Poussin – Masters Of Painting

THE sentiment of Byron’s striking line reechoes the master passion of Poussin, to whom Rome became as his life. His first sojourn in the Eternal City reached to sixteen years ; then the generous offers of Richelieu and the express wish of Louis XIII. brought Poussin to Paris. But only for a short space could the artist contentedly breathe the air of France — though it was that of his native land. The opposition of envious rivals still firmer fixed his intention to return to his beloved Italy, and the next year after the one which saw him in Paris beheld him again at Rome — never to return.

“At Monte Pincio he continued for the next three and twenty years to live a tranquil, laborious, uneventful life. His days were regular and well ordered. After break-fast he generally walked to the top of the hill, by an ascent delightfully shaded and ornamented with fountains. Here he had a fine view over Rome, and often met and conversed with friends. Returned to his house, he worked until the evening, when he again went out walking in the square at the base of the hill. Here he became the centre of a group in which strangers freely joined, and where the conversation embraced all kinds of subjects, but chiefly ran upon art. He had read and thought so much, and had so orderly a mind, that what he said seemed carefully prepared beforehand. He inclined to the tone of the ancient philosopher, and loved to express himself sententiously. To a young artist who showed him his work, You want nothing,’ he said, ‘to become a great painter, except a little poverty. Walking one day among the ruins with a foreigner desirous of taking home with him some precious fragment, ‘ I wish,’ said Poussin, ‘to give you the finest antiquity you could desire.’ Then collecting from among the grass a little sand and some broken cement, mingled with morsels of porphyry, he gave it to his companion, saying, Signor, take this back with you and say, “This dust is ancient Rome.”

“He thought so little of making money that he generally worked for the same per-sons, refusing to take more than he conceived his pictures were worth, or than his employer could afford to pay. On one occasion, when there was a considerable rise in the value of money, he of his own accord made a great reduction in his price. His acquisitiveness found its satisfaction in the pursuit of every kind of knowledge that would advance his art. Asked one day how he had arrived at such perfection, he ingeniously replied, ‘ Because I have neglected nothing ; ‘ in proof of which he gave ocular demonstration, for he was carrying in his hand a pocket-handkerchief full of stones, mosses, and flowers, which he had been collecting on the banks of the Tiber. In this progress toward perfection he persevered to the last. ‘A swan’s dying note,’ the said, ‘should be her sweetest.’ And even when his hand began to grow feeble he wrote : ‘ I could, I believe, guide it better than ever, but I have too much reason to say with Themistocles, sighing over the end of his life, ” Man declines and departs when he is ready to do well.” I do not, therefore, lose courage, for as long as the head remains in health, the servant, though weak, will observe the better and more excellent parts of art which belong to the domain of the master.”‘

Miss Denio, to whom we owe a valuable work on Poussin, says : ” Long stay in Italy did not denationalize him ; to the end he remained a good Frenchman. Italians, as well as Frenchmen, honored the man and artist ; perhaps the former esteemed him more justly. About the time of Nicolas Poussin’s death, a cult began of this artist, so extravagant in its nature, that the jarring voice of censure could not be heard amid the excessive praises at his shrine. Nowadays it seems easier to find flaws in the art-works of this great master than in his character. As a human being he must have had faults. He loved deeply and kept his friends. These attachments to patrons who were also his cherished friends and sincere admirers, form a most interesting part of the story. But Nicolas Poussin was not a meek man. He had no patience with incompetent or lazy people. He saw through shams, and used very apt words to characterize them. He could, perhaps, forgive, but not forget an injury. This was noticed in the account of the scourging picture, ‘ Hercules Striking down Folly, Ignorance, and Envy.’ Two of the three brothers-in-law, and their sister with her four children, received bequests from the painter, but Gaspard Dughet, who had offended him, was cut off without a penny. Matthias Letellier, the elder of the two grand-nephews in Les Andelys, lost everything, owing to his want of tact while visiting his uncle. His brother Jean was made heir, and a cousin, Francoise Letellier, and her children were also remembered. Nicolas Poussin held tenaciously to what he considered his rights. This appears in the correspondence between the painter and M. de Chantelou about the disposal of the house in the Tuileries gardens, when Poussin exhibited something of the dog-in-a-manger spirit. He liked solitude, yet was accessible to others, and gladly helped younger men if they showed themselves in earnest. His letters contain many petitions to friends and patrons, asking help for other artists less well known and less fortunate than himself. A good anecdote is told by Felibien, illustrating the artist’s contentment with his simple manner of living. One evening Cardinal Massimi came to see Poussin, and remained until late into the night, forgetful of time in the pleasure of conversation. At last he was compelled to leave, and his host lighted the way to the door, when the great man said : ‘ I am sorry for you that you have no valet to render such a service.’ To which Poussin quickly answered : ‘ I am more sorry for you who have so many.’ In his last years, when ill and weak, the painter grew very melancholy. After his wife’s death he writes like one forsaken, as a stranger in a strange land. Perchance, as years increased, he may have become more dogmatic and dictatorial in the expression of his opinions. After the death of a dear friend, his virtues shine forth, petty features of character retire far into the shade, and, as time goes on, become obliterated. Thus, in the history of Nicolas Poussin, we would emphasize his industrious, simple, and contented manner of life, as well as his pure, loving, and upright relations as husband and friend. The man is greater than the artist ; he commands our respect and admiration.”

The Scripture story of the infancy of the great Hebrew leader was treated several times by Poussin, two variants of the “Finding of Moses ” by him being in the Louvre.

Benouville has imagined the artist as receiving the first suggestion for these works while sketching on the banks of the Tiber, near Rome, and observing a peasant woman bathing her unwilling infant in the historic stream.

The painter of this composition died at an early age, in his native city of Paris, in 1859, having been born there in 1821, and left behind him as his most important work a picture of ” St. Francis of Assisi Dying, Blessing his Native City,” which is now in the Louvre. He also painted ” Christian Martyrs Entering the Amphitheatre,” ” Raphael Seeing the Fornarina for the First Time,” and ” Joan of Arc.” Benouville, who was a pupil of Picot, won the Grand Prize of Rome in 1845, and afterward received several medals in recognition of his merits.