|Poussin gallery at GAP|
Although I’m sure that this wasn’t in the minds of the people behind the Google Art Project (GAP),it may turn out to be quite a useful tool for connoisseurs. For one thing it makes a lot of obscure pictures visible, some of which I have never encountered as a Poussin scholar; so GAP throws up opportunities for considering, and in some cases re-considering some connoisseurial problems in Poussin. It also highlights some of the problems in using reproductions to judge colour and style, a huge topic which I can’t do justice to here. Maybe another post sometime?
The main reason for this post is that out of the 36 high-resolution in the Poussin archive of the GAP, a few trouble me. I hasten to add this isn’t a criticism of GAP whose resolutions are immensely useful to professional art historians like myself, which allow us to “drill” down to the detail of a picture. At the same time I’m a Poussin scholar and I feel duty-bound to highlight certain difficult pictures to anyone using the tool.
Capitoline Museum, Rome.
|Capitoline Museum, Rome.|
Here is one that has to be rejected, no doubt about it. The Camillus and the Schoolmaster of the Falerii. looks like an eighteenth-century pastiche of a famous Poussin subject known through several versions- see below. Camillus the Roman general punishes a schoolmaster who sought to betray his pupils by offering them as hostages; Camillus is indignant at this perfidy and has the miscreant stripped naked and beaten back to the Falerii by his charges. I’ve never seen this version before- and now unfortunately I have. I have no idea why the Capitoline have labelled this picture- here seen in situ- a Poussin. Like many of his paintings of the late 1630s, Poussin creates a firm, relief-like picture that usually unfolds from left to right. The colours, the poses, especially the foppish gait of Camillus have absolutely nothing to do with Poussin, or indeed the 1630s. Instead of thrashing the disgraced schoolmaster out of the village, the children seem to be leading him out to a picnic.Compare this with one of Poussin’s stern versions shown here.
|Poussin, Camillus and the Schoolmaster of the Falerii, Louvre, Paris, c, 1637, oil on canvas, 252 x 268 cm.|
I should advise the Capitoline to look for their painter in early 18th century France, a rococo painter with classical pretensions- but no means of putting them into practice. Let us not look but pass on.
Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.
|Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.|
Then there are paintings that have always been problematic. An excellent example of this is a painting at Toledo, a mythological or poetic work which traditionally provoked debate until everybody lost interest in the work. Nobody can even agree on what the subject is, let alone who painted it. Is it “Dido and Aeneas”, “Mars and Venus”, or “Rinaldo and Armida”? It’s on GAP as “Mars and Venus”, though there’s no conclusive proof that it is that subject. Checking Christopher Wright’s 1984 catalogue raisonné, he says that it fits neatly into Poussin’s development and places it in the late 1630s, though traditionally it’s been dated to the early 1630s or even 1624. Leaving dating aside for the moment, let’s consider what we have here.
|Mars and Venus, or Dido and Aeneas, or Rinaldo and Armida, Toledo Museum of Art, c. 1638-9 (?), oil on canvas, 158 x 190 cm, right-hand side autograph, left-hand side over painted?|
We have a painting that may be 60-70% by one of three other painters, and 30% by Poussin himself. This view might not be as bizarre as it sounds: three famous Poussin scholars (Blunt, Thuillier and Wild) attributed the work to three different painters, and Wright says that the museum, (presumably hedging its bets) attributes it to three other painters- and Poussin. There’s no discussion of that on the GAP entry, nor on the museum’s website, though more information, or links to more information might come in time. The entry reads:
“In a lush landscape, Venus, Roman goddess of love and beauty, is attended by her handmaidens, the Three Graces, while Mars, the god of war, stands enraptured by the sight. The figures are inspired by Nicolas Poussin's study of ancient classical sculpture. He derived his theme from classical literature, combining the Toilet of Venus, in which Venus makes her morning preparations while gazing into a mirror, with Mars "disarmed" or "unmanned" by Venus—a symbol of love's power to vanquish war. To illustrate this idea, Poussin shows Mars's weapons and helmet cast aside, while he holds his shield to serve as Venus's mirror. Its oval with her reflected image ingeniously links the two principles and marks the change in pictorial key from the quiet, coolly lit group of women composed in profile-like relief sculpture to the warmer tones of Mars's shadowed figure and the flickering movement and lighting of the two cupids. The landscape sustains this shift, the stately trees and constricted foreground opening out to a spacious vista toward snowcapped mountains. By the time he painted Mars and Venus, Poussin had lived some ten years in Rome since arriving there from France in 1624. Rome was to be his permanent home. Poussin's clients were cultivated men who shared his intellectual interests and valued the harmony he achieved between poetic content and rigorous clarity in his paintings of mythological and religious subjects. Poussin absorbed ideas from many sources, including the monuments of antiquity and the work of Renaissance painters Raphael, Giulio Romano, and Titian. But from the force of Poussin's artistic personality and his astonishing ability to invent solutions appropriate to each subject's mood came an artistic language, both incisive and sensuous, that broke new ground.”
Well, let’s assume it is “Mars and Venus” for the moment, though it seems an iconographic mishmash for Poussin, completely unlike his usual clarity in dealing with subject matter. The male figure and putto look Poussinesque, but they don’t seem that well-painted. And then there’s the landscape whose colours don’t seem typical of Poussin: that deep indigo seems uncharacteristic of his palette. At the same time I should stress that I’ve never actually seen this picture, as it’s seldom exhibited because of doubts over the authorship, and I’m having to study reproductions. It was exhibited in 1960 and here is a newspaper article recording its passage to Paris in that year! The river god in the water, if that’s what he is, seems summarily painted, though I will concede that the pose is found in other of Poussin’s works. The ground seems to be showing through in large parts of the painting, though they might to be due to paint loss- a technical report might help here. For the purposes of balance I’m going to quote Christopher’s Wright’s comments on the picture:
“It is difficult to see why there should have been such a conflict over the status of this picture. As Four painters are currently involved and each one advanced by a distinguished specialist there is reasonable certainty that at least three of them are wrong (Blunt initially accepted the picture in 1960, but re-assigned it to the “Hovingham Master” in 1966; Thuillier said it had been painted by Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy; finally, Wild rejected it and gave it to Poussin’s friend, Jacques Stella). In considering the old attribution to Poussin the picture fits quite easily into the artist’s development in the later 1630s (on stylistic grounds, this makes sense to me, but only the right-hand side) and the whole of the right hand side of the composition is close to the Toronto Venus Presenting Arms to Aeneas. The problems arise with the treatment of the naked figures on the left which seem far too realistic and even anecdotal for Poussin. Careful examination of the picture reveals that they may well have undergone some later “improvements”. It is hoped that a cleaning of the picture will establish this hypothesis (I do not know the condition of this picture nor have I seen a technical report on it, so it’s impossible to prove or refute this. Has the picture been cleaned since Wright made his observations?). (Wright, no. 94, 183)
Earlier in his catalogue Wrights has this to say:
“The Toledo picture has been subject to many doubts. It was originally thought to be one of Poussin’s early surviving pictures, then because it did not seem to fit into the artist’s early development, it was rejected altogether by many authorities. The right hand half of the picture clearly fits into the style familiar from the mid 1630s (no argument there). It is not dissimilar in treatment to the work in Toronto. The problem arises for the grouping of four nude female figures on the left which seem both in drawing and composition to be quite unlike Poussin. It is just possible that they may have been re-painted at a later date and it is hoped that a future cleaning of the painting will resolve the problems.! (Wright, 60-1)
As Wright says, the real problem is the left-hand group of three women who seem entirely untypical of Poussin. The strange and infelicitous admixture of large hips, small breasts and thinly tapered legs seems to indicate a different hand here. I would say that look mannered as well as realistic. Also, the kneeling woman is a direct quotation from a Crouching Venus, and Poussin doesn’t make his antique quotations so conspicuous; nor to my knowledge does he use that source in his art. So, if more than half isn’t stylistically typical of Poussin- though Wright still doesn’t reject it- then I’d be uncomfortable giving it totally to Poussin. I can see why Wright is happy to see it as a Poussin, but that left-hand female group is so at variance with Poussin that I can’t comfortably accept it as autograph. On the other hand I can’t completely reject, as parts of it seem consistent with Poussin. What a dilemma!
|Poussin, Pan and Syrinx, Staatliche Gemaldergalerie, Dresden, oil on canvas, 106.5 x 82 cm.|
In his catalogue, Wright reproduces it next to the Pan and Syrinx (Dresden) and you can immediately see what Blunt called a “blonde” colour that is typical of of a group of pictures in the late 1630s. In Wright’s catalogue, the colour of the Toledo painting is closer to this “blonde” group, not the GAP colours, including that horrible blue. Sorry, my scanner is broken so I can’t put up an image of the reproduction in Wright, but within this group fall pictures like the St Rita of Cascia (Dulwich), St Margaret (Turin), Pan and Syrinx (Dresden), Venus and Aeneas (Toronto), Rinaldo and Armida (Bode Museum, Berlin). Maybe this case highlights the danger of using reproductions, especially digital to make assessments about art, though there’s a tradition of using them in connoisseurship. Here’s an excellent article that explores the topic of colour in museum photographs and the problems when using them.
If I compare the Toledo canvas with the Pan and Syrinx, I might accept a tentative attribution, though that depends on working from Wright’s reproduction. If the museum colour is right, then the picture would not fit into the late 1630s, and indeed we should put it back to the early 1630s, when works with similar colours were done. However, the problem remains of certain figures and motifs in the Toledo picture consistent with autograph works from that period.
I’m still deeply troubled by the non-Poussin elements in the Toledo canvas, and of course there is the colour problem, which is going to be difficult to resolve without me actually seeing the painting. Some of my Poussin colleagues have written about the Toledo painting assuming it is totally autograph, but I couldn’t until I’d satisfied myself about these doubts. I have e.mailed the museum with my concerns, but so far no answer. It would be good to hear from them in order to see if Wright’s hypothesis held water, which I think it might.
Dulwich Picture Gallery.
|Dulwich Picture Gallery, Dulwich, London.|
Then there’s an interesting cluster of paintings at Dulwich. Firstly, a canvas of putti or children playing, which I vaguely know about. “Putti in a Landscape” has been labelled “17th Century French”, though it’s still in the Poussin section. This has a bearing on the last problem because if Blunt saw a Poussin picture with non-Poussin elements, then he would invent another master to explain that incongruity. Not that he needed to as there are lots of candidates for copyists after Poussin’s Bacchic children, but Blunt memorably invented one painter called the “Master of the Clumsy Children.” Then there were painters in Rome like Podesta who is known to have copied Poussin’s bacchanals of children; still more enigmatic artists like the aforementioned “Hovingham Master” who’s crossed my path from time to time. I don’t know who painted the Dulwich putti, but this cannot be attributed to Poussin: the putti are badly drawn, no anatomical realism at all.
There’s a mysterious canvas called “Landscape” which could mean anything. It has figures lounging in leafy groves or strolling through the landscape, which you find in the artist’s work in the 1640s, but that kind of landscape was much imitated. The artists’ brother-in-law, Gaspar Dughet might be a better candidate than Nicolas himself. This vague landscape is in even worse condition, unable to penetrate beneath the layers of dirt and possibly over painting, but not by the master.
Lastly, there’s a kind of Bacchic family group consisting of satyr, nymph and putti, very common in Poussin’s oeuvre. This picture is a deplorable condition, and if you zoom in you can see the craquelure and dirt, and god knows what else. But even though this hasn’t been restored, I think there’s no doubt we’re dealing with an imitator of Poussin’s Bacchic groups here. All these three were in the Bourgeois bequest, but they’ve hardly attracted much interest, hardly surprising given their woeful state.
There are only two Poussin drawings on GAP, one of which I know is autograph as I’ve inspected it closely on the study table at Windsor. The other of a broken silver birch tree, or two trees, in the Albertina, perturbs me, though I have to say I haven’t seen the sheet itself. There are crude transitions between different densities of the wash; form isn’t modelled well, and frankly the application of the wash isn’t typical of Poussin. It appeared in an exhibition of 1984 curated by the late Konrad Oberhuber who actually used to work at the Albertina until he moved to the USA. As Oberhuber notes in that catalogue, it was rejected from the early 1960s onwards, given to Gaspar Dughet. Only Wild supported the attribution to Poussin in 1980, and Oberhuber was emboldened by this to present it as a Poussin drawing of around 1630. The trouble is his argument depends on comparing it to a whole cluster of drawings which manifestly aren't by NP. Who’s it by? Well, we could maybe accept Gaspar, but it might be too early for him; Jean Frangois Millet (possibly); Jean Lemaire, who would be working with Poussin at this time. There is also the appropriately named “Silver Birch Master” a landscape painter invented by Blunt in 1950. It used to be thought that a painting in the National Gallery, a Landscape with A Cowherd, was by the SBM, but Blunt changed his mind and re-attributed to the young Gaspar in 1980. Although there have been attempts to move it back to Poussin, it has stayed with his brother-in-law, which makes perfect sense to me. The attribution also helps to elucidate the Vienna drawing because the treatment of the trees in the London painting are similar. So I think both drawing and painting are the work of the young Gaspar Dughet.
Maybe all this highlights the need for professional art historians and specialists to consult with the GAP on issues of attribution and connoisseurship, though overall it’s thumbs up for a very useful resource.
Anthony Blunt, 'Poussin Studies V: ‘The Silver Birch Master’. Burlington Magazine, 92 (1950), pp. 69-73.
Anthony Blunt, Poussin Studies XIII: ‘Early Falsifications of Poussin’, Burlington Magazine, 104, (1962), pp. 486- 498.
Konrad Oberhuber, exh. cat., Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth Poussin: The Early Years in Rome, (New York, 1988).
Humphrey Wine, The Seventeenth-Century French Paintings in the National Gallery, (New Haven and London, 2001).
Christopher Wright, Poussin Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné, (Jupiter, 1984).
Toledo entry on painting. http://classes.toledomuseum.org:8080/emuseum/view/objects/asitem/117/12