Decorum Meets Drama on Canvas

The paintings of Nicolas Poussin, now on display at London's Royal Academy, pulse with feeling, despite their severity

Nicolas Poussin was a painter for whom structure -- the scrupulous

06121organization of a painting -- was all-important. He rated reason, discrimination, and judgment high among an artist's attributes. The kind of personal spontaneity that even in his day was sometimes confused with ''genius'' was not his way at all.

Poussin resolutely refused to paint hastily. A perfectionist, he once explained the rigor of his self-discipline by saying: ''I have neglected nothing.''

And, extraordinarily, he did not neglect feeling, as a current major exhibition at London's Royal Academy shows.

Within the order and beneath the clear delineations of his canvases, feelings and passions teem and pulsate. For the viewer to be put off initially by his apparent coolness of manner -- or, worse, by his undeniable pedantry and pious decorum -- would be to miss engrossing human dramas and narratives. It would be easy to overlook the fact that Poussin, like the ponderous poet Milton, was moved by emotions both tender and delightful -- so long as they did not break the bounds of a severe probity. The severity, strangely enough, helps to intensify the charm of his lighter moments rather than strangle them.

Richard Verdi, author of the catalog for the exhibition, describes Poussin as ''an artist of fierce integrity and creative independence.'' One of Poussin's two self-portraits, showing him stoical and relentless, bears Verdi out. But the other, which Verdi says Poussin considered inferior, touches on a more warm-hearted side of his nature.

His career spanned the first half of the 17th century (he lived from 1594 to 1665). Though French-born and selling most of his work to French patrons, he lived in Rome. Like many young modern artists, Poussin was drawn to the city for close encounters with both the Renaissance Old Masters and ancient Roman antiquities. But unlike his colleagues, he stayed more than a few years; once there, he had no desire to leave.

Knowing and choosing what best suited his temperament and intellectual interests was, in fact, crucial to his development -- choice not just of where he lived, but also choice of subject matter, styles, and influences.

He was not therefore an artist like Raphael (whom he intensely admired) or like his older contemporary Rubens (1577-1640), who both favored the kind of patronage that demanded the fulfillment of great programs of work dreamed up by others. Poussin was miserable when summoned to Paris in 1640-41 to be ''First Painter'' to King Louis XIII. This job meant he was ''entrusted with all works of painting and decoration connected with the royal residences,'' as Verdi describes it. He fled back to Rome.

This exhibition -- which surely ought to have been seen in more than just two venues -- has provided a thorough opportunity to witness the range of Poussin's art. He is a particularly demanding painter and rewards lengthy contemplation. Even admirers of his work have been unable to hide a certain restraint in their praises.

Still, his works in the Louvre have earned him the passionate devotion of such profound later artists as Corot, Cezanne, and Seurat. Picasso pitted himself against Poussin by trying to remake him in his own visual language.

As Verdi discusses at length, the fact that Poussin was an immensely well-read and intellectual man with a burning interest in ancient themes, both Biblical and classical, resulted in a high degree of originality in his choice of subjects. He did paint conventional themes like the baptism or the nativity of Jesus, but paintings such as ''Landscape with the Body of Phocion Carried out of Athens'' (based on Plutarch) or ''The Kingdom of Flora'' (based on Ovid) were either new or virtually new as subjects for paintings.

At the same time, Poussin was determined to paint familiar subjects in new ways. This did not, however, prevent him from borrowing details or figures from earlier art when it suited him, often scarcely hiding his debt, particularly to Raphael. But such borrowings are always fitted harmoniously into his paintings, as if he had invented them. This may have to do with an essential impersonality in his vision.

Poussin's art grew from compositions dominated by groups of figures, sometimes in landscape settings, to landscapes in which there is either a balance between setting and figures, or in which figures are reduced to almost minor importance. It is as if he developed from a man-centered view of the world to what today we might call an environmental view of it, or from a mythological to a natural view of it. (But he never completely abandoned his fascination with myth.)

In his last year, Poussin wrote a ''definition'' of the imitative art of painting: ''It is an imitation made on a surface with lines and colors of everything that one sees under the sun.'' The simplicity of this statement may take the breath away, but it does point to a rudimentary attitude in the artist's makeup. Even his most elaborately interwoven paintings of multiple figures in complex action are brought by the workings of his determined mind and eye to a state of readable lucidity.

Poussin's late paintings -- particularly a four-part group of the seasons -- invest his lucidity with a broad touch that softens some of the crispness of earlier works. These paintings are full of atmosphere and mood to the point of an immensely moving visual poetry.

* The London showing of ''Nicolas Poussin,'' at the Royal Academy of Arts ends April 9. The exhibition catalog will continue to be available through bookstores (cloth) or the academy (soft cover).

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