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The Morning Report - 4/15/20 | Main | The Morning Rant
April 15, 2020

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Poussin Patmos.jpg

Landscape With St. James In Patmos
Nicolas Poussin

Poussin’s influence on art is great, but also second-hand. During the 1640’s, Charles le Brun, court painter for Louis XIV, met Poussin in Rome and quickly fell under his aesthetic influence. Later, when the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was founded, le Brun became its first director, and its dictator of style, establishing Poussin’s hard, meticulous classicism as the norm for decades. It was during this time that the aesthetic we call “Traditionalism” was finally solidified. The French Academy would be the standard by which all later art academies were modeled, and would dominate Western tastes for the entirety of the Academic era.

While technically Baroque, Poussin’s style is in such stark contrast to the rest of the art of that period. His quiet art is starkly different from one of the most celebrated artists of the era: Peter Paul Rubens and his wild, loud, vibrant style. They are so diverse in fact that the artists would give their names to two opposing aesthetic approaches: Poussinism (a cerebral and naturalist approach to art) and Rubenism (more emotional and expressive).

Poussin’s classicism is less about Classical scenes however, and more about logical organization, clearly defined visual planes and regions, natural colors and soft lighting, and idealized imagery. The moods are quiet, serene and meditative. While French by birth, his career was in Rome, which had a profound influence on his work.

This type of painting is called “the Classical landscape” and Poussin invented the genre himself. It would become very popular for a long time after his death. Some scholars think that Landscape with St. John on Patmos may have been intended for a series of four depicting the Four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). They think he had completed this and Landscape with St. Matthew & the Angel but died before completing the series. If that’s the case though, why go out of order? Why paint John after Matthew?

The composition is clearly divided into a foreground, middle ground, and background. Off-center, front right sits John writing. Behind him is his eagle. The bird just sits there, like a pet waiting for its master. Its wings are folded and it looks off in another direction. Around John sit ruins of some structure. The landscape is a series of browns, greens, and blues. A small town is hidden by a screen of trees. It shows that his exile is not to some remote island alone. There are people around, but to hear the words of God, he removes himself from the din of humanity and sits among the quiet ruins. Perhaps Poussin is saying that we need to remove ourselves from distractions to truly hear God?

While the landscape is full of cool and neutral colors, Poussin dresses John in warm hues, red and gold. Putting an area of bright, warm colors in the middle of a cool composition is risky if you don’t know how to control it. Fortunately, Poussin does. The red and gold are pale or washed-out. They blend into the background and feel a part of the scene rather than fighting with it. Because of this, it’s easy to miss John completely at first. To help unify the colors more, John’s skin tone is almost the same tone as the plinth on the left.

I find it interesting that the plinth is also cross-shaped. John was the only Disciple at the Cross. If the cross-shaped plinth is purposeful, Poussin seems to be uniting John’s past, with his present and future. His life has come full-circle. The landscape also possess that passage-of-time imagery: the ruins, the town, and John’s task itself. John wrote the Book of Revelation while on Patmos.

An interesting detail is the absolute absence of any people, except John. The town isn’t a ruin, yet no one is in the background, walking through the hills or meadow. There are no boats in the bay. I think the reason for this is that the human form is distracting to the viewer. It is the most recognizable and relatable image in all art, so Poussin removed it. The title says landscape WITH John, not John in a landscape. This type of painting is called “the Classical landscape” and Poussin invented the genre himself. Because it was so new, Poussin needed John to act as a hook, a way to make the image more relatable to the contemporary viewer. Otherwise the viewer is lost as to what he’s supposed to do with it. Poussin wants the viewer to feel the land, and feel what he felt when viewing the Italian landscape he was so influence by. John is secondary to his real purpose. He’s small, in partial shadow, in dulled colors. Instead, Poussin wants you to mentally wander around the blocks and fallen columns, to smell the plants and trees, to be transported to another time and space. Get lost in the ideal. And if you do happen to notice him, just nod to the old guy writing among the ruins and be on your way.

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posted by Open Blogger at 09:30 AM

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