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Parting Thought on Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain

Hugh Brigstocke in 1995 credits Poussin with having “reconciled” the “gulf between pagan and Christian art that had opened up during the Italian Renaissance” (385). Melville’s collection shows this reconciling spirit in the common ground Poussin finds between the lives of Bacchus and Moses or between the worlds of Arcadian shepherds and Christian saints. The prints Melville collected after Claude find comparable common ground between the pagan mythology of Cephalus and Procris and The Enchanted Castle and the Christian mythology of The Flight into Egypt and Landscape—Christ Tempted. These two artists’ comparable abilities to find common ground between the pagan and the Christian, between the secular and the spiritual, and between the ancient and the modern are qualities increasingly needed in our shrinking, contested world today; they are also qualities to which Melville would give his own most lasting literary expression when searching for “the intersympathy of creeds” during his poetic pilgrimage over contested land in Clarel.

In “At the Hostelry,” when Claude quietly “nods” in response to his friend Swanevelt’s characterization of the picturesque, Melville characterizes Claude in implicit comparison with Poussin. Claude is “the mildest tempered swain / And eke discreetest, too may be, / That ever came out from Lorraine / To lose himself in Arcady.”  He suggests that

To Claude no pastime, none, nor gain
Wavering in theory’s wildering maze;
Better he likes, though sunny he,
To haunt the Arcadian woods in haze,
Intent shy charms to win or ensnare,
Beauty his Daphne, he the pursuer there. (NN BBO 154)

Melville’s “haze” distinguishes Claude’s characteristic kind of beauty from the combination of clarity and “theory” commonly attributed to his sometime sketching companion Poussin. One of Melville’s markings on the back flyleaf of his copy of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art—“122 Claude”—refers to this sentence in the essay on “The Pictures in Burleigh House” he had marked on p. 122: “The name of Claude has alone something that softens and harmonizes the mind” (Sealts 263a; MMO 263a, rear free endpaper verso:

The “Arcadian woods” were, of course, Poussin’s signature locale as well. The Arcadian woods that Poussin and Claude explored pictorially in Rome in the seventeenth century was a mythological literary space that ancient Romans such as Virgil had projected back into the Golden Age they imagined having been lived by Greeks ancient to them in the region of the Peloponnesian peninsula still known as Arcadia today. This example of transplanted French artists creating some of our most lasting images of those “Arcadian woods” in which ancient Romans had imagined ancient Greeks to have been living is well represented Melville’s framed engravings after Poussin’s The Shepherds of Arcadia and Landscape with a Man washing his Feet at a Fountain as well as by his framed engravings at Claude’s Cephalus and Procris and The Enchanted Castle.  On his trip to London and the Continent in 1849, Melville’s direct experience of seeing Poussin’s The Shepherds of Arcadia at the Louvre and Landscape with a Man Washing his Feet at a Fountain at the National Gallery would have been enriched by seeing Poussin’s Landscape with Travelers Resting, also known as A Roman Road at the Dulwich Gallery. 

During his travels in Italy in 1857, Melville had his strongest experience imagining ancient Greece as imagined by ancient Romans when traveling along the path of an ancient Roman road by then known as the “Posilipo road” along the shore north of Naples. On February 23, 1857, after “repassing” the tomb of Virgil, whose Roman ruins overlooking the Bay of Naples he had already visited on Posilipo two days earlier, he followed the fabled coastline along the Bay of Pozzuoli to the Bay of Baiae before descending into the Cave of Sibyl beneath Lake Avernus. Melville summarized what he had seen along the Italian shore north of Virgil’s tomb with words that would apply equally well to Poussin’s Landscape with Travelers Resting, also known as A Roman Road, the painting he would have seen at the Dulwich Gallery in 1849. Melville summarized that shoreline drive in two sentences: “Road cut through ruins of old villas of Romans. Singular melting together of art in ruins and Nature in vigor” (NN J 102,104). In this journal entry in 1857, Melville was seeing through his own Italian eyes and saying in his own words what Hazlitt had written about Poussin’s Landscape with Travelers Resting at the Dulwich Gallery in the copy of Criticisms of Art that Melville was to acquire in 1870: “the Genius of antiquity might wander here, and feel itself at home” (34).

Melville’s tribute to Poussin in “At the Hostelry” is shorter and more compact than the one to Claude. It alludes more directly to the sculptural, rather than the Arcadian side, of Ancient Rome’s heritage from Ancient Greece:

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

This is the Poussin whose paintings of mythological and Biblical figures in Melville’s engravings from Historic Gallery have the full-bodied robustness of figures in the sculpted reliefs from Ancient Greece that Poussin studied throughout his decades of residence in Rome (CAT 137-141). This robust solidity becomes more intimate as the Arcadians ponder the incised message on the memorial stone in The Shepherds of Arcadia (CAT 142) and it becomes more widespread in Landscape with a Man washing his Feet in a Fountain, where the ruins of ancient stones have themselves become living figures in the landscape (CAT 143).

As for Poussin himself, “with antique air, / Complexioned like a marble old,” there we have Melville’s own word picture of the full-length marble statue of Nicolas Poussin that Pierre Julien finally delivered to the Louvre shortly before his death in 1804. Melville had access to Julien’s sculpture in the outline engraving George Cooke made for the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings in the 1809 (CAT 136), but we don’t know when Melville acquired it. At the Louvre in 1849, Melville’s retentive eye would have would have seen Poussin literally “complexioned like a marble old” in Julien’s masterful sculpture, a visual image he was holding in his own capacious mind, and preserving in the manuscript of a still unpublished poem, at the time of his death.

The brief examples above illustrate the degree to which both Claude and Poussin, as Melville knew, combined Greek subjects and virtues with the Romans ones, as surely as they did the pagan and the Christian. Hazlitt, at the end of the essay “On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin” in the 1845 American edition of Table-Talk that Melville inherited after the death of this brother Gansevoort in 1846, expanded out from his rhapsodic interpretations of Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun and The Shepherds of Arcadia “in the vale of Tempe” to address the ultimate worth of paintings themselves. “Pictures,” Hazlitt declares, “are a set of chosen images, a succession of pleasant thoughts passing through the mind. It is a luxury to have the walls of our rooms hung round with them; and no less to have a gallery in the mind.” For Hazlitt, as for Melville, surrounded by his massive collection of books by the day he died, “life spent among pictures, in the study and love of art, is a happy noiseless dream; or rather, it is to dream and awake at the same time” (71).