildings of Andrea Palladio in a scene that exudes tranquility; and on the other side landscape with buildings. 1648-1651, where Poussin’s hand offers a panorama of a valley crossed by a riveron the banks of which are situated several buildings framed by trees and mountains on the horizon. In the foreground are three seated and two accompanied by horses.

Landscape with ruins, 1642. Oil on canvas, 72 x 98 cm. © Prado National Museum.
Landscape with ruins, 1642. Oil on canvas, 72 x 98 cm. © Prado National Museum.

Finally, mention a few compositions that are on display at the National Gallery in London: Landscape with a traveler resting and a man preparing to drinkwhere the river, a few trees, and distant and high hills beyond come up with a scene where a traveler is resting and another with a pot collects water to moisten his lips; Y Landscape with resting travelerswith this winding road and two seated passengers, one tying the laces of his sandals and the other going moving away along the banks of the river, sheltered by trees, rocks and abundant vegetation. all body Poussin’s work gives the impression of a philosopher of painting.

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