Poussin, Landscape with St. John

middle of the 17th century, Rome was reborn. There was a tremendous
building campaign. Think about the
extravagant spaces of the Church of Il Gesu,
with this extraordinary illusionistic ceiling. This was operatic,
it was theatrical. BETH HARRIS: It’s
hard to imagine how, at the very same time
that we have that Baroque theatricality, we have the
classicism, the repose, the peacefulness, the
rationalism of Poussin. STEVEN ZUCKER: We’re in the
Art Institute of Chicago. And we’re looking at
Nicholas Poussin’s “Landscape with Saint John on Patmos.” This is a painting
that really is about classical order
and measured reality. We know this is Saint
John because of the eagle that stands beside him,
which is a traditional symbol of this evangelist. BETH HARRIS: We’re looking
at Saint John seated in the foreground writing
the “Book of Revelation,” writing about the end of time,
the second coming of Christ. A really violent moment,
but within this incredibly serene and peaceful landscape. STEVEN ZUCKER: And
of course, it’s Poussin who has been
credited with inventing the ideal landscape. And that’s exactly
what we have here. BETH HARRIS: And it’s going
to be very important for art history, for actually
centuries to come. Artists will look back at
the classical landscape and reinterpret it. STEVEN ZUCKER: And in
fact, Poussin’s style was so influential that
it became the standard for the French Academy. BETH HARRIS: And those who
painted landscapes in this way, with a sense of rigor and
order and rationalism, and a kind of ideal
landscape, became known as the Poussinists. STEVEN ZUCKER: So what
has he actually done here? He’s placed the main
figure in the foreground, but he’s really quite small in
relationship to the landscape. He sits in a very
classicized pose. In fact, we think that Poussin
took this pose directly from representations of
river gods from ancient Rome. And of course, Poussin,
although he was French, was in Rome for
most of his life. BETH HARRIS: And that
figure of Saint John is illuminated in
the foreground. It’s surrounded by the ruins
of classical antiquity. We see ruins to his
left and to his right. And also in the
background, where we see the ruins of a classical
temple and an ancient obelisk. So he’s in this
landscape that has a sense of the passage
of time as he’s writing his book
about the end of time. STEVEN ZUCKER: The notion
of passage, I think, is important to
understanding the way that Poussin
constructs a landscape. Saint John is placed
in the very foreground, right at the bottom
of the painting. But we can’t race back
to the middle ground where that temple is
that you had mentioned. Instead, we have a
couple of visual paths. We might try to go
down and straight back. But there we see water,
not once but twice. BETH HARRIS: And also,
a curtain of trees. STEVEN ZUCKER: And so that
way seems too difficult. So instead, our eye
meanders over to the right. And we see a road
that seems to go back, that it draws our eye slowly
through this landscape, so that we slow down and enjoy
the space that he’s created. BETH HARRIS: And at each
point in the landscape, he gives us something to look
at– the foreground with Saint John, and the ruins. That pathway,
punctuated by trees. Into the middle ground, with
that temple and obelisk. And then again, into the
background, with the mountains. And then further back,
with the aerial perspective and more mountains and clouds. At each place, our eye has a
place to rest in the landscape. STEVEN ZUCKER: The landscape
is not a specific place. This is very much a
collage of ideal forms. And this makes sense for
an artist whose aesthetic is being shaped by Rome, which
itself is layers of cultures. Look, for instance,
in this painting, where you’ve got the classical
Greek or Roman temple. But it’s next to an
Egyptian obelisk. We’re actually seeing references
to two cultures, both of which had ruled, but had both fallen. BETH HARRIS: The idea here,
by showing those ruins, is to show that there’s the
new Christian order that will be eternal,
foretold by Saint John’s “Book Of Revelation.” The landscape is carefully,
rigorously composed. Everything has a sense of order
and structure and geometry. STEVEN ZUCKER: But
that is so counter to what we expect when we
think about Saint John writing the apocalypse. This is a wildly violent vision. It is the end of time. It’s an important reminder
that this artist was actually studying Stoic philosophy
from ancient Greece. This idea that the
control of emotion was of the utmost importance. BETH HARRIS: And
not just Poussin, but the circle of patrons
that he found in Rome. We need to remember that
there was more going on in Rome than the
Pope’s commissioning these theatrical works of art
in the churches of the Counter Reformation. Poussin found a circle
of patrons, many of whom were interested in
Stoic philosophy. And that he painted
canvases like this one. STEVEN ZUCKER: So
Poussin has accomplished what seems to be
nearly impossible. He’s created poetry out of the
rational, out of the ideal. [PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]


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