Nicolas Poussin – Orpheus And Eurydice

Landscape painting received a great impetus in the seventeenth century, through the work of Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Rubens and the Dutch. The human figure lost the all-absorbing interest it had held during the humanistic Renaissance, and nature, which had usually been given a subordinate position in the background, now came definitely to the fore. (Patinir, Brueghel and a few others had emphasized landscape before, but the tendency had not become general.) For a long time the human figures remained as necessary parts of a landscape—nature was not quite interesting enough without them — but they were reduced to smaller, more incidental parts. They were still (in Poussin and Claude) classical in form and in the stories they represented; but the story, and the title of the picture, are of little consequence. Poussin’s human figures, even when small, are more interesting in themselves than Claude’s, because more actively, gracefully drawn. They reflect Raphael’s influence in these qualities, but their attitudes are original, varied and graphic. (Notice the girl recoiling from the snake, the fisherman, and the distant boatmen and bathers.) As contrasted with Rubens, both Poussin and Claude preserved on the whole the calm serenity of Giorgione and Titian in their landscapes. But Poussin’s color is less warmly glowing than Claude’s: it is nearer to Veronese than to Titian in its use of bright clear blues and cooler greens. Occasionally, superficial color detaches his figures from their backgrounds, but here a gentle, pale gold light tones down and unifies the colors with comparative success.

One of Poussin’s best traits, quite evident in this picture, is the clear, definite structure he gives to a landscape, by dividing it into contrasting planes of light and dark. He defines the contours of each individual figure, house or tree more sharply than Claude, who tends to melt them a little more into one general atmosphere. This sharpness does not go so far as to be edgy or linear; it is much less detailed than in Patinir. Each object is solidly built up of light and color as well as line; but it is realized as a definite unit in itself. Alternately light and dark, with a few softening gradations between, the planes recede into distance step by step, and fit together into subordinate groups of figures, trees and houses. Even individual leaves are sometimes brought out, as here on the right. But plain expanses elsewhere restore a general sense of largeness. Concealed repetitions of shape among people and hills, trees and clouds knit the picture firmly together as design. As in Claude, the effect is of a neatly trimmed, parklike expanse, not of wild nature.