Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

'Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes us deeper into the inexhaustibly complex relationship between nature and culture than any other exhibition I have ever seen. When Nicolas Poussin sets men and women amid vast landscapes, he is reflecting on our experience of the natural world, and nobody has more beautifully woven together sensation and imagination, instinct and intelligence, freedom and design. There is a curiously pungent juxtaposition of naturalistic immediacy and pictorial artifice in Poussin's landscapes, whether he is representing a darkly luxuriant tree, a placid lake, a cloud-strewn sky, an elegantly designed city, or a handsome Ovidian hero. Somehow, the immediacy and the artifice reinforce each other. The paintings are finally about our struggles to understand what we feel, to objectify the subjectivity of our experience. Poussin's admirers will not be surprised to see this seventeenth-century artist who is often pigeonholed as a chilly classicist re-framed as something of a romantic. What most people are going to be unprepared for is the big-heartedness of his vision as it is revealed in this epochal show.

While it is taken for granted that our understanding of a symphony or an opera is shaped by the skill of the conductor or the director, exhibitions of Old Master paintings are usually discussed as if it hardly mattered who was involved. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the Metropolitan, our heightened sense of Poussin's powers owes a great deal to the brilliance of the two men who together organized the exhibition. They are Pierre Rosenberg, the Honorary PresidentDirector of the Louvre, who originally conceived of the show, and Keith Christiansen, the Jayne Wrightsman Curator of European Paintings at the Met. Rosenberg and Christiansen wear their encyclopedic knowledge of the scholarly literature easily, bringing to the consideration of individual paintings and to large questions of interpretation a combination of unflappable common sense and abiding faith in our ability to grasp the spirit of an artist who lived four centuries ago. Taken together, Rosenberg's catalogue entries and Christiansen's essay "The Critical Fortunes of Poussin's Landscapes" blow the dust off these masterpieces. And Christiansen's magnificent installation, with five galleries of paintings and two of drawings, will be remembered for many years to come. (The Metropolitan and the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao, where the exhibition was seen in the fall, are the only venues.)

The Poussin exhibition does not seem to be pulling in the kinds of crowds that are visiting the Courbet retrospective or the Jasper Johns show, which only confirms Poussin's reputation as a painter's painter, an artist who makes special demands on the audience. His masterworks are sublime puzzles, and a museumgoer needs to slow down in order to begin to put together the pieces, to grasp the spirit that powers their preternatural intricacy. We know a good deal about Poussin's ideas about painting from his letters to friends and collectors, and there is no question that the complexity of his ambitions can be daunting. It was his belief that just as the ancient Greeks had employed different musical modes to express different emotions, so the rhythmic arrangements of his compositions would include a grave Doric mode, a joyful or furious Phrygian mode, a melancholy Lydian mode. His deliberateness goes beyond anything we know in art.

Somehow, Poussin avoids both pedantry and preciosity. The avidity of a painter's eye saves him every time. The mathematical precision of his compositions; the scrupulous arrangement of colors to convey varying moods; the elegance of his naturalistic observations and archaeological reconstructions; the varying levels of realism or stylization that he brings to a figure or figure group--all this demands that we linger over each area in a painting, studying and savoring the choices that the artist has made. Near the very end of his life, Poussin told a friend that the aim of art is "delectation"; and although the statement is not entirely consistent with some of his earlier ideas, delectation is precisely what comes to mind as you engage with these astonishing paintings.

Many seventeenth-century artists were acutely aware of the suggestibility of nature--the extent to which a landscape could mirror a person's mood. In the masterworks of Dutch painters such as Ruysdael and Hobbema, and in Rubens's panoramic views of the Flemish countryside, we are invited to watch as the artist records the time of the day, the quality of the weather, the lay of the land--and we are left to judge the psychological effect of what we see. With Poussin, this idea that perception precipitates psychological or moral reflection is more or less reversed. He seems to begin with a psychological or moral idea and then to bring together the landscape elements that will support it. The particular intensity of his paintings has everything to do with our sense that they are imaginative acts--that within the rectangle of the canvas the artist has reconstituted the natural world as a dimension of the human world, and maybe even of the dream world.

When, in 1651, Poussin painted a pair of canvases representing landscapes stormy and serene, he wanted to show how paintings of precisely the same dimensions could be ordered and then re-ordered in such a way as to create decisively different meteorological, and hence emotional, climates. And although he was neither the first painter nor the last to take an interest in such contrasting effects, no artist has been so insistent about the possibility of radically varying the organization of the canvas. While Landscape with a Calm, with its lucid spatial progressions and bright gray-suffused colors, is an invitation to explore, Landscape with a Storm, with its sky that is as dark and dense as the earth, shuts us out. Taken together, the paintings are, as the French scholar Louis Marin suggested, Janus-faced--not so much two realities as two possibilities, twinned imaginings, conflicting spirits.

For Poussin, the construction of a landscape involves the construction of a particular mental weather, so that each of the artist's technical considerations--color, line, form--is simultaneously a psychological consideration. Nature, in Poussin's work, is not inchoate. Nature has an affect that might be regarded almost as a kind of consciousness, although it is not always in harmony with the consciousness of the people who inhabit these landscapes. Landscape with Saint John on Patmos, painted around 1640, when Poussin was in his midforties, appears to be one of the first canvases in which the landscape takes on this role as a protagonist in the story. In order to show us John writing his gospel on the Greek island of Patmos, Poussin developed a composition that is a hymn to solidity: the solidity of the stony landscape; the still-eloquent rectangular and cylindrical fragments of classical architecture; the elegant buildings in the distance; the solidity of the saint himself, who suggests the timelessness of a figure on a sarcophagus, his long left arm, bare to the elbow, as muscular as a stone mason's. The painting is an architecture, composed of powerful rectilinear forms--both geological forms and the forms that men have carved from stone. And this architectonic space in turn suggests the architecture of Christianity, an implication that is underscored by the papers at John's side, the pages of the gospel that suggest an architect's plans. Yet to describe the painting in this way makes it sound more contrived than it really is, for the variations of color and touch, the extent to which Poussin honors the particular qualities of foliage and stone and cloth and clouds, giving each its indivisible individuality--all this complicates the design. In Poussin, there is no theme without variations.

Anthony Blunt's insistence, in his great monograph about the artist, on the central place of Stoicism in Poussin's philosophical thinking goes some way toward unlocking the mystery of these landscapes. They are, so he believes, suffused with a Stoic conviction that man is a small thing in the scheme of nature. Blunt argues that this almost quietistic attitude toward the natural world comes most fully to the fore in the works of the 1650s, but I think it also helps us to appreciate the elaborate compositions of the 1640s, the decade that began with Saint John on Patmos. In the masterworks of those years that are gathered here--Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice, Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion--nature's infinite complexity nearly confounds Poussin's ordering intelligence; he is like the scientist who feels compelled to develop ever more elegantly complex equations in order to account for his experience.

The stories from which Poussin draws his themes are as varied as the arrangements of colors and forms and spaces that he invents. Everybody is familiar with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice; Phocion was a proud Athenian general of the fourth century B.C.E., whom Plutarch says was unjustly condemned to death by his compatriots; and Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake may well refer to a contemporary incident. And for each of these narratives, Poussin invents another kind of emblematic lyricism. Each figure has a concentrated rhetorical power: the old woman, kneeling on the ground, gathering Phocion's ashes; the man with the outstretched arm who races away from the horror of the immense serpent; Orpheus, his eyes focused on the steel-blue sky, playing his harp. Poussin re-imagines what are in effect oratorical gestures, those foundations of classical eloquence, as private gestures--as startlingly, telegraphically emotional as the movements of a dancer on Martha Graham's stage.

And the space of these landscapes is indeed stage-like, as Blunt implies when he observes that Poussin's landscapes are based on a "finite space," rather than the "infinite space" of his friend Claude Lorrain's paintings, with their misty oceans and sunset skies. The fascination of Poussin's landscapes is in the infinite subdivisions of this finite space, in the way forms fit within forms. Poussin's protagonists are actors on a stage; the woman bending down to gather Phocion's ashes becomes a consciousness within the consciousness of the painting, her arched back set in a counterpoint with the upright frontality of temples and the great spreading power of the trees. Poussin's genius for incident and interval, for visual relationships that are spontaneous yet exact, is something to behold. Very few artists have this gift: in the French tradition after Poussin, you find it only in Watteau, Chardin, Corot, and Braque.

The razor-sharp lucidity of the landscapes of the late 1640s, which suggests a middle-aged man's supreme confidence, gave way in the fifteen years leading up to Poussin's death in 1665 to a very different quality: a thickening of the surface, a shivering stasis. This more overt painterly touch was precipitated by physical infirmity. Poussin developed a tremor in his hands that left him no longer able to give his forms the exactitude of the Ashes of Phocion and the Orpheus and Eurydice. But when facility abandoned him, he found a new unity in the blurring of details--in the necessity of conceiving figures and landscape elements in a bulkier and more compact way. There is a deliberateness that is not without its own surprising delicacy in Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun, The Infant Bacchus Entrusted to the Nymphs of Nysa, and the Four Seasons, of which two, Spring and Summer, have made the trip from Paris to New York. In these late works, the rectangle of the canvas frames not a single moment, not a Now, but something closer to an eternity, a Forever. What counts here is not narrative immediacy but the timeless lessons to be drawn from the narrative--about good and evil, the lineage of Christ, Bacchic fertility.

In these late pictures Poussin's style achieves an exalted naïveté. The boldness of the vegetation in Spring suggests the plainspoken power of early Renaissance painting in Siena, or maybe even the jungle fantasies of Le Douanier Rousseau. And the monumental immobility of the figures in The Infant Bacchus and a number of other late paintings brings to mind the ritualistic antinaturalism of the sculpture of Old Kingdom Egypt. Here we discover a final paradox of artistic mastery: the shedding of facility that can be achieved only by an artist who knows everything there is to know about his craft.

It is significant, I believe, that the exhibition is called "Poussin and Nature" rather than "Poussin and Landscape," for Rosenberg and Christiansen obviously see in Poussin's studies of men and women living in the natural world the jumping-off point for a more general consideration of the place of nature in the work of this artist who was in many respects the ultimate conceptualist. Their goal, as I understand it, is to complicate our sense of Poussin's classicism by emphasizing the role of spontaneity, intuition, and poetic perception in his processes. Some might be inclined to argue that by emphasizing Poussin's nature poetry, Rosenberg and Christiansen have given us a more viewer-friendly master--Poussin lite. And of course there is an element of seduction in these pictures that you will not find in some of Poussin's more densely packed figure paintings, whether the two versions of the Rape of the Sabine Women or the cycles of Sacraments. But my guess is that many people who take a long, hard look at "Poussin and Nature" are going to find themselves revisiting other aspects of the painter's work with fresh eyes, for there is always a poetic spark in Poussin that undercuts the complacency that is often associated with classicism. For Poussin, the drive to absorb the visual languages of Greece and Rome and the High Renaissance was only the beginning. The ultimate question was what you wanted to say, and even his steeliest set pieces are suffused with a speculative spirit.

Ever since 1648, when the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was founded, Poussin has been presented as the exemplar of French classicism. But Poussin--who was middle-aged when the Academy began and spent most of his life in Rome, far away from the struggle to define a truly French art--always remained something of an outsider in relation to the establishment that crowned him the ultimate insider. Poussin arrived in Rome in 1624, when he was thirty. In 1640, Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu wanted him to come to Paris and take up the position of premier peintre du roi, but during his two years there he chafed at the sorts of public commissions that he was expected to carry out, and he was back in Rome in 1642, where he lived until his death in 1665. Most of his paintings were done for wealthy connoisseurs; he was very much a man who painted to please himself. While the conferences held at the French Academy in the seventeenth century involved tremendously erudite, almost legalistically precise discussions of the meanings of gestures and objects in Poussin's paintings, it is by no means clear that this is how he thought about his paintings, or wanted others to think about them. There is an experimental, even a playful quality about the erudition of this great Frenchman who spent most of his creative life in Rome, and it seems to have gotten lost in the bureaucratic intricacies of the Parisian art world, where he was celebrated as the French Raphael and his subtlest inventions were sometimes treated as if they were little more than lesson plans.

Rosenberg and Christiansen echo the ideas of Blunt when they argue that Poussin's processes were more intuitive than the arbiters of French academic taste in the last decades of the seventeenth century cared to believe. Evidence to support this line of thinking can be discovered in Poussin's letters and in the testimony of his friends, as well as through close studies of the way that his compositions and themes appear to have evolved. One of the works that is significant in this regard is Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe, a stormy panorama that includes, in the foreground, the tragic lovers. Poussin described this painting in a famous letter, focusing on his desire to "represent a tempest on earth, imitating as best I could the effect of a violent wind, of air filled with darkness, with rain, with lightening flashes and thunderclaps that fall here and there, not without wreaking havoc." What has interested scholars about this letter (which we know from a transcription by an early biographer) is that it is only at the end of his description that Poussin mentions Ovid's story of Pyramus, the young man who kills himself under the mistaken belief that his lover, Thisbe, is already dead, which in turn precipitates her suicide.

This letter has suggested to some scholars that for Poussin the subject of the picture was the storm itself, with the Ovidian reference only underscoring the broader poetic idea. Close studies of the painting reveal that in this landscape, as in many others, the figures were painted last. Although this does not mean that the figures were not part of the original conception, we are again brought face to face with Poussin's central concern with naturalistic phenomena. Could it be that the classical hero of the French Academy had a romantic soul? Could it be that this artist who had been attracted early in his career to the poesie of the Venetian landscape tradition in Giorgione, Bellini, and Titian never lost his lyric drive? Certainly Poussin's drawings--which comprise a show within this show--are miracles of graphic speculation. His quickening pen strokes and boldly conceived ink washes could only be the products of a genuinely unfettered imagination.

For artists and art historians and other museumgoers who have been returning to the Poussin show time and again, the wonder of his art has everything to do with a pictorial self-consciousness that always leaves room for the unconscious to emerge. And this view of Poussin has larger implications, for it contradicts the general idea that classicism is, first and last, a style based on control. I am struck by Poussin's unwillingness to allow men and women and the world they have made ever to entirely dominate his landscapes. From time to time he cuts off our view of a figure by setting its lower half behind a rise in the land, or he breaks up the symmetry of a building with an overlay of foliage. The natural world and the human world are always in competition, which serves to remind us that Poussin's classicism involves the discovery, for each painting, of an experimental order, a provisional order. While his classicism sometimes suggests the coolness of a northerner's nostalgic embrace of southern possibilities, it is not for nothing that he lived most of his life in Rome. He knew classical art firsthand--not as a series of engravings in a portfolio, but as the battered fragments of stone and metal and frescoed plaster that had been pulled out of the rich Italian soil. He never forgot that idealism must be wrested from realism, that general principles must be deduced from particularities.

I have to admit that I was unprepared for the urgency that I have experienced every time I return to this exhibition. At a time when the world around us, political or economic or cultural, seems more disheartening than it has been in at least a generation, there is something thrilling about Poussin's conviction that the discipline of painting can make life a little easier to bear. In one of the most enigmatic canvases in the exhibition, the Landscape with Three Men from around 1650, a discussion is in progress. One figure, reclining on the grass, is pointing toward the blue-tinted mountains in the distance, while a man with a staff, probably a traveler, points in another direction, guiding our eyes toward the right margin of the canvas. Surely these two gestures, as clear as the symbols in a geometry book, describe the twinned possibilities of the painter's world: as the reclining man points into the painting, into the fictive space that the artist imagines, the traveler points across the surface of the canvas, across the primary plane on which the artist does his work. Through these two gestures we are invited to admire the artist's world in all its variety: not only the young men on horseback, but also the mirror-like pond, the softly bending trees, the rustic buildings, the distant mountains. The painting--bathed in a delicate, penetrating light--is a dream that awakens us to the challenges of reality.

Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.

By Jed Perl