Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) has an almost mythic status in his native France. Born in Normandy, Poussin spent most of his working life in Rome. He was inspired by the vestiges of the city’s ancient past, its architecture and statuary. Poussin also took a great deal of inspiration from the Italian masters Titian and Raphael, whose works adorned some of Rome’s churches and galleries. He was a founder of the French school of painting in Rome, and he directly influenced the artistic tradition of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture through his friendship with Charles Le Brun (1619–90). Poussin’s foundational belief was in what has come to be called the Grand Manner—the idea that to make a beautiful painting strict attention must be paid to the elements of subject, narrative, structure, and form. The religious and mythical scenes for which Poussin is best known display this high-minded and technically deft approach.
“Poussin et l’amour” at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon tries to show us that behind the austerity and dedication to form that is usually attributed to him, there is a deep sensuality too.1 As we sift through the descriptions and the catalogue, the word sensuels appears repeatedly (and sometimes the even stronger érotique). These words are used to describe many different works with varying themes in the exhibition, but the paintings themselves seem to tell a more complicated story. The first painting we see, La Mort de Chioné (ca. 1619–22), depicts a voluptuous female nude, but her body is contorted: Artemis has slain her with an arrow as her husband looks on in horror. The colors are somber, with strong layers of browns and grays, showing nothing of Poussin’s distinctive electric-blue sky or brightly clad figures. Similarly, in the next room, titled Corps désirés, we see a series of paintings of the goddess Venus stretched out asleep in a meadow as two satyrs stare at her lustily. Again, instead of focusing on love, these paintings are defined by darker thematic tones, with colors that contrast the milky white of Venus’s body and the amber gold of her hair. The satyrs’ lecherous forms are mirrored by two dark clouds converging over her. In these and many other paintings, sensuality is double-edged: the works display figures of love but with touches of color and detail that draw the viewer into a darker and more violent world.
Several works display themes of love on the surface, but darker subtexts lurk beneath the mythical subjects. Vénus et Adonis (ca. 1626–27) is the best example of the kind of romance and sensuality that Poussin was able to command, though he noticeably leaves out any visual references to the myth’s tragedy. Echo et Narcisse ou La mort de Narcisse (ca. 1630) is a moving portrait of the mythical figure’s one-man Liebestod. Renaud et Armide (ca. 1628), one of the few paintings in the exhibition that doesn’t draw on Ovid for its story, is another wonderful example of Poussin’s ability to convey emotion with a simple scene. Armide looks longingly on the sleeping form of the Crusader Renaud as the rising sunlight gleams off his golden armor. A cherub holds back the knife in her hand, showing that love restrains her from her murderous intention.
Many of the works, however, have no relation to amorous love but hark back to ancient Rome by other means. The first room is dedicated to works that honor Apollo, the god of poetry. The imposing L’inspiration du poète, (ca. 1628–29) reflects Poussin’s preoccupation with the lord of the Muses. The third room is given to paintings of Dionysus and his bacchanals. We see here Poussin’s fascination with the dialectic between the two artistic modes: the calm and well-thought-out art that is so often associated with the French painter and the vibrant style that this exhibition shows he was also capable of making. His most famous works—the religious depictions of the Holy Family and Arcadian landscapes that made his reputation as an artist—are certainly of the former category, but the works in this exhibition lean towards the latter. It doesn’t seem, though, that Poussin could ever fully leave his Apollonian mentality behind. While the works in this exhibition are certainly composed differently than his biblical paintings—here, sensual, exposed figures taken from ancient tales of love are painted more loosely and with a darker, moodier palette—these paintings follow structured modes of storytelling, with every piece seemingly perfectly placed and his statuesque figures drawn with exactitude and logic.
While the exhibition’s thematic organization leaves something to be desired, the visual layout is superb. Along with the paintings, most rooms also have sketches or preparatory paintings that allow for fascinating insights into the artist’s design process. The unifying feature for this exhibition is Poussin’s subject matter; it deals mostly with stories of love and poetic inspiration, and nearly all of it is drawn from Ovid and Greco-Roman mythology. Poussin approached these subjects with different eyes than Titian had or the later Romantics did. He rendered Ovid’s stories of lust and love with some of the violence and darkness that are inherent in the originals. He took more than just the stories of the Metamorphoses: he also captured themes of love, violence, death, and rebirth. This exhibition shows that Poussin brought his Apollonian sensibilities to Dionysian scenes.