Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate art-history student and attending an exhibition opening was still exotic, I was invited to the inaugural evening of “The Splendid Century: French Art 1600–1715,” at the Metropolitan Museum. The event remains sharply etched in my memory, not for what was in the show, but for a terrifying inquisition about iconography administered by a professor of mine and the Louvre’s Charles Sterling; this is not wholly irrelevant, but more about that later.

The show was memorable, too, because when I went back and was able to concentrate on the art without feeling that I was on trial, I discovered that it included a dazzling selection of important paintings of the period—Poussins, Le Nains, Claude Lorrains, Philippe de Champaignes, and more. Among these iconic and recherché works, one picture seemed especially compelling to me then and has held...


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