Although Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) is widely regarded as the father of French classicism, he spent almost all of his mature career in Rome. Born in Normandy, Poussin went via Venice to the Eternal City in 1624. He remained there except for an unhappy two-year interlude in Paris, from 1640 to 1642, when he served as premier peintre du roi under Louis XIII, executing commissions for Cardinal Richelieu and undertaking the decoration of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre.

This small but sumptuous exhibition of drawings from Windsor Castle is the last stop on a tour that began at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London last year and has included stops at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The sixty-five works (including some double-sided sheets) traverse most of Poussin’s career, beginning with some fledgling efforts completed in Paris in the early 1620s and going through 1650. In addition to desultory drawings on mythological themes, the exhibition includes preparatory sketches for a number of Poussin’s greatest masterpieces, including the Met’s own Rape of the Sabine Women (1633–34), the Triumph of Pan and Triumph of Bacchus (both mid-1630s), and the second set of Sacraments Poussin painted in the 1640s, a magnificent series that is on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Scotland.

Poussin must surely have done his share of life studies; but—until recently—none had been identified among his drawings. Instead, he tended to base his figure drawings on wax figurines that he posed with elaborate staging and lighting. Accordingly, the organizers of this exhibition have trumpeted the discovery of a life study that was found verso when a drawing was lifted off its antique mount. As it happens, the work in question—a faint chalk drawing featuring a pair of legs—is mostly of academic interest. More compelling in this exhibition is the revelation of Poussin’s artistic development, from a Venetian, Titianesque voluptuousness to the sober, history-drenched classicism whose tutelary spirit was Raphael.

As Martin Clayton, Assistant Curator of the Print Room at Windsor Castle, notes in his introduction to the catalogue, Poussin was not especially gifted as a draftsman. Indeed, one can discern certain clumsinesses in his drawings, especially in those done before his move to Rome. And although Poussin rapidly gained confidence in the late 1620s and early 1630s, a growing tremor, probably brought on by the effects of syphilis, required that he resort to various expediencies—short, rapid hatching instead of long, flowing lines. Which brings us to the question of what makes Poussin’s drawings so remarkable. None of them display the elaborate finish of a presentation study; few show much in the way of technical virtuosity. Yet the best of them—a partial list includes Perseus and Andromeda: The Origin of Coral, The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, The Saving of the Infant Pyrrhus, Medea Killing Her Children, as well as some of the studies for The Rape of the Sabine Women—are alive with the drama of human emotion. Poussin’s great gift in this respect was his mastery of composition. His most affecting drawings, like most of his great paintings, are carefully staged tableaux in which extremities of human emotion are caught in the sharp, time-stopping light of contemplation. The action is not so much frozen as distilled: the entire episode swept up into a single trembling moment of unstoppable clarity.

A catalogue of the exhibition, written by Martin Clayton, has been published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in association with Merrell Holberton (208 pages, $35 paper).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 7, on page 47
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