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Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) is another French artist who lived and painted most of his life in Italy. His residence in Rome coincided with that of Claude Lorrain, with whom his name is still linked as the leading landscape painters of their day. After arriving to Rome in 1624, Poussin entered the academy of Domenichino, just as Domenichino upon arriving in Rome two decades earlier had entered the workshop of Annibale Carracci. In Rome, like Claude, Poussin assimilated distinctive elements of a classical Italian landscape tradition that Annibale and Domenichino had been developing from the pictorial, literary, and biblical precedent of Raphael, Titian, and other sixteenth-century artists. By the 1630s, Poussin, like Claude, was learning to make that tradition his own.

To literary minds of Melville’s day, Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain were indelibly linked with a third artist in a poetic couplet written by James Thompson as part of his “Castle of Indolence” in 1748: “Whate’er Lorrain light-touched with softening hue, / Or savage Rosa dashed, or learned Poussin drew,” a passage that Hazlitt quoted immediately before the passage about Claude’s Morning and Evening of the Roman Empire in the essay “On the Pleasure of Painting” that Melville marked in his 1845 copy of Table-Talk (Cowen 5:488-89). Melville’s collection is rich in “learned” drawings by Poussin which complement some of the “softening” landscapes after Claude reproduced in our previous section. He is not currently known to have collected any engravings after the Italian landscapist Salvator Rosa (though he did make a tribute to that master by publishing his “Encantadas” under the pen name Salvator R. Tarnmoor).

Melville makes his one direct literary allusion to Poussin in “At the Hostelry,” the conversation about Old Master painters he left unpublished at his death. In section 7, immediately after the repartee between Watteau and Veronese that completes the discussion of the picturesque in the previous section, Brouwer’s “porpoise-snout” is accompanied by the “hilarity” of his Dutch compatriots Hals, Lippi, and Steen. Melville's Poussin, however, joins Claude and Valesquez in keeping his thoughts to himself: 

But Poussin, he, with antique air,
Complexioned like a marble old,
Unconscious kept his merit there
Art’s pure Acropolis in hold. (NN BBO 164).

Melville’s Claude and Poussin both let their Italian landscapes speak for themselves.

Melville’s eight engravings relating to Poussin are not quite as numerous as his fifteen relating to Claude, but they are impressive still. Six are now in the collection at the Berkshire Athenaeum, where they had arrived inside the folded sheet on which Melville had written “N. Poussin” in blue crayon among the “miscellaneous small prints” in the “old portfolio” donated by Eleanor Metcalf in 1952 (see our introductory essay on “Herman Melville as Print Collector”). Each of these is an outline engraving originally published for the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings between 1807 and 1810. The other two engravings, in matching frames, are likely to have been among those “silvery prints after Poussin and Claude” that Frank Mather had seen on the walls of Elizabeth Shaw Melville’s New York apartment on East 18th Street (Mather, 555-56). One is a 1786 folio print after Poussin’s Landscape with a Man washing his Feet at a Fountain, published four years after Woollett’s engraving after Claude’s Enchanted Castle and framed to match. The other is an 1846 engraving after Poussin’s The Shepherds of Arcadia.

In 2008, Poussin’s landscapes were newly evaluated in the first major exhibition ever devoted to the painter’s landscape rather than history paintings. Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions was curated for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art by Pierre Rosenberg and Keith Christiansen. In the excellent exhibition catalog, Christiansen prefaced his essay on “The Critical Fortunes of Poussin’s Landscapes” with William Hazlitt’s declaration that Poussin’s “landscapes, which he probably took from nature, are superior to his historical pieces” (Melville owned two copies of the essay on “The Fine Arts” in which Hazlitt made that declaration). In the essay itself, Christiansen argued that “it is to Hazlitt—a failed painter but gifted critic and essayist—that we owe perhaps the most eloquent assessment of the importance of Poussin’s landscape paintings: one that reversed the old hierarchies that held landscape painting to be decidedly inferior to history paintings.” Christiansen also quoted extensively from the 1821 essay “On a Landscape by Nicolas Poussin” in which Hazlitt famously declared that “this great and learned man might be said to see nature through the glass of time. . . . At his touch, words start up into images, thought becomes things. He clothes a dream, a phantom, with form and colour and the wholesome elements of reality. His art is a second nature; not a different one” (Rosenberg and Christiansen, 9, 16-17).

Hazlitt’s essay “On a Landscape by Nicolas Poussin” followed closely after “On the Pleasure of Painting” in the 1845 New York edition of Table-Talk that Melville acquired after his brother Gansevoort’s sudden death in London in 1846. Hazlitt’s evaluation of Poussin as a painter whose landscapes are superior even to his history paintings may have influenced Melville’s activities as a collector of prints in the 1870s and 1880s as much as it did the exhibition that Christiansen and Rosenberg curated for the Metropolitan Museum in 2008. In November 1849, young Melville saw several of the original paintings by Poussin he was later to add to his own print collection at the National Gallery in London and at the Louvre in Paris. Back in London in December, he returned to the National Gallery before making two visits to the private gallery of Samuel Rogers before sailing home to New York (NN J 14, 16, 22, 31, 44, 46). In the presence of Rogers, and under his guidance, Melville would have been introduced to the two sides of Poussin’s oeuvre that were later represented in his own print collection. The Adoration of the Shepherds, an oil painting from the mid-1630s (fig. 1 below), is similar in subject and style to the biblical and mythological subjects that Melville acquired in engravings from the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings (our CAT 137-141). The other Poussin in Rogers’s collection, the “Grand Classical Landscape” known as the Campagna of Rome, represented the evolution of Poussin’s mature landscape style as it was to be represented in Melville’s collection by The Shepherds of Arcadia and A Man washing his Feet at a Fountain (Jameson, p. 398, cat. 27 & 38; our CAT 142 & 143).

Rogers’s oil painting of the Campagna of Rome is currently untraced, but the Adoration of the Shepherds from his collection was acquired by London’s National Gallery in 1957 (fig. 1). Inspired by the account of the shepherds who greet the new-born Christ child in Luke 2: 8-16, Poussin was beginning to put his own stamp on the pictorial tradition he had recently been assimilating from Raphael, Titian, and Veronese through Annibale, Ludovico, Domenichino, and Guido, all of whom were represented by Biblical subjects in Rogers’s collection (see CAT 108, fig. 4 & 5; CAT 109, fig, 2; CAT 110, fig. 3 & 7; CAT 111, fig. 5 & 6; CAT 112, fig. 5; and CAT 113, fig. 3).

CAT 136 Intro poussin Adoration of the Shepherds NG London N-6277.jpg

Fig. 1. Nicolas Poussin. The Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on canvas, c. 1633-34. The National Gallery London. Originally in the Collection of Samuel Rogers.

Poussin’s coloring in the above Adoration is relatively muted apart from the blue robes of the servant with the tray of fruit and the Virgin cradling the infant Jesus on the white cloth. Poussin's detailed attention to the postures of the adoring shepherds in the foreground is matched by the minute attention he gives to those same shepherds seen in the distance between the Roman columns as the angel informs them of the miraculous birth. In 1844, Jameson offered this “exquisite painting” as evidence that “Poussin could be, when he wanted to be, a poetical and effective colorist” (p. 398). We will return to The Campagna of Rome when we reach A Man washing his Feet at a Fountain (CAT 143).

  • Works cited in this section:
  • Avery-Quash, Suzanna. “William Hazlitt’s Account of Mr. Angerstein’s Collection of Pictures’’, in Tate Papers, no.24, Autumn 2015,, accessed 20 December 2021.
  • Blunt, Anthony. The Paintings of Nicolas Poussin: A Critical Catalog. London: Phaidon, 1966.
  • Brigstocke, Hugh. A Loan Exhibition of Drawings by Nicolas Poussin from British Collections. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, December 4, 1990 – February 17, 1991. London: 1990.
  • Bryant, John. Herman Melville: A Half-Known Life. Vols. 1 and 2. Hoboken NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2021.
  • Carrier, David. Poussin’s Paintings. University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
  • Catalogue of the Very Celebrated Collection of Works of Art, The Property of Samuel Rogers, Esq., Deceased. London: Christie and Mason, Monday, April 28, 1856, and Eighteen Following Days.
  • Cropper, Elizabeth, and Charles Dempsey. Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1976.
  • Friedlaender, Walter. Nicolas Poussin: A New Approach. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1966.
  • Hall, S. C. Gems of European Art. London: G. Virtue, 1846.
  • Hazlitt, William. “Mr. Angerstein’s Collection,” in Criticism on Art: and Sketches of the Picture Galleries of England. London: Templeman, 1843, pp. 1-18 (Sealts 263a, MMO 263a). Acquired by Herman Melville May 11, 1870.
  • --------. “On a Landscape of Nicholas Poussin.” In Table-Talk: Opinions on Books, Men, and Things. Frist American Edition. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845. 2 vol. in 1, 1:66-73 (Sealts 266a).
  • Jameson, Anna. "The Collection of Mr. Rogers." In Companion to the Most Celebrated Galleries of Art in London. London: Saunders and Otley, 1844.
  • “Landscape with Travellers Resting, known as A Roman Road.” The Dulwich Picture Gallery, London,
  • Mather, Frank Jewett, Jr. “Reminiscences of a Melvillian.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, 39 (March 25, 1838): 555-56.
  • Melville, Elizabeth Shaw. “Unpublished Memoranda.” In Merton M. Sealts, Jr., Melville’s Early Years (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974), 167-77.
  • Olson, Todd P. Poussin and France: Painting, Humanism, and the Politics of Style. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Rosenberg, Pierre. Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1994.
  • Rosenburg, Pierre, and Keith Christiansen, eds. Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.
  • Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. First American from the Third London Edition. 5 vol. New York: Wiley, 1860-62 (Sealts no, 431).
  • Wine, Humphrey. The Seventeenth Century Paintings: National Gallery Catalogues. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Worley, Michael Preston. “Julien, Pierre.” Grove (1995): 17: 683.