Just as it abstracts the figures in the foreground, Nicolas Poussin’s geometry opens up nature in the background. The narrow dramatic stage now gives way to a landscape so vast that, it appears it would take more than a day to cross it on foot. Poussin’s landscape is unraveled by roads that force the eye to explore it in repeated diagonals, thereby not only lending a feeling of ampleness to canvases of small dimensions, but laying out his earth’s anatomy; and one is reminded of Goethe’s remark that he could never understand a landscape until he knew its geological constitution.
This new, enormous room is, for the first and only time in the history of art, unbroken. The impact of a group assembled in the foreground is carried to the remotest reaches by the presence, in the distance, of a group similarly cadenced. Rhythms and parallels animate the entire space with carefully calculated echoes and reverberations. The river is still there; indeed, the rivers themselves, through their crystal tranquility, turn into bridges of reflecting, magnifying , and prolonging shapes and colors from the one bank to the other. Thus Orpheus playing to Eurydice on the close shore, the bathers on the other, and the earth all around them participate in a single concert, a composition in the truest sense, directed by that invisible wand: the ruler.
For Poussin, however, mathematical order is a means, not an end. It reconciled in him the poet and the peasant; but once the service was performed, it retreated discreetly, leaving them face to face. And now the peasant had his revenge, not by rejecting the poet’s world, but by transposing it, by rephrasing it in natural, almost homely terms. Orpheus stroking the lyre becomes a farmer playing his bagpipes; the horses that once drew Apollo’s chariot now pull the plow.
In the filigree, so to say, of the dry Roman countryside reappears the verdant richness of Normandy, which Poussin had left nearly fifty years before. Rivers had always been a favorite theme of the artist, raised on the banks of the Seine. Now, in his late work, cliffs reminiscent of those near Les Andelys, his hometown, rise up on the Tiberine shores, and in the Castel Sant’ Angelo as painted into Orpheus and Eurydice we perceive a reminiscence of the Chateau Gaillard, the stronghold of Richard the Lion Hearted. The vegetation, too, becomes thicker, moister, and the apple trees in Spring and Autumn are the pride of a Norman orchard.
Butterfield:The late landscapes are images of heavenly beauty, and yet many historians today believe that they were born of Poussin’s disgust for the evils of the earth. Certainly, his letters of these years are filled with bitter and angry comments about the political turmoil that beset Europe, especially
Fronde, the civil war that raged in France from 1648 to 1653. For example, in a letter in August 1648 Poussin wrote:
I fear the malignity of our times. Virtue, conscience and religion are banished among men. Nothing but vice, trickery and self-interest reign. All is lost. I have lost hope in the existence of Good. Everything is filled with evil….
…It was in a state of despair that Poussin turned to making pictures of a more perfect world.
“Paintings enclose in narrow places, the space of earth and the heavens,” wrote Cardinal Federico Borromeo of Milan in 1628, “and we go wandering, and making long journeys [in them] standing still in our room.” It was to serve as the locus of such journeys of the mind that Poussin made his extraordinary late landscape pictures. They were meant in part to be places of mental repose, images to dwell on, and to dwell in, at least for a while. Read More:http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/apr/17/the-magical-painting-of-poussin/?page=2