“Read the story and the painting,” Nicolas Poussin wrote in 1639 to his friend and patron Chantelou, “in order to see how each thing is proper to its subject.” How to think about that—I’ve been puzzling to myself these last three years, looking every week at Poussin, on my trips to the Met and sometimes the Louvre. “Lisez,” Poussin commanded. What would that be, to read a painting? How would it feel in the mind?
Poussin was forty-five when he wrote the letter, living in Rome with a wife, Anne-Marie née Dughet, childless, and with the moderate but definitive success dear to his Norman heart: perpetual commissions from a small but devoted group of patrons, who hung the works in special rooms in their private homes and went to look at them every day. The early struggles in Paris; the failed attempt to get to Italy (turned back at the border for his debts); the first stay in Venice, enamoured of Titian; the eventual arrival in Rome, which was to be his city until his death; the months drawing from the statues of the antique with his friend, the Belgian sculptor Duquesnoy; the syphilitic, raunchy nights and the impoverished, jobbing days: all this had passed. Now, burgher of the erudite brush, he painted.
more from the Threepenny Review here.