Nicholas Poussin–the 17th century French painter best know for classical scenes like The Rape of the Sabine Women and Et in Arcadia Ego–is currently the subject of an exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the catalog for the exhibit is discussed in the latest New York Review of Books. Andrew Butterfield is the author, and his article includes a perfect classical reference:
The extraordinary amplitude of the world and sky in Poussin’s paintings was commented upon by his contemporaries…In a letter in 1665 Poussin compared the elements of painting to the golden bough carried by Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid. He does not elaborate on his comment, and perhaps it is only a suggestive coincidence, but in Book VI of the epic the golden bough serves as a magical aid that helps Aeneas reach the Elysian Fields. Virgil writes of the skies of that heavenly place: “What largesse of bright air, clothing the vales in dazzling/ Light, is here!” No description better fits the effect of the light and space in Poussin’s late landscapes.
The line above is VI.640; I’ll quote it along the follow-up line 641:
Largior hic campos aether et lumine vestit
purpureo, solemque suum, sua sidera norunt.
For a painter like Poussin, the complete thought is quite apropos; the landscape (campos) he creates on a canvas must be vested with its own dazzling light from the pigments (lumine purpureo; that last word doesn’t necessarily refer to the color violet, but majesty and grandeur, since purple dye was precious in the ancient world). The painting must also have its “own sun” and “own stars", which I personally reinterpret here as sources of illumination inside the painting itself. Since the images in the painting can’t depend on light from the actual sun (unlike, say, an outdoor statue), it’s up to the artist himself to skillfully create that illusion within the frame.
Virgil is rightly hailed for painting a picture with his words; it is nice to see Butterfield recognize that quality in comparison with another artistic master.
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