Feature

Exhibition of the week

Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions

Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Through May 11

“If a painter can be judged by the love he inspires” in other artists, Nicolas Poussin may be one of the greatest, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. The top landscape painters of the 19th century—John Constable, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Paul Cézanne—all adored the 17th-century Frenchman. “So did Picasso and Matisse.” But among the wider public, Poussin is either not known at all or known for being a difficult, intellectual painter. The exhibition of the artist’s brooding landscapes at the Metropolitan Museum doesn’t exactly make them seem like crowd-pleasers. But the carefully curated array of paintings and drawings from throughout his career is the best possible introduction to the artist. “If you spend enough time, you may even find yourself falling a little in love yourself.”

Poussin’s “imaginative, intelligent, and rational” style revolutionized landscape painting, said Lance Esplund in The New York Sun. Like other artists of his era, Poussin painted scenes of religious and mythic figures, frequently placing them in natural settings. But he gradually developed a mode in which the landscape itself is “a protagonist, if not the main event.” His cliffs, mountains, lakes, and grottoes, though based on actual places in the countryside near Rome, are constructed with mathematical precision and deeply symbolic structure. Even when shepherds, gods, or lovers figure prominently in a composition, the meaning lies in how the humans interact with the landscape. His nude Venus (or a Nymph) Spied on by Satyrs, for instance, “is one of the most erotic pictures ever made”—in part because the goddess’ eroticism seems to permeate the landscape. “It is as if she is the origin of nature, ecstasy, and beauty.”

Poussin’s landscapes hum with life, said Ariella Budick in Newsday. Yet these idyllic settings are also haunted by death. One painting shows the poet Orpheus as he “strums his lyre, celebrating his wedding to the beautiful Eurydice,” unaware that a snake creeping through the underbrush is about to strike her dead. Another work, Et in Arcadia Ego, “depicts a crowd of robust, half-clothed shepherds who have discovered an overgrown tomb.” A skull sits atop it, which the lively bunch considers with wonder. In this, as in all of Poussin’s greatest paintings, the lesson is clear: “Beauty and pleasure glow even more brightly in the shadow of death’s awful power.”

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