Gotham Diary: “Nicholas Poussin and Nature” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

April 15, 2008 at 8:00 pm (Art, New York City)

Nicholas Poussin lived from 1594 to 1665. Although French by birth, he spent most of his creative life in Rome. Read more about his life and art at one of my favorite online destinations, the Web Gallery of Art.

Enter “Nicholas Poussin and Nature” and you enter another world. Strange myths and stories from the Bible come to life; they are set against a backdrop of fabulous trees and sky and monumental structures from antique lands that may, or may not, have once existed.

In the catalogue that accompanies this exhibition, Pierre Rosenberg, in his essay “Encountering Poussin,” quotes the following from an essay by Jacques de Cambry that was first published in 1783:

‘All the Landscapes of this great Man [Poussin] have a character of majesty that is all his own: always simple, he does not divert himself by seeking and assembling so many small effects of light, by drawing small jets of water, little waterfalls; all the riches of Egyptian and Greek Architecture, all the tranquil and sublime beauties of Nature are transposed into his paintings. Always there is an interesting Episode that speaks to the soul, that indicates the emotion that the Viewer should experience; it is Diogenes in the outskirts of Athens, breaking a useless cup, after seeing a young man drink from the hollow of his hand. It is Saint John, amid the ruins and ravages of time, writing the Gospel. It is an old man under a leafy tree, giving himself up to philosophical reflections, after having hung up the arms and the lyre of his youth, in the tree that lends him its shade.’

And now, feast your eyes…

Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice. She’s about to receive a fatal snake bite, poor thing, but Orpheus, her oblivious lover, just keeps singing and playing.


Landscape with Diogenes


Landscape with St. John on Patmos


Summer, or Ruth and Boaz


Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun


And finally, a painting long known to me but never actually seen until now:

The Arcadian shepherds, or Et in Arcadia Ego

Arcadia represents a place of pastoral beauty and peace. The phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego” has been taken to mean “Even in Arcadia, I – meaning Death – am here.” It is what is called a memento mori, a reminder of inevitable death. As in “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard; also “In the midst of life we be in death” from The Book of Common Prayer.

1 Comment

  1. Bon Voyage: A Night of French Culture at the Central Library « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of tremendous value has emerged in the course of its fascinating history: magnificent music and art, and a body of literature conveyed to us through one of the world’s most beautiful and […]

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