IN A famous self-portrait painted in 1649-50 and now in the Louvre, the French artist Nicolas Poussin made no attempt to flatter himself. Anthony Blunt, who devoted years of his life to the painter, interprets the portrait thus: "It is not a loveable face, and that hardness which appears in Poussin's thought is to be seen in the frowning wrinkles of the brow. The mouth is set, and the eyes stare piercingly and almost threateningly at the spectator."
As this passage suggests, Blunt's study of Poussin, long out of print and re-published to co-incide with the Royal Academy's Poussin exhibition, is not precisely hagiographic. Blunt presents the artist as a self-made man, a "Norman peasant" who not only turned himself into one of the most important painters of his day but dared to stand in opposition to the dominant artistic current, Baroque. An awkward, singular man, Poussin founded no school and Blunt argues that, at the time of his death in 1665, he was admired rather than influential.
Refusing to work "in the key of ecstasy which came naturally to Baroque artists but was foreign to him", Poussin made only a half-hearted attempt to adapt himself either to the taste of the French court, to which he was briefly summoned in 1640 with the promise of official commissions, or of the aristocracy in his adopted city, Rome. Instead, he accepted commissions from a small group of discerning, middle-class patrons who for the most part shared his humanist philosophy and his fascination with ancient Greece and Rome.
While more publicly favoured artists like Pietro de Cortona filled their canvases with melo- dramatic gestures and decorative flourishes, Blunt shows Poussin striving to create a style that was cool, intellectual and above all allegorical. His chapters on Poussin's sceptical, libertin friends and on his religious feelings - a tepid but obedient Catholicism combined with an increasing ad- herence to Stoic philosophy - are particularly illuminating.
He is also good on Poussin's sources, showing how his interest in the writings of the early Church Fathers and his knowledge of Roman sculpture influenced his frequently unconventional treatment of religious subjects like the Sacraments. The figures in these two sets of paintings are classically composed, investing Catholic rites like baptism and extreme unction with the stillness and dignity of Roman funerary reliefs.
For Blunt, Poussin's artistic development is not so much seamless as inevitable. He acknowledges the sometimes dramatic changes in style which marked different periods of Poussin's working life, but sees them as stages in a project remarkable for its consistency. The influence of artists like Raphael becomes a species of trying out, a series of borrowings, until Poussin has distilled what he needs from another painter's technique and can move on towards the same fixed point. This is, according to Blunt, Poussin's achievement: in proving that "classicism can produce works of art which not only satisfy the mind by the perfection of their formal harmony but also touch the heart by the depth of their poetry".
Blunt offers this conclusion in spite of his own admission that the figures in Poussin's final paintings exhibit not just a "calm monumentality" but a "stony silence". There is a coldness and detachment about the late mythological landscapes, and the Four Seasons painted between 1660 and 1664 for the duc de Richlieu, which are in stark contrast to the poignancy and vivacity of Poussin's early work. Blunt deals with this apparent contradiction of his thesis of Poussin's consistency by arguing that these youthful productions, although dominated by the theme of love, are "the reverse of erotic".
Even though the book is illustrated mostly with black-and-white plates, a glance at Poussin's nymph-and-satyr paintings from the mid 1630s or the "Mars and Venus" now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, shows the extreme subjectivity of this claim. There is a languid eroticism and self- absorption about the lovers in this latter painting which flatly contradicts Blunt's assertion that they are simply "ethereal figures living in a world of poetry".
To be fair, Blunt's tone throughout the book is confident rather than arrogant; he acknowledges that his view has not always been shared by other critics, quoting William Hazlitt's judgement that Poussin's satyrs have minds "more secretly depraved" than those of the more obviously voluptuous Rubens. But quite early in the book the reader begins to get the feeling that Blunt's Poussin is a construct, a product of its author's longing for order which has led him to interpret Poussin in a very particular way.
An alternative reading suggests itself from the paintings, and from the abrupt and puzzling changes in style they exhibit from one decade to another. This is of a man at war with himself, drawn to Stoic philosophy as his personality grows more sombre, rejecting the joie de vivre which invested his early paintings with such charm in favour of the static, detached viewpoint of the final years. In effect, it exactly reverses Anthony Blunt's estimation of the high point of Poussin's career, a note of dissent that the author of this scholarly, inquisitive and covertly impassioned study might have been happy to engage with.
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