Drunken nymphs ride goats and fight off the attentions of amorous satyrs as a shepherd gets off with a goat-legged woman. Male and female centaurs belabour a donkey with sticks, while a flute player looks out from a sea of writhing, sun-baked flesh, inviting us to join this orgiastic party in the hills outside Rome. Welcome to the “wild” early work of Nicolas Poussin, the most improbably divisive artist in the entire western canon.
Born in Normandy in 1594, Poussin is certainly one of art’s major names, revered particularly in his native France, though he hadn’t the slightest interest in France or being French. Obsessed from an early age with the art of classical antiquity, he moved to Rome, capital of the Renaissance and the ancient world, at the earliest opportunity, and remained there, apart from a brief sojourn back in France, for the rest of his life. While the practice of painting from life was by this time well established, Poussin maintained a hardcore classicist position in which the sculpture of ancient Greece and Rome represented the only valid standard of truth and beauty.
Far from being written off as an anachronism, Poussin remained one of the dominant figures in western art for a good two centuries, his impressively steely religious and mythological scenes inspiring not only generations of academic painters, but modern masters of the order of Cézanne, Picasso and Francis Bacon. For most of us, though, Poussin’s immaculately ordered paintings have a remoteness that makes them difficult to love. They seem just the kind of grand, worthy old art we know we should be able to appreciate, but tend to hurry past all too quickly when visiting our major galleries. There hasn’t been a major Poussin exhibition in Britain in 20 years.
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