Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 1998
Elizabeth Cropper and Charles Dempsey Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting Princeton University Press, 1996. 374 pp.; 12 color ills.; 165 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (0691050678)

As the authors point out in their preface (and this is a book in which preface and introduction deserve the same reader’s attention as its insightful text): “This book has had a long gestation . . . developing over continuous years of thinking, teaching, and writing about Poussin in particular and the art of the seventeenth century in general” (xvii). This is both an honest proposal and a fair warning; the book in hand is nearly as much about important general artistic developments and aesthetic attitudes in seicento Rome as it is about Poussin.

The date of the preface (November 1994) and introductory remarks establishes that this study was completed at the moment of the great Poussin exhibitions held in Paris and London in 1994 and 1995. Thus the art historical foreground for these essays consists of the seminal 1960 Poussin exhibition at the Louvre and the massive body of publications, including alternative catalogue raisonné produced subsequent to that event. It is this body of discourse which, as Cropper-Dempsey note, prompts them not to attempt a monograph but rather as they aver, “[that] it might perhaps be more useful to attempt a broad critical engagement with some central issues raised by his art exemplified by a limited number of carefully chosen works” (3). The book that results from this strategy consists of four major sections, each containing two chapters. These eight chapters–near self-sufficient essays–about Poussin, many other artists, and much else are fragilely linked by the theme of friendship, like the finest of pearls strung together on the thinnest of twine. In the space of this review only a few of these tenuously strung pearls can be examined.

The opening chapter, whose ostensible focal point is Poussin’s friend and patron Vicenzo Giustiniani, will serve as a case in point. Vicenzo makes a series of cameo appearances closely attended by another of Poussin’s collector-friends, Cassiano dal Pozzo, but the core of this chapter is an essay on the seicento concept of the “Greek Style” as mainly abstracted from antique Roman emulations of Greek sculpture in the 1620s and 1630s by Poussin, Duquesnoy, Testa, and Sacchi. Unexpectedly, the reader’s guide in this exploration is the brilliant but erratic Pietro Testa, not Nicolas Poussin. Contemporaneous and eighteenth-century high regard for Testa’s etchings and drawings notwithstanding (his etchings were influential on such stylistically diverse artists of the latter century as Gavin Hamilton and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo), his mannered visualizations make him an eccentric cicerone for exploration of the “Greek”-imbued neo-classicism of seventeenth-century Rome. Cropper-Dempsey base their revelations of this underexamined phenomenon on the ca. 1637 writings of Duquesnoy’s friend and pupil Orfeo Boselli, in which the concept of the grand manner is linked to “exquisite taste” in ways that beautifully frame the art of Poussin and his circle and set it apart not only from the High Baroque of Cortona and Bernini but also in fundamental ways from the Carracci and even Domenichino. Thus, in illuminating ways, the conventional textbook-endorsed, linear sequence from Annibale Carracci to Poussin is tellingly snapped, and a stylistic formulation, one that virtually adumbrates the aesthetics of Winckelmann’s Grecian taste, is introduced into the early seicento. The implications of this essay are enormous.

In Chapter 2, Giustiniani moves to center stage, accompanied by Cassiano dal Pozzo, and together their collections are tellingly compared and contrasted by Cropper-Dempsey. Special attention is given to the publication of Giustiniani’s collection as a galleria of antique sculpture, one of the earliest such publications and one whose illustrations include the work of premier seicento artists, including Lanfranco, Duquesnoy, François Perrier, Claude Mellan, Joachim Sandrart–but apparently not Poussin. The idea here is to render Giustiniani–long associated with the artistic production of that notorious outsider Caravaggio–a more influential and respectable figure in the contemporary art world. Cropper-Dempsey would like us to perceive Vincenzo as an example of the “new” collector whose galleria reflected a purely aesthetic idea of buon gusto and whose personal deportment emulated the dispassion of an honnete homme as defined by Montaigne. However, the sheer scale and catholicity of Vincenzo’s and his brother Benedetto’s collecting vitiate their argument, for their joint collection, which comprised “at least one hundred and eighteen identifiable artists,” evinces connoisseurship with more of the avidity of collezionismo than the restraint and buon gusto of the honnete homme.

In the next section Cassiano dal Pozzo is the artist’s designated amico. Here learned friendship rings true; the poet Giovanni Battista Marino befriends Poussin in Paris and later guides him in Rome to powerful families: the Sacchetti and Barberini and thus to Cassiano, who commissioned the first of the two great Sacrament series. These two commissions, Cassiano’s and Chantelou’s, form the centerpiece of this chapter. With careful analysis, Cropper-Dempsey convincingly present the two series–against modern scholarly hints of unorthodox or heretical themes–as powerful expressions of post-Tridentine Catholicism.

In the next chapter, Cassiano’s Poussin self-portrait (1650) and the 1649 version the artist presented to Jean Pointel (a close friend, patron, and the owner-commissioner of more Poussin paintings than anyone but Cassiano) open a learned discussion of Poussin’s purported theoretical writings. Cropper-Dempsey convincingly disclaim such a treatise ever existed, and use is made of this art-historical cul-de-sac to explore Poussin’s theoretical interests, which lead to the writings of Padre Zaccolini and the plans of Cassiano and Cardinal Francesco Barberini to publish a manuscript copy of Leonardo’s Trattato della Pittura, a constellation of circumstances that assure, as the authors demonstrate, Poussin’s intimate familiarity and artistic application of these theoretical sources which were to be potent resources in the later Poussiniste-Rubeniste debates in the French Academy. Chapter Five–the first ostensibly dedicated to Poussin’s distanced friendship for Montaigne–is, like the French philosopher’s De l’amitie, a finely crafted independent essay. The vital friendships here are those Poussin shared with Pointel and Chantelou, and although there is only one brief mention of Stoic love in these pages, it would seem that it is seicento Stoicism that links Poussin to these two French contemporaries and to Montaigne and to a shared classical tradition that could have been more sharply and fully rendered. In the following chapter the presence of this deceased “friend” is justified by Cropper-Dempsey’s disposition on one of the artist’s masterpieces, the Mars and Venus now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In their exegesis, the poetic descriptions of Venus’s lovemaking as celebrated by Lucretius and Virgil and refracted in the more personal musings of Montaigne are crystallized in visual form. Poussin’s painting in which Venus, aided by her retinue of loves, disarms her companion of weaponry and virility. And, as Cropper-Dempsey note, when a Louvre preparatory drawing for the scene is considered, it is evident that Poussin incorporated Virgil’s borrowing from Lucretius in his interpretation of Mars’s subjugation–and that a visual reading from the scene as depicted in the drawing to that of the finished work is like an action rendered in successive film clips. At the close of their commentary on Poussin’s conjunction of Venus and Mars, Cropper-Dempsey remind us that it was Erwin Panofsky, who, in his first essay on Poussin’s Arcadian Shepards, tellingly defined the elegiac sentiment that infuses Venus and Mars and so many of his greatest paintings.

This sense of transience and loss dominates the discourse in the two final chapters of this study. The theme of loss takes its most violent form in the Massacre of the Innocents, introduced by Giovanni Battista Marino’s 1631 poem, which inspired Poussin’s painting for Vicenzo Giustiniani (who died in 1637). Poussin’s depiction of this awful (in its original sense) event serves as a centerpiece for consideration of his precursors and immediate contemporaries–Testa and Reni, each of whom, to varying degrees, reduces this catastrophic event to an iconic formulation whose enargeia (a Cropper-Dempsey term) fuses the seemingly uncombinable: horrendous violence and ineffable beauty.

In the final essay the theme of friendship is dropped. This chapter is laconically entitled “Death in Arcadia,” signifying both Poussin’s two masterpieces bearing that title and also broader themes in the elegiac tradition including, but not limited to, mortality. Cropper-Dempsey divide these Arcadian paintings into two landscape styles. In the first phase these themes are human events portrayed in landscapes in which the viewer “immediately has the inescapable sense of looking directly into the world of a long-vanished past” (281), a world Cropper-Dempsey tellingly define as neither the landscapes of Annibale Carracci nor Domenichino and distinct as well from those of Claude Lorrain. This phase is epitomized by Poussin’s Burial of Phocion and the Recovery of Phocion’s Ashes. In his second landscape phase historic events are put aside, and Poussin explores the elegiac reading of pure myth set in specific locale: Polyphemus broods on Mount Etna, Hercules defeats Cacus near his ancient cave on the Aventine, and Cropper-Dempsey, pursuant to a careful reading of Philostratus and Bellori, convincingly propose that The Birth of Bacchus and Death of Narcissus (Fogg Museum, Cambridge) is set near Mount Cithaeron in the territory of ancient Thebes. More than geographical particularity is at stake, for this site explains the presence of a dying Narcissus and a despondent Echo and assures other figures–Pan and nymphs, long considered staffage–specific roles in the drama. Apollo and Daphne (Louvre, Paris), Cropper-Dempsey convincingly propose, is also site-specific. Their tragic story unfolds in the vale of Tempe in Thessaly. This locus is assured by Cropper-Dempsey’s identification of the dying youth–traditionally assumed to be Hyacinth or Narcissus–with a pre-Ovidian version of the myth in which jealous Apollo causes a youth, Leucippus, beloved by Daphne, to be killed by the nymph’s companions. In this locus of mourning, the theme of Apollo and Daphne deepens from unrequited love to tragedy–even if this reader resists Cropper-Dempsey’s proposal that it is Leucippus’s mortal remains that reside in the tombs in Poussin’s famous Arcadian Shepherds paintings, of which an exegesis of the second version concludes these remarkable, learned essays.