Poussin: Organic Classicism


Now, in 2008, the Metropolitan Museum has decided to celebrate Poussin and Nature. The following article from fourteen years ago has some relevance to both this exhibition and our current understanding of how we evaluate nature. Since then, I have been working towards an understanding of how to transform nature for human well being. I have published Valuing Nature, The Imperative of Being, mentioning Poussin and proposing naturalism in metaphysics/morality. I have also made narrative paintings of people interacting in the environment, including Birth of Nature pictures. This is in response to the our recognition of the necessity of accepting our dependence on primordial nature and the necessity of working to construct the architecture of a designed nature transfigured for human benefit — the architecture of harmony with nature.

Poussin: Organic Classicism

A critical appreciation of his work with a particular emphasis on his mythological paintings and the naturalistic“Dionysian” dimension of his classicism

In the dark light of late November 1994, I left for Paris to see the Poussin exhibition along with the distinguished American painter, Lennart Anderson. The exhibition Nicolas Poussin 1594-1995, was organized by Pierre Rosenberg, the director of the Louvre and took place in the fall of 1994 to celebrate the four hundredth year of Poussin’s birth. This was the most comprehensive exhibition since the exhibition at the Louvre in 1960. The year before, 1993, I had seen the Titian exhibition, also at the Grand Palais. The timing emphasized that Poussin’s classical style built on Venetian composition, raised Titian’s pantheistic imagination and sensual intuition of nature to a systematic moral critique within a new naturalistic vision.

The exhibition and catalogue was an exciting event for artists who still believe that “representation” of human experience is the most serious purpose of art. For artists not deeply moved by non- objective painting, or the clever tropes of abstraction, Poussin’s articulation of form has significant meaning. Twentieth century artists have lived through suspicion of “representation” and an ideology of flatness in art criticism. For figurative artists, Poussin’s organic pictorial thought, in particular his sensitive negotiation of edges and fusion of form, is unusually appealing. Gratefully, his learned rhetoric and composition is a critique of “childlike” attributes sometimes revered in modern art.

Along with a grand formal intelligence, contemporary artists can find in Nicolas Poussin’s work, mythological content of deep psychological insight, providing a “pre-text” for a modern classicism. Some of the doctrinal theological paintings are impressive but for our ecologically sensitive culture, Poussin’s mythological paintings in celebration of “earthly values” are more meaningful. The formal imperative and vision derive not only from a“Platonic”concept of form as a realm superior to nature, but from the tragic/stoic realization that natural process also determines human being. Poussin’s content indicates a deep understanding of psyche and nature that embodies the humility of reason and ego before nature. His elegant mode of visual organization initially is based on simple mathematical/geometric structure commonly considered “Platonic.” However, a second mode of organization based on direct sensual observation and the organic structure of nature becomes increasingly important in the mythological paintings; the manifest order may be Platonic and geometric, but the latent order is organic and biomorphic.

I propose, to use Panofsky’s language, that what is “paraded” by the formal organization is masterly control of reason, but what is “betrayed” is a contradictory but enlightened recognition of the sublime beauty of the organic morphology of nature and a recognition of the determining power of the natural environment for human experience. The heart of Poussin’s content is nature, mythology and landscape. Poussin recognizes that being depends on nature and that art is vital when invigorated by naturalistic insight and empirical analysis. This insight is powerfully and emblematically expressed in the Dionysian and Ovidian paintings which have an inventive organic force and provocative psychic significance.

The exhibition intensified the question as to what influenced and motivated Poussin’s naturalism and to what extent his mythological speculation contributes to an anti-supernaturalist critique. The content of Poussin’s work is appropriately divided into the Christian and mythological paintings reflecting the conventional professional division of intellectual thought into theological (supernatural) and philosophical (natural) analysis that deepened in the Renaissance. Anthony Blunt in Nicolas Poussin, 1967, published after the 1960 exhibition reflects this “double truth” in his discussion of theological Neo-Platonism and stoical philosophy. But he seems defensive about his conjectures, possibly due to the hegemony of formalism existing in the prior decade or possibly to hide his Marxism – as he does not go into the philosophical/cultural background in enough depth. Late in the book he discusses the possibility of Tomasso Campanella’s direct influence, but he does not fully discuss the powerful influence of the Renaissance philosophical background underpinning Campenella and the intense cultural dialogue, which must have influenced Poussin. Blunt in criticism of Fry’s formalist analysis, proposes that Poussin is a “pictor philosophicus.” I would have enjoyed a deeper explication of the philosophical and cultural background to Poussin’s work.

I propose that the mythological paintings are not simply culturally modish images for that time, but may also reflect the anti-supernaturalist, proto-scientific intuition of Pico, Pompanazzi, Cardeno,Teleseo, Zabarella, and Bruno etc. At the least, it would be interesting to know to what extent the critique developed by the renaissance Parisian and Paduan naturalists is fundamental to the cultural inheritance of Poussin – in particular, Pompanazzi’s attack on the concept of immortality, Telesio’s celebration of sensation, and Bruno’s attack on narcissistic magical religious thought: certainly these Italian naturalists helped develop the modern scientific method. If Poussin is a “pictor philosophicus” we must assume a deep consciousness of this dialogue, and an understanding that he would entertain a critical attitude toward these politically charged theological and mythological concepts. The intelligent organization and the stoic content celebrate reason as the means to freedom in the face of fate.


Once settled on the plane to Paris, Anderson handed me a disconcerting article from the October 7, 1994 Times Literary Supplement, by Marco Fumaroli, an apparent pretender to Anthony Blunt’s throne. Fumaroli’s interest, however, is the religious work and his thesis is that Poussin’s paintings primarily reflect Jesuit Christian Neo-Platonism, subsuming and minimizing the significance of his stoical naturalism. There clearly is an intense battle over the “proper interpretation” of Poussin. Anthony Blunt, in spite of his political disgrace, remains the leading scholar, proposing a stoic-materialist interpretation. Blunt’s interpretation of stoicism as fundamental to the meaning of many of the paintings is more compelling. Blunt’s case that Poussin conceived of God, not as supernatural, but immanent in nature is significant and compelling. Richard Wollheim in Painting As An Art seems to reinforce Blunt in relation to Poussin’s naturalistic intuition.

The exhibition was organized historically, appropriately providing the viewer with pertinent sets of drawings preceding the paintings. Poussin’s drawing method was a remarkably simple, lucid means of organizing a complex visual field. It remained consistent throughout his life enabling him to reconcile the rhetoric of figurative forms with phenomena and environment, by means of unique integrating shapes of light and dark. This dialectic of light in Poussin’s drawing is well described in the first chapter of Oscar Batchman’s book, Poussin: The Dialectics of Nature. The sets of drawings demonstrate radical clarity of visual thought and reveal Poussin’s means of contending with complicated content. Poussin contradicts and opposes the intellectual narrative idea with perceptual discovery. Across the visual field, he draws distinctions of light and dark, which override the delineation of separate forms. He confounds figure/ground expectations. In a sense, then, this “contra semiotic” structure clarifying the anatomy of light is a strategy enhancing the symbolic meaning. These drawings were an informative introduction to the paintings. An example would be the great series of drawings for the Sacraments. In one of the Baptism drawings (1646, catalogue 125, Louvre, M.I. 988), the white ground of the paper and the top half of Christ fuse brilliantly and unexpectedly (later to be conservatively revised in the painting). The luminous organization created by transparent veils of shadow are particularly clear and organic; yet the strategy of these drawings is not always realized in the paintings – the drawings have an ambient light, organic complexity, and fusion of form only realized in the later paintings. For example, the corresponding painting of The Baptism, (circa 1646) from the second set of sacraments, for all its formal clarity, is too severely constrained by the text. Here is a case where content destroys phenomena – the mapping and isolation of form must be due to the prioritizing of Catholic doctrine over the environment and natural ambient light promised in the drawings.

The Biblical paintings demonstrate profound human insight, but the mythological paintings have a critical appeal and a deeper significance in terms of both formal inventiveness and psychological content. It seems reasonable that, free from doctrinal concern, Poussin would be able to express his personal intuition. This exhibition made it clear that Poussin’s mythological insight was established at the beginning of his career and gained momentum throughout his life. Appropriately, mythological paintings and drawings initiated and concluded the exhibition. The first mythological painting in the exhibition was Midas Washing Himself in the River Patroculos (circa 1625), from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I assume an aspect of the meaning is self-reflective – a criticality directed at himself as well as others; that is, Midas is Poussin, washing his eyes or his face in the flowing river (clarifying his vision). Poussin recognizes that greed (particularly conceptual greed) can only be overcome by washing the eyes of idealistic concepts and accepting nature (Dionysos) as a guide. The painting is a philosophical statement about the priority of nature. Midas-ism and narcissism represent “over-inflation of ego” which Poussin recognizes as a psychological/philosophical problem we all must overcome (an ontological human problem). Poussin maintains this self-criticism throughout his career. Consider the similar emblematic meaning of the blind Orion painted near the end of his life.

Poussin’s insight may not be accessible to the modern viewer. In comparison with Titian and by the standards of modern expressionism, Poussin’s style and work sometimes is considered dry, intellectual and difficult to appreciate. The probity of his thought and the beauty of his compositions, figures, and architecture is recognized, but unfortunately, his deliberate formal and pictorial excellence is alien to the student of contemporary art who privileges immediate self-expression. This alienation is somewhat justified because Poussin utilized histrionic gestures established in the Renaissance. He was certainly aware of Leonardo’s proto-academic formulas that appear quaint to modern taste, but this is a minor price in comparison to the magnificent persuasiveness of his visual thought. Poussin’s rhetorical clarity is a powerful means of expression. Poussin’s rhetoric is not only a lexicon of convention and histrionic gesture, but also a rhetoric of narrative logic whereby color and form is determined by dramatic emotional intention. Rhetoric can be a way of enhancing and controlling the affective structure. For example, Poussin would “unnaturally” minimize the flesh tone of a secondary figure by adding green or grey to neutralize the colour. From Poussin, contemporary artists can reinvigorate the formal/rhetorical solutions to pictorial problems: how to organize groups of figures within architectural environments and how to use color to emotional effect.

Recently, semeiotics (and philosophy) with its linguistic bias privileging language over sensuous perception has been a prime instrument for the analysis of content. But etymologically, the first meaning of “semeiotics” evolved in medical science and refers to the art of interpreting organic symptoms in the human body. As a doctor “reads” the symptoms of disease or well being, we can read the formal decisions in painting, as an organic index of Poussin’s philosophy and affect. The older meaning may be useful in attempting to evaluate the importance of perception in an artist like Poussin. Perhaps with Poussin’s visual philosophy as a model and critique, contemporary artists can have a revision and renaissance of the “semeiotic” and aesthetics of the fusion and metamorphosis of form. We can see if Poussin’s pictorial intelligence and mythological content sublates manifest platonic idealism.

Poussin’s mythological paintings are an “organic classicism” that uses reason as a means to understand and accommodate the contradictions inherent in natural process. Organic classicism opposes dry formalism, defined as the use of reason as an end in itself. While there is always a fine sense of proportion of form in Poussin’s painting, my concept “organic classicism” recognizes a lost but meaningful dimension of his thought. The formal solutions embodied in Poussin’s painting are an index of a profound perceptual study and love of natural form and phenomena. Poussin at his best, negates, contradicts, and transforms “form” in the service of the perception of nature. Poussin’s handling of edges is more than an intelligent index of sensual experience of the environment (space, atmosphere, and light). It is a prescience of what we now understand as an ecological worldview. Incarnate in the paint is metamorphosis, fusion, contradiction, negation and destruction – evoking a concept of nature as a process of becoming – of birth and death.

In terms of drawing (particularly the fusion of form and the negotiation of contours), I was particularly gratified to see how Poussin integrated smaller forms such as figures into the environment, and in particular, how borders and passages between forms were defined, softened, fused and destroyed. Naturally, for figurative painters such as Poussin, formal visual thought necessarily includes decoration of the pictorial surface and consequently the flat mapping of shapes. However, this formal logic is contradicted when there is a reason to represent the effect of natural light negating form and atmospheric dissolution of form at the borders of objects. Giorgione’s intermittent softening of edges, and Leonardo’s “sfumato” lend historical precedence and naturalistic conviction to the representation of form in space – a beautiful (truthful) sense of atmosphere and ambience. These conventions also signify to the viewer, that the image should be experienced not as an elaborate symbol or sign, but primarily as recapitulation and celebration of the sensual experience of nature.

It takes a while for artists to develop this naturalistic/formal sophistication. Young artists tend to over-determine form, and Poussin is not an exception. In Poussin’s early period, most borders are closed. In the Death of Germanicus (circa 1628), almost every form has tight linear definition; fusion of form, though beautiful, is minimal. The red, yellow, and blue garments are particularly hard edged. Poussin’s mythological paintings are generally more organic, but Apollo and the Muses (circa 1631), is a cold, unpleasant example of tight mapping and closed form.

Alternatively, the Andrians (circa 1627) is an early example of sensuous organic invention. In the Andrians, paralleling Titian’s great painting by the same name, illustrating Philostratus, Dionysos lies on a bed of grapes; the scene evokes sublime, life-enhancing pleasure, a moment of wine, music, and dance – all emblematic of freedom. This painting demonstrates beautiful fusion of form. For example, the hair of the woman playing the guitar melds with the earth of the middle ground and a distant beige cloud dips down to meld with the dancer’s hair. Yet in wild formal/spatial contradiction, the edge of a cloak of a foreground figure becomes part of the hard edge of a mountain in the far distance, and above that cloak/mountain edge there is an aggressive negative shape of light. While this is an exciting and known convention, the recent cleaning which makes the spot almost white, is unpleasant. Anderson in particular felt this white to be an insensitive restoration, weakening the sense of ambient light. The “whites” of the shirts are an appropriately subtle ambient grey. As is usual for Poussin, the drapery is beautifully handled.

The Inspiration of the Poet (circa 1630), perhaps Poussin’s most monumental painting, demonstrates compelling and sophisticated synthesis of his inheritance: the grace of Raphael, the color of Titian, the sfumato of Leonardo and the decorative clarity of Veronese. This painting is an interesting example of a balanced but wide swing between hard and soft edges. The illustrated detail on plate 181 of the French catalogue makes the negotiation of edges visually clear.

His mature paintings recognize ambient light – they demonstrate increased fusion of form and simplification of tone. The Landscape with Diogenes (circa 1648) is a good example. There is a fine enlarged detail illustrated on page 121 in the French catalogue. In general, youthful idealism characterized by closed form, gives way to deeper intuition of the total oneness of nature. Poussin’s celebration of a fluid and fused nature is a proto-scientific. It is not Apollinare’s or the avant-garde’s interesting but slightly pretentious desire to examine the “fourth dimension,” but the fundamental, science of human existence in the environment.

The late mythological painting I found most provocative and spent the most time with was the Landscape with Hercules and Cacus (circa 1658). This painting is a particularly moving example of organic intelligence – confronting and acknowledging the sublime complexity of Nature. I had seen this painting on a trip to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, but it was shown beautifully in the natural light of Paris. This “green” painting is an essay on organic structure; there are gorgeous fused passages, spatial arabesques, and delightful decisions, which contradict convention. He uses convention, but to dramatic effect. There is a dark curving “repoussoir” entering from the left, but broken by an enormous flat rock of similar tonality to the lake – a transitional spatial plane locking the foreground to the middle ground. There is an opposing gentle meander of the river from a source seeming to originate near the bottom edge of the painting (I have wondered if the rivers and river gods in Poussin’s art energized his feeling for Heraclitus). Trees emerge aggressively and at other places, merge quietly with the environment. The painting has an overall tone of golden grey green. The color is minimal and the articulation is negotiated subtly on either side of the overall middle tone. Unfortunately, the wonderful overall light and tonality of this painting, characteristic of most of the final paintings, is completely lost and the meaning negated, by the high- contrast illustration in the French catalogue.

[The reproductions in the catalogue seem to have been evaluated according to the old “tightly-mapped” Platonic concept of Poussin. In the case of Hercules and Cacus, the illustration pumps up the contrast, thus negating the subtle color, the tonal integrity, and sense of ambient light – completely changing and ruining the meaning of the painting. In general, the illustrations produce an exciting, garish, hot, Baroque Poussin which privileges contrast over tonal ambience. This strategy illustrates orthodox “Fumaroli” Poussin. One interesting tactic is particularly revealing – all and only the blue shapes have no final warm varnish; the blue shapes certainly are pretty (that is to say, “pretty electric”!). There are some fine enlarged details of some of the paintings. The illustrations of the drawings are very appealing. Most artists seem to find the catalogue very attractive.]

Poussin’s interpretation of Hercules and Cacus has a psychological, spatial, and visual complexity that feels modern. In the middle ground, there is a quiet lake with a boat and portentous boatman, and human swimmers near a grotto at water’s edge. Above, in narrative counterpoint, there is a precinct of the gods, with beautiful oak trees flourishing in the olive colored high mountains. Pink Hercules has his right foot on the testicles of the green Cacus. He is apparently showing off for the ladies, the Nymphae symbolic of nature. To the right is a languid pinkish brown bull. The humans seem to be unaware of the dramatic dialogue between Hercules and these strange Nymphae at the bottom of the painting – in contrast to the seemingly wise river god resting and contemplating nearby. These slightly loony ladies, the fruitless entreaties of the awkward somewhat humorous Hercules, and the unaware humans below on the plane of the water in another world, imply a modern sense of relativism and loneliness. The separate unrelated realms of behavior are transcended by the sublime and magnificent landscape.
A supernatural or platonic interpretation of Poussin’s style could lead one to the Biblical paintings, which are formally designed according to doctrine, and in which sensitivity to the environment is suppressed to enhance content. Consider the tightly defined shapes of the symbolic color of the drapery in The Baptism, from the first series of Sacraments. Closed reification of form is also manifest in The Baptism from the second set – though the painting is more atmospheric, subtle, and even muted; the drapery is tightly bordered.

The naturalistic, mythological paintings are different, expressing a view of nature wherein “objects” are subjected to the leveling impact of ambient light, so that edges are softened and visually fused. We also tend to find more interesting, dissonant, contradictory shapes stimulating our imagination. In the landscapes in particular, analogy to natural phenomena and ambience becomes the organizing principle subsuming text, action and behavior – and privileging mis en scene. In the final paintings, the ambient light that illuminates the environment is fundamental to the content.

Poussin’s mythological content, paralleling his formal solutions, proposes transfiguration. For Poussin Ovid’s Metamorphosis is a religious or sacred text elucidating human being with tragic insight into the reality of time, suffering and death. Reason is a means of managing experience to avoid premature suffering; it is not a demonstration of arrogant authority. The dialectic of light and dark, the delicate sfumato, and the sensitive softening of edges is not a mysterious formal skill, but an intentional embodiment of Poussin’s perception and philosophy. The exhibition was an opportunity to study his Ovidian calculus – and the stoic intuition that living in harmony with nature is the summum bonum.

Great painting is powerful and exciting because it embodies ethical and aesthetic contradictions metaphoric of the social struggle to create well being. The cultural problem of our time is to reconcile enhanced freedom of the individual with justice – the development of a rationality that respects relativism, while also creating a seductive image of the pleasures of civil intercourse.
A classical image of balance between freedom and civil responsibility has been proposed before. Consider the compelling formulation from the Funeral Oration of Pericles:

Our constitution is named a democracy, because it is in the hands not of the few but of the many. But our laws secure equal justice for all in their private disputes, and our public opinion welcomes and honors talent in every branch of achievement, not for any sectional reason but on grounds of excellence alone. And as we give free play to all in our public life, so we carry the same spirit into our daily relations with one another. We have not black looks or angry words for our neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, and we abstain from the little acts of churlishness, which, though they leave no mark, yet cause annoyance to whoso notes them. Open and friendly in our private intercourse, in our public acts we keep strictly within the control of law.“

A contemporary case for a modern classicism and an excellent analysis of the ethical necessity to accept and balance “perspectivism and relativism” with social order is made by the French philosopher, Luc Ferry, in Homo Aestheticus. In the subheading “From Ultra-individualism to Hyperclassicism: the Grand Style”, (see pages 184 – 189) Ferry proposes (via Nietzsche), that we learn to balance relativism with a modern classicism, a “hyperclassicism” of subjectivity. To clarify that concept (and so that we do not mistake Nietzsche to be a narrow relativist), Ferry quotes one of Nietzsche’s famous definitions, from the Will to Power:

“…the greatness of an artist cannot be measured by the beautiful feelings he arouses,” but by the grand style, that is, in the capacity, “…to become master of the chaos one is; to compel one’s chaos to become form: to become logical, simple, unambiguous, mathematical, Law—that is the grand ambition here.”

Perhaps the grand classical style of Poussin will inspire ambition to meet this challenge to develop a hyperclassicism – a modern mastery of reason. Since the French Revolution, our culture appropriately has been skeptical of the divine right of “Reason.” We are critical and suspicious of prescriptive ideologies, supernatural truth claims, political and patriarchical authority. And in this century, we have seen “reason” employed too often as an instrument of evil. Twentieth century artists have participated in this critique of unjust political authority and the misuse of reason with a just celebration of the “childlike” and “primitive.” Unfortunately this desire for freedom from reason is often childish and, as a result, has contributed to loss of freedom and power—and the augmentation of political chaos. There will always be individuals who need simple answers and politicians who want to impose order, but most artists are pleased by the freedom from doctrinal authority. Furthermore, most 20th century art is dedicated to the critique of prescriptive authority. We accept relativism as preferable to fascism. We understand that one-dimensional solutions are melodramatic and that true drama presents the contradiction that impacts human experience.

Poussin’s grand style has authority and moral force. It is a sublime model of disciplined reason. His pictorial achievement becomes a text critical of modern culture, pointing toward the future. [On the walls of the exhibition, a series of quotes emphasized Poussin’s passionate, intelligent deliberation, with which, Pierre Rosenberg, the director of the Louvre, seemed to pose an intelligent critique and challenge to modern artists].

The exhibition demonstrated that Poussin’s grand style, the formal organization of his visual thought, is profoundly musical. The stops, rests, and rhythmic divisions are a visual music – abstractly imagined, but often discovered in perception. Diagonals negotiate verticals, define space as orthogonals, define direction, and reinforce decoration. Verticals are often found near the middle of the painting to arrest space and anchor the horizon to the picture plane. Sometimes verticals are purely musical and establish a parallel or a contradiction to a diagonal. Often there are vertical forms which function as spatial blockades – blocking “holes” in the painting. There is an alternate strategy of softness to negotiate the center – “a soft heart at the center,” to use Anderson’s words. Concerning the negotiation of horizontals and verticals, one instance enjoyed by Anderson should be a good example. In Diana and Endymion (circa 1630?), the white dress of Diana sweeps diagonally from the back to the front, between her legs, to minimize the force of her vertical left leg. Also note the diagonal entrance on the left that parallels and stabilizes Endymion, and the interesting placement and rhetoric of hands and feet. The grand horizon border between earth and sky is particularly carefully negotiated.

Poussin’s pictorial music (thought) is an open dialectic, not primarily employed to the end of illustrating a preconceived idea, but as an artistic strategy: to give life, to signify life, to foil reification, and to deconstruct and contradict expectation. Normative shapes and forceful concepts are metamorphosed by the sensuous light of perception. For example, “similarities and differences” of value often force contradiction across forms. In other words, the shape of the light contradicts the shape of the symbolic sign as a kind of counterpoint. Natural forms are “lost and found.” Flat shapes contradict the gestalt, ironically realizing and enhancing the image through negation. We intuitively understand that Poussin’s painting is both flat decoration and spacial illusion. A single flat shape simultaneously comprised of foreground and background objects, indicates recognition of the contradictions and limitations of representation. A painting cannot carry too much illusion, particularly of space, without raising a resistance and disbelief in the viewer. Paintings such as Poussin’s which reinforce flatness as a counterpoint to illusion and demonstrate the limits of pictorial thought (mimesis, representation) are, ironically, more “real” and wonderful, as seen in Flora.

Though his visual thought is “musically” refined, Poussin is among the most passionate of painters, but his passion is transfigured and refined by a powerful will to communicate, within the rules of conventional rhetoric. Contrary to modish conventional wisdom, passion restrained by logic, empathy, and judgement is not weakened but powerfully enhanced. Formal solutions to classical figurative painting are determined by visual considerations and communication of passion is constrained by objective narrative and naturalistic demands – and not merely the artist’s subjective “uncooked” emotion. In both cases, subjectivity is constrained by sensuous or thoughtful concern for objective circumstances (by circumstances extrinsic to the artist’s raw subjectivity). So we have a manifestation not solely of reason, or the display of expression, but also of reflexive judgement tempered by reality. Painters, who submit passion to sensuous refinement, musical composition, and rhetorical constraint, can achieve a sublime resolution of the contradictions of human experience – and real drama.

Just as artists like Leonardo before him, Poussin learned through study of nature that orthodox conceptual thought and reasonable preconceived formulations, though potentially beneficial, may also be the enemy of fresh insight and experiment. Nature and not idea, not “concept,” is both the end (and source) of investigation. The conventions and concepts which artists use must be judged by their capacity to facilitate discovery and insight into structure and logic of natural process. Perhaps we can say that concepts are constructive only if they facilitate exploration and fresh discovery. Artistic method is a reciprocal process whereby conceptual (musical) strategies and sensual perceptual insight are intentionally in critical contradiction – not only for the sake of aesthetic grace, but to demonstrate the dynamics of revelatory human thought.

This constructive coincidentia oppositorum is the basis for an open-ended dialectic, appropriately symbolized by Nietzsche’ terms, Apollo and Dionysos. I propose to borrow these terms as an instrument to see how musical solutions are reconciled with representation of nature in Poussin’s paintings. Apollonian, in the context of painting, signifies that formal manipulation of visual thought must have a lucid musical logic, simple organization, and clarity – reason is the instrument to make beautiful music. Dionysian, in this context, means that natural phenomena and passion are isomorphic factors that constrain, enliven, and transform musical organization. Incarnate in the paint is metamorphosis, fusion, contradiction, negation and destruction. Specifically, the borders of forms are fused, softened, contradicted, and negated – evoking a concept of nature as a process of becoming – of birth and death. The critical idea is that the imperative of reason is not merely to expose itself, but to understand and elucidate natural process.

On the level of content, Poussin’s use of Ovid’s metamorphosis and in particular his use of Dionysos, is proto-Nietzschian and a sign of his naturalistic philosophy. I interpret Poussin’s vision as recognizing and celebrating nature as prior to reason. The handling of paint reflects the music and semeiotic of Dionysos. Relentlessly, in homage to natural transformation, Poussin fiercely employs a contradicting Dionysian counterpoint to the sonorous musical logic of Apollo. Poussin is always capable of beautiful geometric organization. However, towards the end of his life the composition of his paintings are primarily based on organic structure and imply a critique of geometric priority; natural structure rather than mathematical structure becomes the foundation of both his compositions and his philosophy. The meanders and organic circular form that are fundamental to these works are emblematic of nature. Similar philosophy is embedded in his color. Whereas in the early paintings, color is reified according to ego, and ideas such as complimentarity and intensity/neutrality, prevail; in his later paintings, there is an overall ground tone which conveys metaphor to the ambient light of nature. Ego, the will to control and design, gives way to empathy for nature, “gives ground” to nature. Apollo gives ground to Dionysos. Reason gives ground, not to romantic sentiment, but to the hard, tragic necessity of understanding nature’s magnificent indifference.

Poussin in celebration of nature, its creative and destructive force and joy in rebirth, shares Dionysian iconography with the Greeks, Romans, and Venetians, as well as some of his contemporaries. In Venice and elsewhere there seemed to be a vestigial “sacred” or “religious” pantheistic appreciation of sensual experience and the life-enhancing probity of stoical/epicurean naturalism. And if The Tempest, by Giorgione, is in fact a Birth of Dionysos, as has been speculated (Klauner, 1955), it is a notable beginning to the modern concept of Dionysos. The Dionysian content in the art of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rubens, and Velasquez should not be minimized. In line with my critical purpose I will discuss the landscapes and the Ovidian paintings celebrating a Dionysian cosmology.

The Dionysian content is of enormous importance. The Midas paintings, for example, remind us of the serious moral point – that it is Dionysos (nature or materialism) who cures Midas of his greed (instrumental rationality or idealism). From modern perspective, Midas’ wish to turn everything into gold might be seen as a metaphor for the life threatening excess of technological rationality or supernatural illusion – that realization supernatural idealism can be socially lethal. In the Midas painting from the Metropolitan, Poussin, as he often does, designs on the diagonals – from corner to corner. The economic transformation of the left edge of the great tree that enters from the upper left corner is exemplary of Poussin’s insight and logical strategy. Poussin gives us enough information to suggest both symbol and real sensuous experience. In this case of the edge of the tree, Poussin efficiently articulates three terms: the tone of the light on the edge and the shape of light – against the ground tone and mediating edge of the tree – the two tones of the light enliven the tone of the ground, so as to defeat a simple figure/ ground reading. (Here we can be reminded of Aristotle’s point, that it is the tertiam quid, the third term, which provides us with the necessary base to evaluate a binary system. Maybe Dionysos is the ground, the tertiam quid.)

The relation of Dionysos to Narcissus seems to be of special importance for Poussin, as it is for Ovid – and to modern psyche and culture. Dionysos, who represents the resurrection of life and the creativity of nature, is opposed by Narcissus, who obsessed with his image and is incapable of love of others. He is an emblem of sterility and death. Certainly narcissism is a key issue of modern psychoanalysis. I see The Birth of Dionysos and Death of Narcissus (circa 1657), from the Fogg Museum, as a particularly pertinent moral statement. I believe Poussin is not simply elucidating mythical cosmology; rather he is proposing that ego, to be enlightened, must accede to dependency on nature and Eros in order to prematurely avoid sterility and death. In the Fogg Museum’s, Birth of Dionysos, fusion is taken to a symbolic extreme as Narcissus has literally sunken into the earth.

In the Echo and Narcissus, Echo’s legs fuse and disappear (poetically appropriate), and the hair of Narcissus fuses with the ground and the flowers. The figure of Narcissus, painted from direct perception, is particularly beautiful. On page 149 in the catalogue, there is an interesting detail of the reversal of light and dark flowers and leaves. The Bacchanals are an exciting ingredient in Poussin’s Dionysian vision, but I have chosen, The Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe to complete my discussion of the paintings with explicit Dionysian content. At first it looks somewhat dreary in keeping with the narrative that lacks the pellucid sun of Apollo. But on “seeing in” to the handling of the narrative, its powerful Dionysian content emerges: the destructive force, the lion attack, the tragedy and death. The fact that this tragic scene is created with lucid artistic control tacitly provides a sense of metaphysical solace. Further interpretation, including description of the Palladian Temple of Bacchus, and the Mirror of Bacchus, can be found in Oscar Batchman’s recent publication Poussin: The Dialectics of Painting.

Generally Poussin is fascinating, rarely is he alienating. Although Fumaroli wrote enthusiastically and approvingly of the London Annunciation (also painted about the time of the Birth of Dionysos, circa1657), I find that the metallic edges, lack of environment, and generic faces, betray a sense of orthodoxy and coldness that is visually alienating. (Even Fumaroli admits, “…the folds of Mary’s clothing are hard, the angel is graceless. He oddly attributes the lack of grace to extreme humility saying, “… religious genius could not have been feigned.”)

The stoical landscapes, such as Diogenes, the amazing Phocion landscapes and Orion, are the basis for endless enlightening moral and aesthetic meditation.
This is also true of the Four Seasons, which are a beautiful balance of Poussin’s meditation on the natural cycle of death and resurrection. This cycle contains particularly beautiful passages of perceptual nuance and certainly is part of Poussin’s naturalistic mythological intuition. Blunt’s conjecture that the paintings also represent Apollo, Ceres, Dionysos and Pluto is attractive.
We spent ample pleasurable time with Apollo’s Love of Daphne (circa 1664), Poussin’s last major picture. Because the painting is unfinished, it allows discovery of the articulation of form against the neutral colors of the ground [the cool to warm transitions within the greys and browns]. There is a very attractive variation of blue tone balancing the warm Venetian red. There is a fine balance between color and form, geometry and cosmology. The horizontal of the silver bull in the distant ground and the triangular blue mountain stabilize the grand circular design and naturalistic meander of figures. There is a Shakespearean/Mozartian sense of humor and death. Blunt is particularly insightful about the philosophical and cosmological content of this painting – particularly the meaning of Mercury (the planet) stealing the arrows (the light) from Apollo (the sun) – but in line with my notion of reflexive self-judgement, I like to think that Poussin was also poking fun at Apollo and himself. This painting is a “sublime” balance of pictorial music, philosophy, and poetic narrative.

The exhibition of Poussin’s work celebrating his birth in 1594, presented the opportunity to reflect on our own culture. His unusually refined and clear intellectuality, his ranking of the instincts into a productive hierarchy, and his “stoical” acceptance of fate and the corporeal base of being, constitutes a critique of modern narcissism and the narrow pleasures of pure abstraction. His classicism exposes the pallid nature of the exploration of boundaries as the signal achievement of modern and post-modern art. His work throws contemporary figurative artists a lifeline – a thread to escape the labyrinth of subjectivity and an encyclopaedia of visual knowledge.

Poussin’s pictorial imagination and consideration of the dialectics of light and dark, mathematics and nature, reason and passion, and life and death produce discoveries and insights that have intensely modern significance. Poussin’s grand musical style demonstrates the imperative of reason for judgement and negotiation of human experience. The powerful synthesis of Dionysian classicism and stoical severity signify recognition of human dependence on the “magnificent indifference” of nature – with its tragic but sublime compensations. Poussin’s passionate meditation, criticality, and judgement propose a meta-narrative – a mythology that we still share.


The new 2008 exhibition presents Poussin’s vision of harmony with nature. Now it is time to raise the goal and realize that vision. We must now work to articulate a revision and fresh understanding of the architecture of natural moral law (which in turn is foundational to a socially just modern moral law). Art and architecture must assertively and assiduously participate in this project.