Nicolas Poussin wanted to go to the source. And the source, at that time, was Rome…
Twice, he tried to reach it. Twice, lack of money stopped him. The decisive opportunity was given him in 1624 by a poet, the precious, then vastly famous Marino. The Italian concettist had divined Poussin’s genius, had asked him to illustrate his interminable poem, Adonis, then invited the painter to join him in Rome. So at last Poussin arrived in the Eternal City.
For a number of years his life remained a difficult one. Marino, having reccomended Poussin to Cardinal Barberini, left for Naples where he died shortly after. Barberini showed a friendly disposition but left Rome himself on a diplomatic mission. Without steady patrons Poussin lived poorly, selling his work for starvation prices. He was an isolated stranger wearing French dress which led him to be attacked one night by the local soldiery and wounded in the wrist. The French were not popular in the Papal states, at the time favorable to France’s enemy, Spain. In addition he was also seriously laid low with venereal disease which affected him the rest of his life.
After this nocturnal mishap, Poussin adopted Roman dress and moving up to the next level, took a Roman wife, the daughter of a humble pasty cook. Gradually, his situation improved, reputation grew, prices rose and he acquired influential patrons such as Cassiano dal Pozzo , a wealthy nobleman whose erudition and attachment to antiquity left a profound mark on him. A decade after his arrival, the lean times were over, and the lineaments of his personal style had begun to emerge.
It was a fortuitous time for Poussin to be in Rome despite the early hardship. The churches, in continual process of decoration and redecoration, became veritable studios and art galleries. Palaces and villas accumulated the treasures of ancient and renascent art. From this immense reservoir, artists borrowed freely; in those days, imitation was regarded as a virtue rather than a vice. A head here, an attitude there, a drapery from somewhere else, so that the work of uninspired practitioners often looked like a skillfully woven plaid of quotations.
This dominant eclecticism was flanked on the one side by the revolutionary realism of Caravaggio and his followers, underlined by their violent highlighting, and on the other by the theatrical pomp of the baroque, developed by Pietra da Cortona, Bernini, Borromini, with its insistence on irregularity, motion, illusionism, and flights of fancy.
Poussin responded vigorously to this wealth of models and incitements. His work, during that phase, is a series of continuous , sometimes contradictory, experiments. He drew after ancient bas-reliefs, but also in the streets of Rome and around it; he copied Titian’s bacchanals and illustrated Leonardo’s notebooks.
In turn, dramatic and elgiac, he explored the realm of mythology and chivalrous romance as well as religion; he even displayed on occasion a sensuality so voluptuous that some picturesally shocked French collectors: one of his Venuses was thus censored beyond recognition.
In these early pictures Poussin makes the landscape elements seem to smolder with intense ardor. He achieved this effect by applying the upper layers of paint in relatively thin and rough brush strokes that allowed the red-brown ground layer of paint to show through, giving the entire image a warm and sensual glow. In European poetry the tradition of describing nature with amorous metaphors was an ancient one going back all the way to the Homeric hymns. This tradition was still very much alive in literature at the beginning of the seventeenth century, in no small part owing to the popularity of the pastoral. For instance, borrowing imagery from Ovid, Milton in his poem L’Allegro in the 1630s could write: …
The frolick Wind that breathes the Spring,
Zephir with Aurora playing,
As he met her once a Maying,
There on Beds of Violets blew,
And fresh-blown Roses washt in dew,
Fill’d her with thee a daughter fair…
Poussin was extremely familiar with this tradition thanks to his friendship with Marino, whose poem L’Adone is a rich repository of the same vein of imagery. The artist read the book with the author, even making illustrations of it at his request, and Marino and Poussin also discussed how to translate the power of poetic language into the visual forms of painting. In L’Adone Marino wrote descriptive passages such as “Even the stones and the shadows of the place/sigh breaths of amorous fire.”1 In his early mythic landscapes Poussin sought to capture the same sense of pathos and inspiration as is conveyed by lush and elevated writing of this kind. Read More:http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/apr/17/the-magical-painting-of-poussin/