Poussin And Claude Lorrain
( Originally Published 1911 )
THAT the Italianate convention was less disastrous to France than to other countries is due to two causes. One has already been alluded to : that France had a vigorous native growth in art and literature, ready for fertilization, strong enough to resist absorption. The second cause is to be found in the personality and influence of Nicolas Poussin and, in a less degree, of Claude Lorrain. The artistic career of these two is identified with Italy and particularly Rome; yet they never ceased to be Frenchmen and shaped the Italian ideal to the needs of the racial genius.
Poussin was the father of the French Classical School, inasmuch as it was his example that blazed the track for the newly formed Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which has led on to the present day. Born in Les Andelys in Normandy, 1594, of good family, he showed an early fondness for art. Among his teachers was Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674), a portrait painter of rare seriousness, whose portraits stand out with dignified simplicity and forthright humanness amid the showier productions of the time. But, although his best years were spent in France, he was of Flemish origin, and is regarded by the French as a member of that school. Flanders had long been the traditionary source of much French inspiration and Champaigne's influence may well have been one by which the grave, stalwart young Norman, Poussin, was impressed. He had learned to draw by copying prints of pictures by Raphael, and the latter's pupil, Giulio de Romano. In time he found his way to Rome, where he tempered his admiration of Raphael with study of Roman bas-relief sculpture. Meanwhile, as befitted a son of the North, Poussin gradually discovered another direct inspiration in landscape. Out of these three elements he constructed for himself a motive and method, distinguished by a union of nature and of architectonic repose and stability, in which a balance is maintained between the figures and the landscape. His well-known example of the Louvre, Et Ego in Arcadia, with its Raphaelesque balance and loveliness of expression, its extended composition of the figures in three flat planes and the simple beauty of the landscape, represents most characteristically his triune motive. In the very many other examples, which the same museum is fortunate enough to possess, the basis of the motive is less easily detected, for the artist was designing with greater freedom of personal expression.
The titles of Poussin's pictures betray the French leaning toward a literary subject. For example, Time shelters Truth from the Attacks of Envy and Discord, has a discouraging note, suggestive of the worst features of the Italianate convention. But it is not for the subject that one learns to look at a Poussin. Interest becomes absorbed in the extraordinary beauty of the landscape and in the suave nobility of the composition.
Poussin, one discovers not only to have been the first of the great school of French landscape, but also to have remained unsurpassed in his ability to infuse the naturalness of the scene with architectonic dignity. And in this his treatment of the figure plays a determining part. The truth is that his classicism goes back of Italian and Roman. He exhibits that affinity with the Hellenic spirit which appears, as we have noted, at intervals in French art. How redolent of what one dreams of Hellas and yet how finely French in character are (738) Autumn, in which the Israelite spies are returning from the Promised Land, laden with grapes; (737) Summer, with Ruth and Boaz in the harvest field, and (738) Spring, the Earthly Paradise! These are landscapes of an ideal loveliness, inspired by a sincere love of nature. Except for a visit to France during 1640-1642, Poussin remained in Italy, dying at Rome in 1665.
Claude Gellée, better known as Claude Lorrain, was born at Chateau de Chamagne near Toul, Lorrain, in 1600. One account says that he was apprenticed to a pastry-cook, another that, having lost both his parents, he crossed the Rhine to Freiburg and received instruction from a wood-carver and engraver. It is agreed that he made his way to Naples and studied architecture, and perspective and color under a German painter, Gottfried Waels. Then he moved to Rome and entered the service of the painter, Agostino Tassi, in the capacity of an attendant. Later he set out on a tour of travel which brought. him back to his native village.
But his stay was short; he seems to have felt the call of Italy and returned thither never to leave it. He died in 1682.
A student of nature, constantly drawing in the open air, he gradually acquired the style which won the appreciation of his contemporaries and secured him a popularity that lasted on into the nineteenth century. It represents a shrewd assembling of features of nature-study, drawn from diverse places, and is particularly distinguished by its introduction of architectural details. By these means he built up a composition, as stable as it is ingratiating, its heroic character pleasantly animated with groups of lively figures. In his fondness for warm sunshine he is akin to the Hollander, Cuyp; but instead of the latter's pastoral wholesomeness the feeling of Claude's pictures is rather that of sweet and gracious suavity. His world is one from which all hint of irregularity and conflict is removed; wrapped in inviolable repose. It is a mannered world, tempered and attuned to gentle sentiments by artifice; a vindication of good taste rather than an idealization of nature. It is in this respect that he may be judged to fall short of Poussin, who, on the other hand, when he relies upon architecture instead of nature, is inferior to Claude. The latter, in fact, for all his nature study, appears to have had none of the profound love of nature which elevated Poussin. Claude is much less a landscape painter than a contriver of beautiful scenic effects; not Classic in spirit as was Poussin but a clever and alluring manipulator of the ingredients of the classical formula. That his work held the fancy of the sentimentally classicized taste of the eighteenth century and that Poussin had to wait until our own day for a revival of appreciation are equally intelligible.
These two contemporaries, while representative of the trend of their time toward the Italian and the Roman vogue, maintained their identity as Frenchmen and shaped the foreign influence to their native genius, producing a new mode of pictorial subject. Each set a motive for the new Academy, the impress of which has endured to the present day. The Claude tradition has persisted in the Academic habit of improving upon nature and of repeating the obvious externals of the Classic style; while that of Poussin is discernible in many artists who lived outside the pale of the Academy and yet were truly Classic in spirit; Corot, for example, Millet, and Harpignies, to mention only three.