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Nicolas Poussin Self-portrait, 1649

Nicolas Poussin
Self-portrait, 1649
Oil on canvas
31 x 25 1/2 inches
Gemaeldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Photo credit: Bildarchiv Presussischer Kulturbesitz / Art Resource, NY


Nicolas Poussin Self-portrait, 1650

Nicolas Poussin
Self-portrait, 1650
Oil on canvas
38 1/2 x 29 1/8 inches
Louvre, Paris

Photo Credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY


Nicolas Poussin The Sacrament of Ordination 1647

Nicolas Poussin
The Sacrament of Ordination
Oil on canvas
46 x 70 inches
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Richard Hennessy



Location. Location. Location. And not only in real estate. The Louvre selfportrait
(1650) has been famous for centuries. Its sternness, its hanging
judge implacability, became Poussin’s (1594-1665) public persona in
France. How easy it is to imagine generations of academicians cowing
young apprentices into submission with this image of high seriousness and
moral rectitude. “That, young man, is what painting can and should be.”
The altogether gentler and friendlier Berlin self-portrait (1649) languished
in obscurity until after World War II, when it was shown at the Louvre in
1960 in the first ever major exhibition of Poussin’s work. It still awaits
absorption into the master’s oeuvre on the equal footing it deserves with its
more famous twin. But the brutal downsizing it underwent at some point
in its history has seriously disadvantaged it. A glance at an early engraving
shows just how much was lost—mostly from the top, but from the bottom
and sides as well. The original dimensions can be found in the inventory of
its commissioner—Jean Pointel—and they’re comparable with those of
the other painting. In fact, these two works cannot be understood in isolation
but need to be thought about as a pair.

Poussin’s own testimony has prejudiced discussion; and again, as luck
would have it, in favor of the Paris work. His half of a correspondence with
one of his greatest Parisian patrons has survived. It registers Fréart de
Chantelou’s request for a self-portrait, the artist’s initial disinclination,
then his ultimate acquiescence. But now, it has become a question of two
self-portraits, the other for fellow Parisian patron and rival for Poussin’s
work, Pointel. In strictest confidence, the artist promises Chantelou that
he’ll send him the one that turns out best and that proved to be the one that
was painted second. Poussin’s own judgment, plus arguments from “practice
making perfect” have cast a shadow over the Berlin work. We don’t
have the painter’s correspondence with Pointel, but could it have been just
as manipulative?

Poussin was nothing if not deliberate. An idealizing artist, faced with a
task he found unsuited to his temperament, what had finally tipped the
balance, and made it seem worthwhile to paint, not just one self-portrait,
but two? When finished, they were sent off from Rome together. Upon
arrival in the small world of Parisian connoisseurs where Pointel and
Chantelou knew one another, they would have caused quite a stir of conjecture.
What could they mean? What did Poussin want his countrymen
and posterity to think of him? At the least, that he couldn’t be summed up
in a single image; that he was neither courtier nor man of the world à la
Rubens; and furthermore, that his identity as artist was quite enough for him. He had rejected the flattery and enticements of the French court and
church, wriggled free of their suffocating patronage; and found in Rome, a
place where he could pick his own subjects, work at his own pace and be
immersed in the richest possible cultural medium that Europe had to offer
at the time. There is pride in this story of achieved freedom of action and
it gives him the right to judge others, hold them up to a high standard (the
Paris painting); and, alternatively, to forgive, to relent, to show a graceful
indulgence for humanity’s need to disport itself, kick up its heels in sheer
delight at being alive, at being embodied (the Berlin painting). To put it
starkly, he presents himself for our inspection as consummate painter-poet
of Comedy and Tragedy. But even at this extreme level of generality, and
despite his endorsement of one portrait over the other, it is my belief that
each one was intended, from its conception, for the patron who ended up
with it.

Chantelou had the wisdom to commission Poussin’s second set of The
Seven Sacraments
(1664-8), but then had the folly to express disappointment
in Ordination (1647) when it arrived, then go on to voice jealousy
over Pointel’s The Finding of Moses (1647). The artist brought out big
guns in response, patiently explaining, and at length, that different subjects
require different treatments, on analogy with ancient Greek and Roman
artistic practice in both music and poetry. This letter (1647) had a huge
impact over the centuries on the artist’s reputation as thinker and erudite
man of letters, and it wasn’t until the 1930’s that those interested in such matters learned that, in fact, he had cribbed his arguments from a 16th
century treatise. But second-hand had served its purpose—managing this
ungrateful patron – and it was no better than he deserved. However, the
biggest gun readied for poor Chantelou didn’t discharge until 1650 when
the self-portrait arrived in Paris. No matter how clear your conscience,
would you really want to face those eyes every time you came home? And
there’s just no avoiding them either, since they’re held in the vise-like grip of
powerful compositional forces which extend, right and left, to the edges of
the canvas – the picture frames running behind the sitter’s head, just above
and below his eyes. In Ordination, Poussin had found splendor, majesty and
grandeur in a subject made difficult by its large cast of characters. Thirteen
adult males are deployed with amazing lucidity as they participate in the
founding of what was, arguably, the most successful nongovernmental
organizations in history. It was Chantelou’s idiocy not to see this, and
Poussin’s genius to hold him and us—forevermore—up to the mark. He who
laughs last laughs best.

RICHARD HENNESSY saw his first Poussin at the age of eighteen in the Metropolitan Museum. It was The Rape of the Sabines, as good an introduction to the artist’s work as any one might imagine. Acquisition of the catalogue for the Louvre exhibition of 1960 soon followed; then a stint of graduate work at the Institute of Fine Arts. There, he studied with Charles Sterling, the curator of painting at the Louvre during the Poussin show and author of the catalogue’s biography. While art history was superceded by painting itself as a lifetime pursuit for Hennessy, Poussin’s achievements have ever remained both inspiration and radiant exemplar. You can view Hennessy’s Poussin’s Birthday (1983), Poussin’s Lake (1988) and Poussin’s Screen (2005) on

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Also by Richard Hennessy
With Carter Ratcliff - A Conversation

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