Panat in postcardThe Ranums'

Panat Times

Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


Cropper and Dempsey on Nicolas Poussin

Reviewed in 1997

The first book I read this summer is Marc Fumaroli's Le Poète et le Roi. I want to reflect on this book more before I write about it here (I have written extensively to the author), but I may refer to it here as I ponder Elizabeth Cropper and Charles Dempsey, Nicolas Poussin, Friendship and the Love of Painting, Princeton U.P, 1996.

Like the book about La Fontaine, the Poussin is written from lifetimes of research and thought; each is really focused on an individual about two brilliantly creative spirits perhaps more akin than has previously been suspected. Both sought to pursue truth and beauty in human experience and in and through the Tradition (yes, it was religious, but not in the sense that the word had in the l7th century), especially Greek and Italian. Whether in Æsop or the Urania of the Musei Capitolini, or the Cesi Juno in the same museum, Poussin and La Fontaine achieved a profundity of understanding that cast them as strangers in their own country.

C. and D. begin their book with a brilliant summary of the scholarship about Poussin, and announce their aims under the rubric of 'genuine historical criticism' (p. 5). They note something I not only suspected, but resented, namely the fundamentally English origins of the critique of Poussin's work as lacking in spontaneity, and as having a certain 'coldness and intellectual reserve.' C. and D. do not take the time (and rightly so) to elucidate the intellectual framework for this critique (sprezzatura is not, after all, an English word); they are right to stress the differences between Poussin's own painting and the academism it inspired. I well recall Sir John Elliott's comment when on a walk with him somewhere—he saying that he much preferred Claude's landscapes over Poussin's—and I think that here John's view was not only personal taste (important and fair as it is) but a view with a long history of art criticism in Britain about it. True, Poussin can be shocking and disturbing—still—to 20th century sensibilities, as the ancient Greeks still can be. Claude's art is 'histoire comme refuge' while Poussin's is not, as C. and D.'s book so admirably demonstrates.

The issue of whether or not Poussin is too intellectual or deliberate is not taken up again by C. and D., but their response to it is evident as they give the reader their shared esperienza of interpreting historically Poussin's paintings. The book is not spoiled by deep descents into the problems of dating and ordering the paintings; the sense of control and judgment on the technical aspects is prodigious. There are arresting aperçus about the influence of Cézanne criticism on Poussin's work, but just as with the hoary questions about chronology, the reader is left to infer that beneath the glittering iceberg of short summary there is a blackish frozen mass of unfounded scholarship rejected by the authors, but carefully considered beforehand.

The perception of the Greek style in sculpture, as distinct from the Roman, was not made before the brilliant circle of artists began working on the problem for Vincenzo Giustiniani in Rome in the late l620s. German, Dutch, Flemish, and French young artists (include engravers and sculptors as artists) were recruited to carry out a remarkable program, the galleria Giustiniana. The chapter of the Marchese's program—and here this is a very important element—of archeological research, pictorial record of his sculpture collection, and personal pursuit of pleasure and immortality by reliance on his own (what would later be called taste), is the most interesting and exciting work on collecting and curiosity that I have read since the Pomian, Schnapper, and Solinas publications. C. and D. situate Poussin in this creative atmosphere and trace carefully his development as he and the remarkable Flemish sculptor, Duquesnoy, measure the limbs of ancient sculptures and assess as profoundly as they are able, the contours of the human body. In a very general sense there seems to have been a rejection (partial) of geometry in favor of understanding the totality of the human form in a more three-dimensional way, and according to age, sex and rank. Giustiniani seems also to press his young artists to discern exact differences in hair styles, clothing and other features literally formed into his sculptures, but which had hitherto not been a subject of study. This was all not done to establish some proto-Wincklemanesque of Wolflinesque theory of aesthetic evolution, but rather to have knowledge for its own sake—in an antiquarian way, not unlike the person who copies a partially surviving ancient inscription. It's just to have it that counts.
It is interesting to speculate how Giustiniani might have been doing all this in a response to the claims of the great Roman families who commanded enormous prestige in the City Eternal by all sorts of patronage, artistic, religious, etc., and of course his childlessness may have strengthened an already melancholic inclination. Perhaps a lot more is known about his program and life than is put together here; if not there is certainly still more to be done, since his program for recording his collection is so intriguing. There is a hermeneutic dimension—from actual sculpture to engraving of sculpture—that is really intriguing. How did he overcome the language of vanity, which, as G. Defaux has shown, is still part of curiosity as a sin of self concern. Doesn't Wittkower say somewhere that all collectors are egomaniacs? Putting the collection on paper may have a more pietistic dimension than the self-advertising one that leaps to mind. One suspects that, as Montaigne had earlier, and Poussin later, Guistiniani had an ability to compartmentalize aspects of his life, soul, and collecting. Hence, just as the distinction between spontaneity and intellect is meaningless in Poussin, so might be the boundary between sacred and profane for Giustiniani, except in some obvious way. That the divine was somehow in the contours of Greek sculpture if we could only see it, or re-see it, does not necessarily follow, however. The l9th century was a long ways away.

Did Poussin have to reject some of his more daring profane—and erotic—works before he could receive extreme unction? La Fontaine, off in Paris, did. The Roman Church had pioneered in the late sixteenth century in reaching administratively down to each and every sinner, by the 'state of the soul' inquiries, taking place every year. The Gallican Church was far behind in this regard, as was the Ludovician state. To be sure, some parish priests paid special attention to writers, and in this sense La Fontaine's confession and death prefigures so many cases in the l8th century. Fumaroli inveighs against the Ludovician state but neglects to see the history of European state-building as a vast and complex assumption of powers of individuals and families already established by a vast and complex religious administration, the first to descend to the individual in an administrative way. Had the church in Rome by the time of Poussin's death slipped back into something like bureaucratic routine vis a vis the individual sinner?

C. and D.'s brilliant study of how the affetti and expression were understood by the young artists in Giustiniani's stable is not only immensely suggestive for all further work on Poussin, but is also indispensible for understanding many other aspects of l7th century culture. I frequently encountered these words in works about history when I was working on Artisans of Glory but could never really get beyond the obvious. Expression becomes such a familiar term that writers of treatises on all sorts of subjects decline to define it. As Poussin used it in his later work it is 'a means by which the painter is able to predetermine the disposition of the beholder' (p.47). Once a painter has decided to depict a philosopher, by the expression the beholder will recognize that the person is indeed a philosopher, and this beneath features and other more superficial elements which go in to the makeup of a person. There is a parallel here (not necessarily historical) with Aristotelian thought about properties, but for the painter, historian and perhaps fable writer, is not Truth assured in the work by fixing, and the beholder able to discern, the expression? History was not what the writer of history wrote; it was what happened, recorded or not (Boileau and Racine). History was out there fixing the beholder the minute he looked at it; the 'corps d'histoire,' like a painting, was the assemblage of words and images made by the historian-painter. Marc Fumaroli has opened up a major inquiry by asking why history painting achieved such glorious work, and historical writing did not. He takes the Rubens series as his example, and the result is awesomely suggestive. His answer is, of course, the oppressive character of Richelieu, Mazarin and Ludovician government, but this is to give more power to politics in French culture than the state in fact had.

To what extent was the painter free to create the expression of a well-known person, living or dead? The archeological precision in Poussin's paintings inspires wonder, and it is plain that new ancient worlds remain to be discovered in his work. For him did not history painting begin with expression, while taking into consideration all that could be known about any one person or place to him. C. an D. are profoundly right when they stress how the immediate sensory response by the beholder is intensely moral (p. 48). In Poussin the expression may or may not be evidently stated, but it certainly was deeply historical and timeless, and perhaps timely as well. Thus, when C. and D. describe some personage in a painting as 'beautiful,' there is little doubt that that was what Poussin wished to have the beholder discern. It is C. and D.'s authority as scholars of works of art that is important here too; one has a sense that they are beholding so much more accurately and profoundly than good old Fréart, but as always in Poussin, the apparent and the profound remain so close together that any possibility of thinking of his work as pedantic is out of the question.

Because of this strength in expression, an awesome coherence, we can be sure there is identity and thought that not even the great specialists of Poussin have yet beheld. A person, a building, a mountain, a countryside, a road, and the difference between Greek and Roman ones, give deeply human satisfaction when finally understood. It's so much like some phrases in Tacitus and Montaigne—so obvious once they are understood. The result of all this is the certitude of meaning, even when it has not yet been worked out. Here it is that C. and D. offer a response to the hoary critique about Poussin lacing spontaneity and being too intellectual. The beholder is not a passive viewer-reader; he must participate in the conversation with Poussin himself, through the work, not at all unlike Montaigne in the Essais. This is, indeed, a rather special quality (Aristotle again) for painting, but one entirely plausible for someone who is a brilliant artist and a formidable autodidact in conversation with the writings of Guazzo, Lipsius, and of course, various ancients. Is not the literalism in the life program characteristic of that of the autodidact? I can't answer this question, but in posing it my mind turns more to Cellini and Rousseau, than to Ménétra.

Giustiniani became himself in his galleria; his expression became his choices of sculptures, and their ordering in the (engraved) gallery. The narcissistic attempt to record and to perpetuate his vision of ancient sculpture, his dynasty, estates, gardens and self, is in many ways a project like the Essais. It might be interesting to work on the semantic fields of the Italian impresa (one immediately thinks of the moving Alberti example), and the word expression—beginning with the prefixes, of course, and then going to the bodies of the two words.

The move from the marks (this is Bodin's word for the features of sovereignty) that would constitute the expression of a philosopher, to what goes on in portraits of distinct philosophers must have of immense intellectual challenge for Poussin. By pressing further Daniel Arasse's approach in Le Sujet dans le Tableau, the absence of portraits in the usual sense in Poussin's work, except of himself, leaves one to infer that the painter was, for himself, in all his other painting, actually creating historical portraits that only he could know? It was, after all, scarcely possible to approach a painting through understanding the personality of the artist before the van Eycks and Raphael, and then it became the primary vehicle for understanding art for virtuosi until modern representational art came to an end in the late l9th century. Demand for portraits of artists from patrons and collectors was prodigious, and perhaps intensifying in the late l6th century (with Durer and friends being a haunting precedent). Collecting portraits of artists became an obsession with the grand dukes of Tuscany, but were they really all that different in impulse from someone such as the low-ranking Fréart.

C. and D. will, I hope, work further on drawing out the relation between expression and the problems of understanding portraiture in Poussin. But the possibility that Poussin's understanding how Paul and Peter looked may have been more important to him than just the familiar attributes in hair styles, age and beard. From what we learn about Giustiniani here, it is surprising that he seems not to have had an interest in antique coins and medals. Were not facial features subject to intense scrutiny, with attempts to recover apostolic portraits to accompany those of Greek and Roman historical personages? I may be totally wrong here, but the medals of the great on the French Renaissance chateau (Beauregard comes to mind) were there as exempla to inspire and to protect all who saw them. In the essai just before "Experience," III.l2, Montaigne writes about how his face enabled him to avoid being assaulted by bandits, etc., for it was his expression of innocence that preserved him from physical violence. I must go back to Cardano's work on physiognomy (so important for understanding Le Brun's project, and so rarely alluded to by specialists of the latter) to see exactly what he says about expression in portraiture, and then how this is translated into French. This may not lead to anything at all; Cardano may be out of bounds for the essentially rhetorical dimension in the word expression, I just do not know.

Long ago I pointed out the limits of semiotics in regard to facial features in a review of what Louis Marin wrote about the Pascal-Nicole 'story' of the islanders who selected a man to be their king who had washed ashore, because he 'looked like' their recently deceased king. The resemblance cannot be questioned, any more than the evident difference between the two, when the question is one of portraiture. In Poussin do the portraits of Christ look alike? They obviously cannot be identical. Was there an evolution that can be historically defined as ressemblance? Superficially, perhaps more so than Poussin does in his own portraits? The remarkable absence of the usual attributes for gods, saints and others (clubs, palms, wheels, etc.) left his patrons, Cassiano, Chantelou and Pointel, in the main, the task of remembering what the scene depicted was about, or who the personnages depicted were. It is a well-known fact that, in the history of portraiture, the names of the persons depicted are very often left off or not put on the back, obviously because presumably the family members, friends or corporation, when a religious or judicial personnage, or a doctor was involved, knew the identity of the person depicted. Poussin thus put deeply into practice this ideal of conversation which included the persons depicted in a painting as if they were part of the group. Just how the degree of specificity in portraiture, and expression come together is something intriguing to me. We can know it is Christ so often by his placement and or activity in the portrait, but there may well be other, historical resonances at work in these portraits. Emotional variation ought not to be ignored. By expérience Montaigne knew that the human face was never the same, really over time (Elizabeth II changes by aging on coins every l0 years, or so?), or in repose, or engagement. It changes as a result of whom it is beholding.

Poussin found in friendship that philosophical foundation which yielded ever deeper meaning to his life and work. Montaigne was a friend, not in the same sense, perhaps, as one of his contemporaries in Rome, but Poussin knew Montaigne as a friend as a result of reading and pondering the Essais, which, Montaigne says, are himself, not partially but in his entirety. Without an excursion into the thought of Early Christians about friendship (St. Paulin of Nola thought friends were predestined by God to meet, either personally or through books and portraits, see Pierre Fabre's brilliant thesis of l949) it is possible to take the 'structure' of persons and their work in book and painting as truly Montaigne and Poussin—perhaps the same ordering between the individual and his work (I can see Marin drawing little boxes and arrows here, my debt to him is enormous), with the one inspiring and leading the other, like Virgil to Dante, Laura to Petrarch, or more properly, St. Augustine to Petrarch, cf the Secretum, and many other examples. When Montaigne went to Loreto he had a silver plaque portraying himself, his wife and their daughter kneeling, to be affixed to the Santa Casa, with his name. It is so interesting that he did not just put their names, but that in some way he thought it desirable to have them portrayed. C. and D. bring a new understanding of the possibilities of dialogue between friends, the Essais and the paintings of Poussin. Never simply literal, especially in regard to the lyrical, the note about what Poussin did (29, p.345), quoting Dora Panofsky, is so important. Not 'illustrating' myths, but using fables for poetic reasoning (mythos), an imaginative means for expressing [in conversation] their own poetic themes and inventions. To infer that Mars was impotent because he is not depicted with genitals may certainly have conversational affinities with Montaigne's comment about that member of his, but not having genitals may be about something deeper regarding the character of Mars himself, in battle as well as in Venus's arms. Did Poussin question the commonplaces about male Virtu? Did he question the commonplace: male potency = courage in battle? I have forgotten just where, now, but there are two stories in Montaigne, one having to do with a duke of Guise who has great courage in battle, and no testicles. I must look this up; it's not a Guise who has this condition but someone he encounters, but no matter, the possibilities for understanding the dialogue between these fathomless works are, for a neophyte like myself, dangerous and enormous.

But to return to the theme of conversation with Montaigne for Poussin, more generally, and with Giustiniani's circle of artists and perhaps with G. himself, I sense just a bit of tension between the friendly, sociable atmosphere in which Poussin matured in Rome, and the exclusive authorial attribute to Poussin about his work. Authorial identity is usually very strong in artisan culture, less so in many corporate worlds of monasteries and law courts. In saying this I do not in any wish to go down the arid road of challenging the learning of the painter, Poussin. Not at all. There is also no doubt about his strong sense of self, and of his authority over his work, choices of place to work, size of work, etc; but for a painter living in a milieu of patrons and artists, conversing with them, drawing and measuring with them, would it not be possible to find terms to describe this culturally creative atmosphere for him without in any way challenging his authority as sovereign over his work? As a pursuer of experience, self analysis perhaps, and continual research, there is something different about the living encounters in both Montaigne's and Poussin's lives, from the reading and ethnography of antiquity which both did. In what sense is Montaigne the author of his Essais? I simply wish to question the simplistic ways we use the term, and by this I don't mean to go down Foucault's path, but I owe something to him in the questioning, but I'm thinking more of N. Z. Davis's article on book ownership and friendship—the example being the sixteenth-century person who wrote his name on the title page of 'his' Bible, and then added 'and his friends.' Apart from the ontological problem of owning God's word, there remains the sociability of friendship to the point of the sharing of possessions, and perhaps of works. One could really work on the fact of the strong identity of the painter using not only Poussin, but Rubens, whose friendships, as Mark Morford, classicist at Virginia, has so superbly pulled together, similar cultural relations where stoic thought sustains a cultural separation from typical communities of belief, but which seems to enhance the authority of the artist in his work, and leave him creative autonomy without signs of obsequiousness from others.

Who could know? What sources are still to be found to enable historians to learn more about the creative noyaux of the l7th century? There may really be no way to learn more, and it would be deeply unhistorical to infer from what we know about other creative groups on to ones where individualism is so strongly articulated in and through work.

Marino's lyric poetry was something again that both Poussin and La Fontaine had some familiarity with; in C. and D.'s selection of paintings for deeper study the relation to the Stage degli Innocenti would seem to have had more bearing on Poussin than the Adonis, which was perhaps more inspiring for La Fontaine, but there probably is no way of measuring such so-called influences. The historian's work seems almost over once the two works are brought to confront each other. But in Fumaroli's words: 'Magnifiquement amplifié aux dimensions d'une épopée, le mythe ovidien de Vénus et d'Adonis devenait...l'apologie d'une civilisation a l'italienne, delivrée de Mars...Vénus règne sur le poeme. L'île de Cythere est son royaume...{et} Dans ce royaume epicurien de la Vénus de Marino c'est la contagion érotique émanant de la déesse qui assure l'harmonie religieuse et sociale du corps politique...[La Guirlande de Cecilia, p. l40]. Dépaysement beyond the Roman dépaysement to the world of nymphs, goddesses, gods, all centered on the synthesis of the erotic and thoughts about death. Humanistic learned culture since Petrarch had occurred outside the university, and tending toward academies, those loci of learned and eloquent sociabilities and friendships, anti-monastic, but clerical in some respects still. Poussin's humble rural origins would typically have made him an autodidact, say, after the manner of Cellini or Rousseau vis-à-vis the world of literature, and poetry in particular, but there seem to be no traces of the literalism and rather brutalized literary understanding one so finds in autodidacts(certainly not in Rousseau). Is it because historians cannot quite get close enough to Poussin in his learning that impedes them from perceiving autodidactic features in this work? I doubt it. Poussin was consumately educated after dépaysement had done its work, but then he seems to keep coming back not only to Arcadia but to Montaigne, who was no less French for having reached across centuries and oceans to scrutinize the ancients and the cannibals in order to find them as gens comme tout le monde.

Montaigne says somewhere that he did not so much learn from reading, as that reading exercised his mind. I do not know if the same might be said about La Fontaine; I have still to feel and to find his presence in Fumaroli's book, but there is no doubt about Poussin's presence in C. and D.'s book.


See also Orest's essay: A typology of early-modern friendship in Poussin's correspondence