Landscape with Calm by Nicholas Poussin. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“A Provencal Poussin—that would fit me like a glove … like Poussin, I would like to put reason in the grass and tears in the sky”—so wrote Paul Cezanne.
Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until May 11 is revelatory in the way that’s rare. In the first room, the fervid eroticism of the early (influenced by the painter’s sojourns in Venice and Rome) works seems almost comic, but as the exhibition proceeds, the pictures grow in serenity and in ambition. By the final room, in front of works that attested to the artist’s struggle with failing vision, it was easy to be close to tears; indeed, there were clusters of viewers who lingered, retracing their steps, as if reluctant to leave Poussin’s luminous presence.
As a painter, Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) was incredibly literary; almost every picture refers to or is informed by a text, often by Virgil or Ovid. Nothing was offhand; the artist expected his pictures to be scrutinized with the ardor one devotes to a poem, but these poems were odes, less romantic outburst than systematic meditation. Of the forty paintings on view, quite a number were painted en plein air, an accomplishment that’s amazing, given the pictures’ complexity. As befits a classical vision, Poussin’s Arcadia is orderly; planes unfold in sequence; the sky is its own terrain of air. The stillness is a characteristic of the vantage point; from far away, catastrophe looks controllable because small. This stately and deeply affecting exhibition puts to rest the notion that classicism is cold. In picture after picture, the trees and figures are equally expressive; often the posture of a figure will find an analogue in the disposition of a tree. Just as often, Arcadia is a backdrop to despair; in the midst of tranquilly the imposition of violent death is another element, not dramatized. Poussin’s landscapes are thus the setting for momentous events; nature is a stage.
Many of the paintings were commissioned, so they were designed to fit over a doorway or to illustrate a moral, for instance, Et Ego in Arcadia (I, Death, am here, even in Arcadia), where shepherds come upon an ancient tomb and read the inscription that informs Poussin’s oeuvre. Because death is here, life can be interpreted; like a text or a picture, it can be read. The possibility of meaning is thus a consolation, as is beauty. As Poussin himself observed and vowed: “It is said that the swan sings more sweetly when death approaches; I will try to imitate him and work better than ever.”
Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions was organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao.
Above right: Arcadian Shepherds or Et in Arcadia Ego by Nicholas Poussin. Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.