It came as quite a surprise to learn this week that a hitherto anti-Poussin critic, one that I chastised last year, has suddenly changed his mind- Jonathan Jones has now fallen in love with Poussin’s art, on appropriately Valentine’s day.
Most people find it very hard to love Poussin. Most of the students I teach admit no love for Poussin at all. If I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard that Poussin is cold, passionless, academic etc, well you get my gist. Jones had much the same reaction, then. “But for a long time he left me cold. I knew it was my problem, not his. What I needed – it turned out, base creature that I am, is this painting. It finally encouraged me to see the passion of Poussin – and set me free to wander among the monuments of his profound art.
Rather than reproduce the National Gallery’s Nymph and Satyrs, which Jones is choosing to love to death, I’m putting up a similar paining that I’ve always liked: the master’s Pan and Syrinx, painted about 1637, and now in Dresden. Anthony Blunt said that this belonged to the “blonde” group of Poussin’s pictures, those that have this coppery, yellowish colour which is very attractive to look at. There are also other erotically charged works with this tonality like this one recently cleaned. The subject is both erudite and erotic. Syrinx was a chaste nymph who was pursued by the amorous Pan. To evade him she ran to the river and was turned into hollow water reeds that made a memorable sound when the frustrated god blew across them. From the reeds Pan created the first panpipe.
The picture was probably commissioned by one of Poussin’s patrons in Paris, maybe one interested in both musical theory and the erotic dimension of the myth? That’s the thing about Poussin: you have passion and intellectual content in the same package. Now with this laughable emulation of Poussin’s Pan and Syrinx by the 18th century rococo painter J.F. Troy, I’m wiling to bet that whoever commissioned this was solely interested in the sex rather than the learning. But with Poussin you can have both, although perhaps it takes some time for the former to register with the viewer.
Congratulations to Mr Jones for being successfully seduced by Poussin; let’s hope it is a long and lasting affair. As for myself, I still retain a passion for Poussin. It’s just Poussin studies that I’m not so enamoured of these days. That’s definitely needs a kiss- the kiss of life!