Exhibition: Poussin and Nature - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum


2007-10-08 • 2008-01-13

Poussin and Nature

BBK Room

"Like Poussin, I would like to impregnate the grass with reason and the sky with sobs."

Paul Cézanne


Poussin and Nature is the first opportunity to contemplate a monographic exhibition on the contribution made by Nicolas Poussin (1594−1665) to landscape painting. Moreover, it is the first exhibition in Spain on Poussin, who, together with Cézanne, is the most important of French painters.

Pierre Rosenberg, member of the French Academy, honorary President-director of the Louvre and one of the most reputed specialists in the work of the artist, whose catalogue of paintings is near to completion, has undertaken the scientific direction of the project as well as the organization of the exhibition, preparing a representative selection of paintings and drawings for Bilbao.

The relevance of the project undertaken by Rosenberg and the Bilbao Art Museum soon aroused the interest of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Together, they have obtained some exceptional loans, among which are 6 essential Poussins belonging to tle Louvre's collection, 3 from the National Gallery in London and three from El Prado Museum, to mention but a few. Mention must also be made of other prestigious museums and private collections, such as London, Oxford, Liverpool, Vienna, Stockholm, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, Turin, Florence, Venice, Rome, Montreal, Los Angeles and New York.

Poussin and Nature will enable the general public and the specialists to understand both Poussin's stylistic evolution and the transformation in his thoughts on aesthetics regarding the nature that he interpreted as did only a few artists in the history of art.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue that endeavours to answer some of the questions regarding dating and the attribution of some of the painter's works on which historians have differing opinions still today. with this in mind, a special room with some of the artist's drawings has been prepared. In the catalogue, there are articles by Pierre Rosenberg and leading international specialists in Nicolas Poussin's work.

Poussin and Nature in the Bilbao Art Museum puts the finishing touch to the centenary celebrations of the BBK, the exhibition's sponsor, while at the same time inaugurating the centenary celebrations of the founding of the Museum in 1908.


Nicolas Poussin (Les Andelys, Normandy, 1594—Rome, 1665)

Nicolas Poussin is one of the foremost landscape artists in the history of Western art. He was very much appreciated by the sophisticated, intellectual world of 17th century Rome, where he spent a great part of his life. Since then, admiration of the painter and his work extends to the present day and is shared by writers, poets and artists such as Turner, Ingres, Cézanne and Picasso, to mention but a few: Landscape with the blind Orion looking for sun aisaje belonged to Reynolds. Also devoted to him were the erudites and Roman collectors, such as the renowned Cassiano dal Pozzo, and he was favoured by kings too: Louis XIV, who possessed the series, The four seasons, and Philip IV, who commissioned him to paint Landscape with Saint Jerome.

In spite of all this, relatively little is known of his biography or especially of his childhood and years as a youth before settling down to live in Rome in 1642. During these early years, his painting was inspired in the distribution of figures in Roman reliefs, the rich range of Venetian colours of ante Bellini, Giorgione and Titian, the precise drawings of Raphael and the ordered composition of Domenichino, among other influences. From a thematic point of view, he was interested in the narrations of the Old and the New Testament, the mythology of Greek and Roman literary origin - Ovid, Virgil and Horace and Ancient History. In these works, landscapes such as The nurture of Bacchus, nature serves as a background to the main narration.

During the 1640s, landscapes became a leading protagonistant and nature, in turn, became an element of reflection on human vicissitudes in compositions which came to be known as «heroic landscapes», which led him to be referred to as «painter-philosopher».

Poussin's humanistic education and wide knowledge of antiques are present in the architectural repertoire of his paintings, which highlights the simplicity of the Antiquity in works such as Landscape with an old tomb and two figures or Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice.

On turning nature into a principal element, as in the Landscape of a man washing his feet, the positioning of the characters became more complex and demanded more spatial depth and a more realistic illumination as might be expected in an outside scene. This inversion in the traditional hierarchy of painting genres, where the landscape was less important than historical painting, made him aware of new artistic demands. in works such as The storm, nature is qualified as being sublime and as such becomes a precedent in romantic landscapes.

Finally, Poussin became one of the greatest classicist painters thanks to his skill in visually narrating exemplary stories with total command of perspective, composition and light. The whole is ordered by a series of diagonals -the arms of the figures and the path are, in this sense, recurrent leitmotifs- which lead one's eyes across the different parts that give shape to the landscape, from the figures in the foreground to the mountains in the background. In this way, Poussin succeeds in integrating figures, architecture and landscape brilliantly.

Gradually, the growing presence of nature led to the so-called mayor «poetic landscapes», painted between 1657 and 1665, the year of the artist's death, in which a major role was playde by natural shapes, chosen for their aesthetic and symbolic value. For example, the majestic holm oaks that generally appear in Poussin's paintings not only serve to frame and order the composition but also lend a moral value as they are a symbol of strength and courage. In the same way, poplars, a tree associated with mourning, are present in the Landscape with the ashes of Phocion. One masterpiece of this period of maturity is the Landscape with Diogenes.

In these later works, Poussin delves into the relationship between man and nature. Human passions and tragedies are framed in the cycles of a grandiose, impassible nature which reminds man of his final destiny. Poussin develops this moral allegory by combining the legacy of the past with the greatness of nature. The beauty of the blues and greens of the vegetation and the sky, the extraordinary quality of the light, the harmonious arrangement of the various architectural elements and figures make Poussin's work one of the most admirable landscape paintings in the history of art.


Key dates in Nicolas Poussin's life

1594. Nicolas Poussin was born in Les Andelys, a market town on the banks of the River Seine, approximately 40 kilometres from Rouen in Normandy. His family, supposedly of noble stock, were not well-placed financially. Relatively little is known of his childhood years. Apparently, he was educated in Latin and the Classics, an experience which was to leave an indelible mark in all his work. From 1611 to 1612, he worked in Les Andelys with the late-mannerist artist, Quentin Varin.

Around 1612. Poussin left the family home and made for Paris, possibly passing through Rouen. He tried to find a place working with various masters, he worked in the Poitou and he made at least one attempt to reach Rome (he got as far as Florence) and spent some time in Lyon. His ill health and poverty forced him to return to Paris, where, in 1622, his luck changed: on the occasion of the canonization of St. Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier, he painted six canvases for the Jesuits. These works caught the eye of the great Italian poet, Giambattista Marino (1569-1625), who was in Paris at the time. Marino commissioned him to do a series of drawings based on the Metamorphosis of Ovid and, impressed by the results, invited him to go with him to Rome. Before doing so, Poussin had to finish a painting for Notre Dame.

1624. He arrived in Rome, possibly passing through Venice. According to one of our oldest sources, the papal doctor and art expert, Giulio Mancini, it is his Venetian style that first attracts people's attention, together with his wide literary knowledge and his talent for understanding "any story, tale or poem and expressing it with his brush in the most accurate manner". Marino was still residing in Rome when Poussin arrived and, before leaving for Naples, where he was to die in 1625, recommended him to the papal treasurer Marcello Sacchetti, who, in turn, introduced him to Francesco Barberini, Pope Urbano VIII's nephew. Poussin also met the Barberinis' excellent secretary, Cassiano dal Pozzo, who would turn out to be a key figure in his early career. his relationship with the Barberinis was to have important consequences but from March 1625 to December 1626 Cardinal Francesco Barberini, together with Dal Pozzo was posted in Madrid on a diplomatic mission thus leaving Poussin without a patron. Poussin painted many of his first works for the market, which explains their unequal quality. According to one of his biographers (Sandrart), they consist mainly of "bacanals, satires and nymphs taken from Ovid and placed among ruins and landscapes". He was obliged to change residences frequently and he shared accommodation with the Flemish sculptor, François Duquesnoy, with whom he examined old statues and began to form opinions on Greek and Roman art. He also studied with live models, firstly in con Domenichino's studio and later in that of Andrea Sacchi, who were both representatives of the classic style and he ventured into the surrounding Roman countryside to do Nature drawings. From 1626 to 1627, his career took a decisive turn when he painted The destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem and The death of Germanic. These brilliantly executed compositions of a style which combines the Venetian range of colours with Raphaelesque drawings established a new canon for classical painting and were a taste of the magnificent achievements to come in Poussin's historical paintings. In 1628, thanks to Cassiano dal Pozzo and Francesco Barberini's support, he received the prestigious commission to do an altar painting for Saint Peter. Although Poussin would soon abandon this type of public work to devote his time and energy to doing cabinet paintings with themes taken from the Metamorphosis of Ovid, Tasso, Roman History and the Bible. In 1629, he ended up living with the family of a French chef, Jacques Dughet, who looked after him during his illness (probably syphilis). He married Dughet's daughter in 1630, and gave classes to his brothers-in-law, one of whom, Gaspard Dughet (1615-75), was to become a distinguished landscape artist in the style of Poussin. A factor of crucial importance at the time was Cassiano dal Pozzo's interest for natural science and for classical and paleochristian culture. Thanks to him, Poussin would also become acquainted with the optical treatments of Father Zaccolini and the writings of Leonardo da Vinci. Apart from the many mythological themes in landscapes inspired by Titian that he painted for Cassiano in the 1620s, from 1635 to 1642 Poussin painted an exceptional series of canvases on the Seven Sacraments, which were notable for their clarity, display of a deep knowledge of antiques and purity of their architectural elements. these very qualities are to be found in his landscape painting of this period. Occasionally, Poussin collaborated with the specialist in architecture, Jean Lemaire (1598-1659). Around this time, he had a clientele made up of experts in Rome. Also worthy of note is the fact that he painted a series of bacanals for Cardinal Richelieu, and from1636 to 1637 a Landscape with Saint Jerome commissioned for the decoration of the Buen Retiro, Philip IV's palace in Madrid. Among his most outstanding French clients was the marshall of Créquy, Phélypeaux de La Vrillière and Paul Fréart de Chantelou.

1640. In 1639 the surintendant des bâtiments, François Sublet de Noyers, offered him the post of premier peintre du roi. Poussin managed to postpone his move to Paris until the end of 1640, when he was received by Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII. The official commissions could not have been further from that which he was accustomed to painting as they were altar paintings or large decorative works. The main task commended to him was the decoration of the Grande Galerie del Louvre. He kept in touch with Italian collectors, especially Cassiano dal Pozzo, and in 1642 he headed for Rome on the pretext that he was going to meet his wife. Richelieu's death in December, 1642 and that of the king in1643 freed him of his obligations in the court.

1642. Once back in Rome, Poussin found that he was in greater demand than ever before. As well as his Italian clientele, he now had French collectors interested in his work. One of these was of particular importance; he was the banker, Jean Pointel, who resided in Rome between 1645-47 and 1654-55. Thanks to Poussin's correspondence with his French patrons, and especially with Chantelou, we know of his great concern for the political upheavals of La Fronde (1648-53), which affected many of his clients in France and also for the popular revolt of Masaniello in Nápoles against Spanish oppression (1647). Some students of his work claim that political stances can be seen in his landscapes. In many of his letters, Poussin expresses a vital attitude along the lines of the neo-stoicals and that has also been considered to be a decisive factor in the understanding of the serious and even severe tone of many of his later works. In 1648, on completion of the great cycle of the Seven Sacraments for Chantelou, which represented one of the high points of painting in the 17th century, Poussin shows his desire to "convert these Seven Sacraments into another seven stories, in which the strangest changes of fortune ever influencing man would be represented". These words have been linked to works such as Landscape with a man killed by a serpent and Stormy landscape; in other landscapes, however, there is a poetic and idyllic note which some have qualified as being pantheist. What is absolutely certain is that the landscapes arouse fascinating questions regarding Poussin's attitude to life and art.

1664. Poussin's wife died after a long illness. The artist, who had for many years now been painting with an unsteady hand, finally abandoned his brushes and gave his unfinished Apollo and Daphne to Camillo Massimi as a present.

1665. In January, he wrote to his future biographer, André Félibien, regretting his ailments and saying that he only thought of preparing for death. He died on the 19th November, 1665 and was buried in his parish church, San Lorenzo in Lucina, surrounded, according to his biographer, by friends and fellow artists.


(Extract from the text published in the exhibition catalogue, signed by Keith Christiansen, Europen Painting Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York)


In the image:
Nicolas Poussin (Les Andelys, France, 1594 – Roma, 1665)
Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun, 1658
Oil on canvas. 119 x 183 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nueva York, Fletcher Fund