Painting for Classicists: Classicism, Antiquity and Nicolas Poussin

Jaspreet Singh Boparai

If you have a taste for Classical texts, the Latin and Greek languages, ancient history or Greek or Roman philosophy, most people around you will expect you to be ‘cultured’; or at the very least they might call upon you to help them with crossword puzzles. You are generally presumed to have an unusual quantity of knowledge in your head, and an ability to explain any number of things, even if in truth you are unable to read ancient literature without the help of a translation, cannot remember a single line of poetry in any language, and do not quite recall what the Ides of March are or why you are supposed to know about this (or them – and what is an ‘Ide’ anyway?). As a result, trips to museums and art galleries can be a trial, despite the fact that you are alleged to be the sort of person who enjoys these things – especially if you are thought to like taking other people with you and explaining what things mean.

Visitors to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge might remember a sixteenth-century oil painting with the title Hermes, Herse and Aglaurus. The picture is by the Venetian artist Paolo Veronese (1528–88), whose name might be familiar from art history lectures, although if you have ever sat through a slide show of Renaissance paintings you might wonder why he is famous, or considered to be ‘great’, because almost nobody who teaches you about these things ever seems to take the time to go through one of Veronese’s alleged ‘masterpieces’ and patiently explain who these people are, what they are doing, or what is going on. Instead, the person lecturing appears to have assumed that you can instantly tell what the subject of a given ‘masterpiece’ is within seconds of looking at it, even before you have been told the title, then whisks the slide off the screen and replaces it with another ‘masterpiece’. But most of the time you can see none of what you are supposed to be seeing, just a blur of beautifully painted but incomprehensible images: either you are ashamed of your own ignorance, blindness and/or philistine insensitivity to art – or else you wonder whether your lecturer is simply bluffing.

You can just about fake an understanding of Veronese’s The Family of Darius Before Alexander if you know what the title is in advance, and remember just enough about Alexander the Great to know what happened after Alexander defeated King Darius III at the Battle of Issus (333 BC). That said, the exact narrative might not be found in standard textbooks, as it seems too ‘literary’ and moralising for the tastes of modern academic historians (also, there is a good chance that the story is completely made up). Instead you can read it in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, as well as various lesser Classical authors like Valerius Maximus (whom you have almost definitely not read unless you are a professional art historian or a literary masochist). This is the sort of story you will know if you learnt about Alexander the Great mainly from TV documentaries (an underrated resource, not least because you retain more knowledge from a well-made film than you would from most dreary modern scholarly writing). But Hermes, Herse and Aglaurus is a harder subject, and there is no way you can pretend to know what is going on in this picture if you are not familiar with the stories about these figures that are told towards the end of the second book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2.708–832).

Congratulations if you have the brilliance to lie your way through explaining this to someone who innocently asks what is going on: when I first saw this painting I both knew its title, and was very well acquainted with the text it was taken from, and yet still had to consult a guidebook to figure out what was happening in this image. I must have stood in front of it for a quarter of an hour. Good thing I was alone at the time, or I might have been deeply embarrassed by my cluelessness. As it was, other people in the room must have assumed that I was in the middle of some kind of profound emotional rapture, or worse, was preparing to compose a very long poem about the painting to inflict on unsuspecting passers-by. But I was just trying to figure out what I was looking at.

Of course, now I am in a position to explain the basic content of the picture confidently, and demonstrate to you that it is indeed a genuine masterpiece; but would you trust me, now that you know what a struggle I had simply to understand it? After all, my Latin turned out to be useless for the task.

Perhaps the most ‘Classical’ of all the painters known as the ‘Old Masters’ is Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), who was born in France, but moved to Rome when he was thirty and spent most of his career there. His work has always held a special attraction for intellectuals: he was a voracious reader, a tireless letter-writer, and a very serious amateur when it came to ancient philosophy. Also, Poussin’s knowledge of ancient Roman art and antiquities was legendary even during his lifetime. You can see this clearly in all his mature work (which is to say, everything produced between 1630 and his death three and a half decades later). Yet the most ‘Classical’ aspect of his work might be the fact that the simple act of looking at his paintings sometimes feels like trying to decipher a Latin text.

Poussin painted Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion in 1648. This is a tranquil, orderly, Classical-looking landscape (Classical-looking because of the building in the middle that looks like a pagan temple; also, those figures reclining in the grass who seem to be wearing ancient Greek or Roman clothing). But the title is a mystery, unless you recognise the name of Phocion (402–318 BC). Phocion was a frugal, honest, highly principled Athenian statesman who was sentenced to death for treason, and died on 19 May 318 BC. The authorities did not allow the corpse to be buried, or even cremated, on Athenian territory; Phocion’s widow had to honour his remains in secret. The story is told in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, in one of the biographies towards the end of the collection that most Classicists today do not bother to read even in translation.

For many museumgoers (scholarly ones in particular), Poussin’s pictures can be demoralising. You feel as though you live in a barbarous Dark Age, where not even you, a learned, sensitive, highly intelligent person who did very well on school exams and even now could beat most people in a pub quiz with relatively little cheating, cannot make head or tail of a simple oil painting that mere amateurs could have immediately understood, enjoyed, and discussed with similarly well-informed friends a mere 350 years ago or so. How far we have fallen, you think, where not even you can talk about Poussin’s Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion without making up a lot of pseudo-interpretative nonsense to cover up your shameful ignorance, and inability to explain this picture simply, clearly and intelligibly to a normal person.

But the truth is that it is perfectly possible for even the most brittle intellectual ego to emerge intact from a Sunday afternoon spent looking at Old Master canvases at an art gallery. In fact, to enjoy these things with your head held high you do not even need to arm (or demean) yourself with philistine exhortations of the sort that underprepared bluffing art teachers might have once inflicted on you (“Just enjoy, and don’t worry about understanding anything!” “Enjoy, and please stop asking questions…”). To learn how to look at paintings, you might consider teaching yourself how to appreciate Poussin, who was once as clueless as you are right now, with respect to art. Yet look at what he achieved.

Poussin is the greatest artist never to have talent. By the standards of his contemporaries he couldn’t draw; as a painter he had little real sense of texture, so that you usually cannot tell what figures’ clothes are made of or whether a building in the background is made of stone, brick or wood (except by guessing from the colour). His sense of colour is unexciting, especially when you compare it to that of Veronese (or virtually any other Old Master, in fact). As for his figures: one of Poussin’s only rivals in terms of a terrible sense of proportion is Claude Lorrain (1600–82), also a Frenchman who lived mainly in Rome and painted ‘Classical’-looking subjects (and indeed the two painters often went on sketching expeditions together, during which Poussin bullied Claude for his relative lack of Classical knowledge).

Poussin’s art is a triumph of patience and intelligence: he knew how far he lacked natural gifts as an artist, and made up for them through sheer willpower, hard work, and knowledge of his own limitations. His intelligence cannot be emphasised enough. Where this really shows is in his compositions: Poussin arranges shapes, colours and other visual elements within a frame more perfectly than any other Old Master: he is second to nobody when it comes to composing narrative scenes. If you spend time at a museum or gallery that has a significant collection of Poussins (the National Gallery and Dulwich Picture Gallery in London; the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh; the Louvre in Paris) you really do have to look at the Poussins last, because every other great painter’s work ends up looking strangely careless, uncontrolled or even sloppy by comparison.

Scholars have often exaggerated Poussin’s learning, going so far as to claim an elaborate humanistic education for him when the truth is that we know nothing about his schooling, and have no reason to believe that he was anything other than a shrewd, brilliant autodidact with relatively little formal or systematic training. There appears to be no evidence that he had more than a rudimentary command of Latin at best. Certainly it seems implausible that he could study Classical texts in depth without the aid of French or Italian translations. Poussin’s eerie ability to create convincing, accurate-looking depictions of Greek, Roman and Biblical scenes was the result of a powerful creative imagination, more than anything else.

The truth is that vanishingly few Old Masters could call themselves ‘scholars’ in any real sense. Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) is the first great artist of the Renaissance who can justly be thought of as a ‘humanist’: look no further than his astonishingly erudite Introduction of the Cult of Cybele to Rome:

Mantegna knew Latin well; more importantly, he was better acquainted with ancient Roman art than virtually any other artist before or since (Poussin is one of his few rivals in this respect). Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) had the advantage of an excellent humanist education, and read ancient literature throughout his life (perhaps unsurprisingly he loved Ovid’s poetry); but his imagination was ultimately fuelled by something other than study. There is nothing scholarly about his work.

Mantegna and Rubens are rare exceptions among the Old Masters, who tended not to benefit from any academic or literary education at all. They were more like skilled artisans, and Latin and Greek could obviously never be an important component of that sort of training. Also, very few Old Masters worked as independent contractors. Until the nineteenth century, it was rare for a major artist to enjoy the luxury of being able to choose subjects at whim, or indulge in highly personal self-expression and expect people to pay handsomely for the results. Instead, artists received commissions for their work from patrons (generally churches, guilds, governments or aristocrats) who gave precise instructions on the paintings they wanted, and either came up with their pictures’ subject and iconography themselves or else relied on a well-educated adviser. Of course, there were ‘freelance’ painters who produced work to be sold on the open market (this is why there are so many beautifully executed yet strangely generic pictures from the golden age of Dutch painting). Poussin was one of these freelancers during his first few years in Rome. But he was only doing this in the hope of attracting a new patron, after the one whom he followed from Paris to Rome, the poet Giambattista Marino (1569–1625), suddenly died, leaving him adrift in a strange country.

We no longer live in a world where we can take for granted that every educated person can instantly recognise passages from Vergil, Ovid or the Bible. Yet we should not overestimate our forebears, or assume that they could look at a painting and casually figure out the subject without being told what they were looking at. Nor should we leap to the conclusion that the Old Masters were painting complex, subtle scenes that could not be interpreted without the aid of intense scholarly training. From the late fifteenth century onwards, it was far from uncommon for churches and aristocratic collections to have lists or written guides available for visitors, to prevent them from having to twist themselves into knots to try to figure out the subject of what they were trying to admire.

You should never feel ashamed of having to make use of a guidebook in an art gallery, especially given how all those refined, classically educated connoisseurs of four hundred years ago had to rely on these things no less than we do.

It might cause you despair to stare uncomprehendingly at The Calumny of Apelles by Sandro Botticelli (1455–1510), forcing yourself to take in every detail of this insanely intricate little panel for half an hour or more until you are all but cross-eyed. Be assured that the picture is worth the effort: this really is one of the great classically-inspired images of its age. Still, The Calumny of Apelles is completely unintelligible until and unless you have spent at least an hour reading and re-reading the indigestible text that Botticelli has tried to illustrate here – Lucian of Samosata’s description of a now-lost Hellenistic painting. It is impossible to figure out any of this simply by looking at the picture. But then you were never expected to take pleasure from this picture without first being given a fairly good idea of what it represents.

To produce a picture like The Calumny of Apelles, the Introduction of the Cult of Cybele to Rome or Poussin’s Institution of the Eucharist requires, not just ‘book-learning’, but a deep immersion in what survives of ancient art and architecture. All of the very greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance especially studied Roman sculpture, Roman ruins and antiquarian engravings and drawings as much as they could. They were trying to develop a visual language for representing the ancient world. For understanding what the finest ancient Roman painting might have looked like, Renaissance artists had relatively little to go on beyond written descriptions of lost pictures, as in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (Book 35). But they had a great deal of high-quality marble sculpture available for study.

Poussin’s narrative scenes owe a great deal to the elaborate Roman sarcophagi produced between the mid-second and late third centuries AD. It was through copying the mythological stories on these that artists such as Poussin learnt how to tell a complex story in a single image. Indeed, he was much better at it than the artists and craftsmen who created his ancient models: even if you have not been told the title of a given Poussin canvas, you can usually guess much or most of the story simply by scrutinising the picture (as is not the case with depictions on sarcophagi of even the most familiar pagan myths). Poussin understands how to lead your eye around the composition so that you are never in doubt as to its most important elements. In much of his mature work, the main parts of each narrative can be found in a sarcophagus-shaped area in the middle of his (usually square or almost-square) canvases.

Thanks in no small part to his friend and patron Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588–1657), Poussin gained an almost unparalleled knowledge of Roman antiquities. Cassiano was not only a major art collector: he was also responsible for creating a ‘paper museum’ – a vast collection of drawings that included systematically-organised illustrations of as many Greek and Roman ruins, statues and artefacts as could be gathered. He wanted to understand everything about Roman culture, from architecture, to religion, to customs, habits and even dress. Poussin’s creative imagination could be set on fire even when he sifted idly through these drawings.

Poussin picked up his knowledge of ancient history, philosophy and literature from a variety of his sources. His friends and patrons were all highly cultured, and he learned a great deal simply through talking or corresponding with them over a period of years. Also, he had sharp instincts for what he needed to read in order to pick up the knowledge that he desired. Luckily for him, many important Classical texts were available in excellent modern-language editions by the time he arrived in Rome.

We have some idea of what Poussin might have read based on clues scattered throughout his voluminous surviving correspondence. Undoubtedly he knew Plutarch’s Parallel Lives very well, in the famous French translation by Mgr Jacques Amyot, Bishop of Auxerre (1513–93). But even if we look for Italian or French versions of Classical texts that he seems to have known (or referred to vaguely in his letters), we can end up exaggerating his reliance on books (a tendency that begins with Poussin’s earliest biographers).

Many of Poussin’s Classical references can be found in contemporary works by various people whom he knew; quite a number can be found in the works of Michel de Montaigne (1533–92). Montaigne was a sort of essayist who cobbled together anecdotes and quotations from Seneca, Plutarch and other ancient authors, bridged the gaps in between with a great deal of filler, and posthumously won a reputation as a great writer. Montaigne’s main value for modern readers is as an occasional reference point for greater writers including Shakespeare, the French dramatist Pierre Corneille (1606–84) and the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–62), all of whom found his essays to be a convenient data mine for anecdotes and other ancient material. Poussin was among those who wisely treated Montaigne less as an original author than a mere resource.

An artist of Poussin’s genius has no real need of Latin or Greek books to conjure up a convincing impression of the ancient world. Indeed, artists and writers who attempt to depict the ancient world never really need to be erudite, or even particularly well-trained, as long as they understand how to use the scholarly efforts of others to create that magical air of authenticity that makes it such a joy to experience the greatest works of art.

Academic competence remains a non-negotiable essential requirement for those of us who have not been inspired by the Muses, yet still seek to illuminate Greece or Rome in some measurable way, and want to contribute to the world’s knowledge of the Classical world and its perennially fascinating culture. But artists have very different responsibilities from scholars. Once you come to understand this, you will never find a museum or art gallery intimidating ever again, even if you do find yourself forced sometimes to try to explain its contents to those who expect you to know about these things.

From around 1650 onwards, Poussin suffered from a recurring tremor in his hands. You cannot see this in most of his paintings, but the effects are painfully evident in the drawings that survive from this period. By the end of his life he could scarcely hold a paintbrush. Yet he forced himself to carry on working, and produced some of his most powerful pictures until he was finally too infirm to paint. He was asked how he had managed, against the odds, to become the most celebrated painter in Italy. “I have neglected nothing,” he replied.

Poussin’s life and work provide a heroic example for those of us who feel irresistibly drawn to Classical Greek and Roman culture, and the achievements of the ancients, and cannot understand why, but still want to learn the secrets of this mysterious attraction, and do something about it.


Jaspreet Singh Boparai recently abandoned academia to cultivate the Muses. He has previously written on Tacitus and the thrill of writing here, and on the challenges of translating (pseudo-)Latin here.


Further Reading

Sir Anthony Blunt’s Nicolas Poussin (Phaidon, London, 1967; reprinted in 1995 with extensive supplements), for all its flaws and eccentricities, remains the best biography in English of this extraordinary painter. The expanded second edition is well worth tracking down.

You should also try to look at the catalogue for the 2015 exhibition Poussin et Dieu (Louvre, Paris), which features a few dubious attributions, but is beautifully produced. The photographs in this volume are the next best thing, if you are unable to look at any Poussins in person.

If you are interested in Old Master paintings generally, and have become curious about their relationship to ancient art, there are too many good books to recommend. Perhaps the best place to start might be Paul Zanker’s Living With Myths: the Imagery of Roman Sarcophagi (Oxford UP, 2012). Once you have absorbed this text and its lovely illustrations, you can begin to look at ‘classicising’ paintings with an eye to how they are composed, and proceed from there.