Saturday, May 03, 2008

Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions

Nicolas Poussin (French, 1594–1666) inspired many painters I admire: Corot, Cezanne, Matisse. When I looked at his paintings at the Met this afternoon, I found myself hunting for signs of these other men, the most obvious of which was his almost-geometric mountains.

The paradise he painted was often marked by death and pain. The Arcadian Shepherds, otherwise known as Et in Acadia Ego, stumble on a tomb.

Their postures portray dynamically the turning of their bodies towards this unexpected discovery. The green cloak of the river god recalls his watery abode streaming away down the slope, a movement enhanced by the water pouring out of his jar. The figures grow older when seen from left to right, the golden hair of the shepherdess turning into the barren crown of the seated or fallen river god.

In other visions of Arcadia, a snake kills a man; Thisbe discovers Pyramus dead while the lion mauls a horse and his rider in an approaching storm; Eve points out the fruit to Adam. In a marvelous and moving painting, the wife of Phocian (wrongly executed for being a traitor) gathers his ashes in front of the other citizens going about the ordinary activities of the day: archery, swimming, drawing water from a well, leading a horse, lounging on the grass.

Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion

Unlike Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts," there is no irony in the depiction of the non-sufferers. The buildings are noble, their dignity enhanced through the verticals of trees and columns, and through the backing of the mountain. The human figures are not grotesque nor satirical, but tiny. One is moved by the majestic beauty of the landscape, and by the intense pathos of human suffering.

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