THINGS that are perfect in some way should not be looked at hastily, but over time, with judgment and intelligence,’ wrote Nicolas Poussin to an official of the court of Louis XIII, in 1642. The artist was 47 and at the height of his powers, acclaimed both in his native France —where, for two years, he had enjoyed the prestigious position of the first painter to the king —and in Rome, to which he shortly returned.
Unusually among the work of French Baroque artists, Poussin’s painting rejected giddy emotionalism in favor of slow appraisal. A cerebral quality characterizes many of his paintings and, often, a stillness suggestive of Classical sculpture. In works such as The Adoration of the Golden Calf of 1633–34 and the densely wrought Hymenaios Disguised as a Woman During an Offering to Priapus, painted shortly afterward, his figurative groups explicitly recall the carved friezes and bas reliefs of ancient Athens and Rome. As in the work of Classical artists, he depicts idealized figures in idyllic surrounds, positioned, in a conceit borrowed from Titian, within a landscape of distant blue mountains. The crisp lines of many of his paintings point to the lasting influence of Raphael, whose work he encountered as a young man in the collection of France’s queen mother, Marie de Médicis, in the newly built Luxembourg Palace. However, viewers have failed to find in Poussin’s carefully rendered set pieces the warmth that typically irradiates Raphael’s serene vision or the vigour of Titian.
A new exhibition at the National Gallery, ‘Poussin and the Dance’, aims to challenge preconceptions of his painting as aloof or chilly in its erudition. It showcases a series of images of revelry to support its theory that, despite its patient intellectualism, Poussin’s art was also joyous—even riotous. Viewers will reach their own conclusions.
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