Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 9, 2003
Todd P. Olson Poussin and France: Painting, Humanism, and the Politics of Style New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 316 pp.; 25 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300093381)

More than a generation ago, Anthony Blunt and Denis Mahon developed ways of thinking about Nicholas Poussin and his art that, although recently the subject of prolonged scrutiny and occasional criticism, still remain canonical. Poussin, the French-born philosopher-painter, returned to his native country as an adult only briefly, when commanded by Cardinal Richelieu to organize the renovation of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre. This great painter was by choice a lifelong resident of Rome—and all the essential sources of his art were Italian. Poussin’s stylistic development was mapped out with care by Mahon, and a great deal was said about his highly complex iconography by Blunt.

More recently, a number of recent commentators have sought to develop new ways of thinking, often by exploring Poussin’s relationship to France. Poussin and France: Painting, Humanism, and the Politics of Style, Todd P. Olson’s very erudite treatise, offers a new, highly suggestive discussion of this evidence. Using a wonderfully lucid reading of the political and social history of seventeenth-century France, he links Poussin’s paintings to the artist’s country of origin. After discussing the commission of the Grand Galerie, Olson makes suggestive remarks about Moses Striking the Rock, which he links to specifically French concerns with political authority. He then offers a searching discussion of Poussin’s two Self-Portraits, which he describes in original ways as dealing with the symbolism of power. Turning next to Coriolanus Entreated by His Mother, Olson claims that this painting uses representations of women to speak to the beleaguered Frenchmen struggling during the Fronde. Landscape with Diana and Orion, he says, demonstrates a highly subtle understanding of the politics of French collecting; and the painting technique in Moses Trampling on Pharaoh’s Crown shows Poussin’s concern with interpreting political change. The Testament of Eudamidas, in turn, is understood as a commentary upon the political role of the elite, which leads Olson to a very suggestive analysis of Poussin’s role within the French Academy. And, finally, the last chapter uses Landscape with a Woman Washing Her Feet as the starting point for discussion of the settings of Poussin’s landscapes in real history.

This very scholarly and magnificently suggestive book offers an impressive synthesis of a large body of visual and literary evidence: it is a magisterial performance. Olson has a clear point of view—and he defends it with great eloquence. More than any other publication of which I am aware, Poussin and France offers a nicely detailed defense of an important claim: although Poussin chose to live in Rome, his art was always essentially bound up with his relationship with his native country. Olson’s book is sure to be much discussed, for it is original and far ranging. If, then, I am critical of its claims, that is because I have some important, as yet unresolved, queries about this project.

Olson offers no critical perspective on his basic methodology, which in my opinion is obviously counterintuitive. None of Poussin’s paintings, except for his two Self-Portraits, show scenes from the present. Nowhere in his extensive correspondence or in the commentaries on his art written by men who knew him do we anywhere find any explicit indication, however slight, that he meant any of his pictures to allude to contemporary events. Furthermore, when Poussin comments on the Fronde and the other political upheavals of the day, the artist never says that his painting responds to these events. And so, any allegorical reading of his art, in which its ostensive subjects—classical and Christian myths—stand in for French political struggles, must be highly speculative. We may, of course, assume that this way of thinking was too dangerous to be set down explicitly in so many words. But, in my opinion, that claim merely begs the question. In similar ways, it is worth observing, recent interpreters of Piero della Francesca’s art have tried to link his paintings to Italian politics of the day, arguing that his scenes of Christian history are really about contemporary struggles with Islam. Such interpretations are surely highly speculative. If Poussin was a political painter, it can be said he was a reactionary aristocrat, entirely dismissive of the masses.

Olson’s book is best understood when put in historical perspective. A generation ago, when T. J. Clark and Robert Herbert wrote their great social histories of Impressionism, they responded in what now seems a natural way to the content of these French paintings. Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, and Berthe Morisot painted contemporary scenes, depicting cafés, the streets, and the countryside, and so it is natural to ask how they understood the political debates of their day. And when, more recently, Thomas Crow influentially argued that Jacques-Louis David’s art of the 1780s is really about contemporary politics, he linked those paintings to David’s political art of the 1790s, and to the protorevolutionary discourse of the 1780s art writers. David, Crow suggests, was a political artist some years before any explicitly political subjects appeared in his paintings. On the eve of the Revolution, it might plausibly be argued, David was already anticipating the political struggles to come. Making a similar case for Poussin is unavoidably much more difficult because there is no direct evidence that he ever intended to paint any pictures about the public life of his day.

That an artist works at a politically difficult time needs not show that his art is tied to contemporary politics. Is Frank Stella’s development linked to the vicissitudes of American political life? Can Henri Matisse’s career be understood in relation to French politics? Our inability to give convincing affirmative answers to those questions is good reason, I think, to hesitate to offer a similarly structured account of old-master art, where the documentary evidence is much thinner. The determination of several recent writers to link Poussin’s art to French politics of his time is therefore best understood, I believe, by reference to the present situation of his scholars. Unlike Caravaggio or Jan Vermeer, Poussin is not a figure who captures the imagination of present audiences. And the older concerns of iconographers with his subjects and of connoisseurs with his stylistic development are not especially attractive right now. Unless Poussin scholars find exciting, novel themes of research, they are unlikely to find themselves with much of a future in the academic marketplace. What they therefore seek is a social history, borrowing from Clark and Crow, that responds to Poussin’s art in ways that have made David and the Impressionists fascinating.

Good scholars should, I believe, respond to present concerns in this way, but the inherent trouble with Olson’s book is that is says all too little about the visual qualities of Poussin’s art. (A very different approach is found in Clark’s unpublished research on the artist, which I know only from his lecture given as a Getty Scholar in spring 2000.) It is possible, so I speculate, to set Poussin in a proper social history. Such an analysis might begin by noting his extraordinary ability to set himself free from the usual constraints of patrons in his day. And then his paintings might be contrasted to the genre pictures that do show Roman life of the time. Here, of course, I am envisaging a quite different account of Poussin and France. But what, still, I miss in Olson’s supremely erudite book is any critical perspective on his own procedures. Now and then he admits that his analysis is very speculative, as when he allows that it depends upon “a tenuous set of relations between historical events of different orders and magnitude” (159). I would be happier had he said more about that problem. But here we enter into complex interpretative disputes that are not easily resolved. These questions remain to be adequately discussed. I would not have my doubts about Olson’s methodology obscure my great admiration for his marvelous book, which has been the source for much fruitful reflection. The publisher has provided an appropriately elegant production.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar