Nicolas Poussin was the greatest French artist of the seventeenth century, the founder of his country's classical school. With him, French painting shook off its provinciality and became a European affair, mirroring the power of its grand siecle, the age of Louis XIV. After Poussin, Rome could no longer condescend to Paris. But without Rome there would have been no Poussin: Rome formed and trained him, gave him his conception of professional life, his myths, his essential subjects, his sensuality and measure in short, his pictorial ethos.
He first went there in 1624, and stayed sixteen years. What did he see? What did he do? No American museum until now has tried to tell us: there has never been a Poussin retrospective in this country. But now [article written in 1988] the gap has been filled by a show at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, "Poussin: The Early Years in Rome: The Origins of French Classicism." It comes with a detailed, argumentative and altogether excellent catalogue by art historian Konrad Oberhuber, who has carried Poussin studies well beyond the point at which they were left by the death of Anthony Blunt. And it is bound to correct whatever stereotypes one may have about Poussin the cold, the correct, the theoretician of mode and decorum.
To the seventeenth century the classical world was the locus of Ideal Beauty, but how did a Frenchman enter it? A writer could read Virgil without leaving Paris, but a painter had to go to Rome. There, ancient sculpture and architecture abounded; from them, antiquity could be reimagined; and it was the strength of the reimagining, not just its archaeological correctness, that counted. Poussin's main regular job during his Roman years was drawing records of ancient sculpture for a rich antiquarian named Cassiano del Pozzo. This gave Poussin excellent access to collections, and the time to develop the repertoire of figures that would fill his work in years to come. Rome was not just a boneyard of suggestive antiques: it was full of living art whose plasticity, color and narrative richness surpassed anything you could see in France - Caravaggio, Pietro da Cortona, the Carracci. But del Pozzo's main gift to Poussin was the intellectual background that enabled a melancholy, impetuous young Frenchman to become the chief peintre pbilosophe of his age.
"This young man has the inner fire of a devil," wrote one of Poussin's Roman acquaintances. And in fact Poussin's vitality, reconceiving the antique, is the clue to his art. His renderings of classical myths struck back to the root. Poussin was more of a sensualist than people think. You want to roll on his grass, sprawl under the shot silk blue and honey colored sky that unfurls over his Roman campagna. His goddesses and nymphs grow up out of the earth; they have not dropped from Olympus. They carry their archaism like a bloom. There is more sexual tension between the white goddess and the kneeling shepherd in Diana and Endymion, 1628, than in a hundred Renoirs. This, for him, is part of classicism. "The beautiful girls you will have seen at Nimes," he wrote to a friend in 1642, "will not, I am certain, delight your spirits less than the sight of the beautiful columns of the Malson Carre, since the latter are only ancient copies of the former."
But antiquity mattered to him for other reasons. It was Law. Deprived of its magisterial influence, a painter could go off the rails and become a fribbling hack, "a strappazzone," he wrote in Paris, "like all the others who are here." For him, the one thing that truly sustained creation was the inseminating authority of the past.
Poussin was to art what his contemporary Pierre Corneille became to drama. As La Bruyere said of Corneille, he "paints men as they ought to be." The world of Corneille's great tragedies of the 1640s, Rodogune or Horace, is prefigured in Poussin: not just the reflection of classical drama, but its heightening into a schematic grandeur where will, pride and logic are displayed as they rarely are in real life, and exemplary self sacrifice resolves the conflict between duty and passion.
The manifesto of this in Poussin's early work is The Death of Germanicus, 1626-28.
Germanicus Julius Caesar, conqueror of Germany, was sent to command Rome's eastern provinces and died in Antioch in A.D. 18, poisoned - so it was believed - by a jealous Roman governor. He soon became an archetype of the Betrayed Hero.
Poussin turns this incident into a tremendous oration on duty and continuity, overlaid with Christian allusions to the entombment of Jesus, whose life that of Germanicus overlapped. The hero lies dying beneath the frame of a blue curtain, which suggests both a temple pediment and a military tent. On the right are his wife, women servants and little sons; on the left, his soldiers and officers. The common soldier on the far left weeps inarticulately, his grandly modeled back turned toward us. Next to him, a centurion in a billowing red cloak starts forward: grief galvanized to action in the present. Then a gold armored pillar of a general in a blue cloak (adapted from an antique bas relief) projects grief forward into the future by swearing an oath of revenge; Poussin hides the man's face to suggest that this is not a personal matter but one of History itself. The target of this socially ascending wave of resolution is not only Germanicus himself - whose exhausted head on the pillow vividly predicts the style of Gericault nearly two hundred years later - but his little son, whose blue cloak matches the general's; the women suffer, but the boy learns, remembers and will act.
The more Germanicus unfolds, the more one realizes why Bernini, on his visit to Louis XIV in Paris, declared Poussin the only French artist who really mattered: il grande favoleggiatore, "the great storyteller." For the means of the painting match its narrative. Its pictorial structure, with the blues, reds and golds pealing like single strokes of a gong in the warm internal light, is irreducibly taut. Poussin's ancient Romans are not the insipid denizens of lesser classical art but men and women of vivid presence; their gestures have dramatic coherence and intensity. If one had to pick one image to sum up the best qualities of Baroque painting all'antica, this would be it.
Later in life Poussin would complain of the pressure of commissions, "Monsieur, these are not things that can be done at the crack of a whip," he wrote to his friend and patron Chantelou in 1645, "like your Parisian painters who make a sport of turning out a picture in twenty-four hours." But in his Roman youth, he could and did turn them out, and it would be idle to pretend that all early Poussin is on the same level. Some paintings are much less "finished" than others; a few are hackwork (such as a Hannibal Crossing the Alps, done for del Pozzo, who had a thing about elephants); and one painting from San Francisco's de Young Museum, The Adoration of the Golden Calf, does not survive comparison; it is clearly not by Poussin at all, although it shows how fanatically others imitated him. But the unevenness is part of Poussin's development: an artist in the real world, discovering the true tone of his ideas. Young Poussin did not paint plaster gods, and he was not one himself.
- From Robert Hughes, "Nothing If Not Critical"