POUSSIN (1593/94 - 1665)

 

        Nicolas Poussin is the embodiment of the Classical spirit. His paintings are the product not only of great imagination and pictorial skill but also of a discipline and control that grew firmer as the painter aged. Born  in the small town in Normandy, Pous­sin went to Paris in his late adolescence. He had access to the royal collection of paintings where he was impressed by the works of Raphael and Titian, and to the royal library where he studied engravings after Raphael. After two trips to Italy, Pous­sin settled down in Rome in 1624. It was unlikely that he would ever enjoy official success. The world of nobles, popes, and monarchs was not for him. Poussin made only one large altarpiece for St. Peter’s, and was dissatisfied with it.

        An attempt by King Louis XIII to have Poussin work on cei­ling painting for the Long Gallery of the Louvre ran afoul of the artist's refusal to consider ceiling paintings different from those on walls, and to turn over the execution of vast projects to assis­tants. The latter objection ruled out the customary colossal Ba­roque monumental commissions.

         Poussin’s paintings reflect his interest in antiquity and in Stoic philosophy. In his early work the Inspiration of the Poet, painted about 1628—29, Classical figures are arranged before a landscape in low afternoon light. Poussin attempted to recapture the . magic of Titian through warm colouring unified by soft glazes and through subtle and surprising passages of lights and darks,, espe­cially the way light touches the edge of Apollo's lyre and part of his cheek, leaving the rest in shadow. This is an allegorical scene in keeping with seventeenth century ideas, the poet (it is easy to view him as a painter) owes his gifts to divine inspiration.

       About 1630 an illness gave Poussin a break during which he could formulate the theoretical basis of his art. Poussin aban­doned his earlier lyrical style in favour of the grand manner, which required first of all a subject — drawn from religion, histo­ry or mythology — that avoided anything «base» or «low». Pous­sin maintained that the subject must be so clarified in the pain­ter’s mind, that he will not block the essence of narrative with insignificant details. Then the painter must consider the concep­tion, that is, the recounting of the story in an impressive way. Then the artist must devise the composition which must not be so carefully constructed that it looks laboured, but should flow na­turally. Last comes the style or manner of painting or drawing.

       At another point Poussin explained his theory of the modes of painting by analogy with the modes or scales in Greek music, and mentioned five, the Dorian, the Phrygian, the Lydian, the Hypolydian and the Ionic. He carried his ideas of the modes systematically into execution. His Rape of the Sabines, of about 1636—37, exemplifies the Phrygian mode adapted to «frightful wars». The picture fulfils all Poussin’s requirements for the grand manner. The subject is lofty; the conception is powerful; the composition effortless and natural for all its references to ancient and Renaissance statuary figures and groups; and the style be­yond all praise. The composition is staged in a limited space, flanked on one side by the temple portico in which Romulus stands and limited at the rear by a basilica.

       A  later work, the Holy Family on the Steps, of 1648, is probab­ly in the Hypolydian mode, which «contains within itself a cer­tain sweetness which fills the soul of the beholders with joy. It lends itself to divine matters, glory and Paradise». The pyramidal composition suggests the Madonna groups of Leonardo and Ra­phael which Poussin knew and studied. Like Tintoretto, he ar­ranged little draped wax figures on a stage with the lightning carefully controlled and with a backdrop of landscape and archi­tecture. He would experiment with figural relationships till he found the right grouping, then build a larger arrangement of mo­delled and draped figures and paint from it, referring to reality only when necessary. The grave, ideal quality of Poussin's art tri­umphs in Classical compositions arranged before simple, cubic architecture that bypasses the Baroque, the Renaissance, and the Middle Ages, going straight back to Roman models. While the faces of his figures often appear standardized and almost expres­sionless, the grandeur of Poussin's art appears in the balance of forms, colour, and lights. Such compositions inspired Ingres in the early 19-th century, formed the basis for the still life and figure paintings, of Cezanne in the late 19-th and early 20-th centuries.

 

 

Notes

Inspiration of the Poet— «Вдохновение поэта»

Rape of the Sabines— «Похищение Сабинянок»

Holy Family on the Steps— «Святое семейство на ступенях храма»

 

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