Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Poussin's Crucifixion

Nicolas Poussin
The Crucifixion
oil on canvas
Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, Connecticut)

I came across a description of Poussin's Crucifixion in the wonderful exhibition catalog issued by the Louvre for its Poussin retrospective of 1960. One of the introductory essays opens by admitting that Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) is  of all the commonly acknowledged Old Masters  the least beloved by any wide public. This unjustifiable coolness remains as widespread today as it was fifty years ago. And if Poussin's intact masterpieces fail to attract the public's attention, there can be little hope of generating interest in the ruined Poussin above. Virtually all the original painted surface is gone, probably scrubbed off during some long-ago and tragic attempt at cleaning. One can mostly only see underpainting now. The catalog entry for this picture calls it "fort abîmé" or badly damaged. Yet whatever attention it receives from any viewer is still rewarded, and the story of its origin is useful to know. Jacques Stella (1596-1657) was a fellow painter who idolized Poussin and promoted his work. Stella was a great success at court back in France. He induced a cultivated government official to commission (for a high fee) The Crucifixion from Poussin in Rome. Stella suggested the subject. Poussin found it harrowing to paint. The painful meditations he required of himself in order to treat the subject with the necessary conviction and majesty ended by making Poussin physically sick. When asked to paint a companion piece of Christ Carrying the Cross, Poussin wrote back assuring his patrons that the effort would kill him outright, and begging to be excused. Appended below is a draft of one of Poussin's letters, with sketches made on the same sheet, now preserved at the British Museum.

Nicolas Poussin
Sketches and draft letter
ca. 1650
British Museum