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St. Peter & St. John curing the Lame

CAT 141 Busby after Poussin St. Peter and St. John Curing the Lame BA 124.jpg

CAT 141. T. L Busby after Nicolas Poussin. St. Peter & St. John curing the Lame, from the 1655 oil painting at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. London: Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, 1809.  Reproduced in Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 6, 1810. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Busby’s outline engraving again captures the solidity and stability of Poussin’s late style. The painting of St. Peter & St. John curing the Lame, now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was painted for the treasurer of the city of Lyon in France (home of the Prodigal, the Lyonese, in Melville’s Clarel). One of the first to engrave it was Bernard Picart, one of the illustrators of the Taferelen published in Amsterdam in 1728, whose image of the grapes of Eschol (our CAT 38) appears to be adapted from the Autumn segment of Poussin’s Four Seasons, also known in France as La grappe de Canaan (Blunt, no. 84; Rosenberg, Nicolas Poussin, cat. 240). 

The Historic Gallery in 1810 quotes Poussin’s source directly from chapter 3 of Acts, as Peter and Paul approach the temple gate where “a certain man, lame from his mother’s womb, was . . . laid daily . . . to ask alms of them that entered.” When he did so ask alms of the two Apostles, “Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have I give thee: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk. And he took him by the right hand, and lifted him up; and immediately his feet and ancle bones received strength. And he leaping up, stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God.” The commentator in the Historic Gallery credits Poussin with following, “with his usual judgment,” the “precision and clearness” of the “sacred text.” This print is “a model of that correct and dignified simplicity appropriate to historical subjects; and which is indispensable in those that are borrowed from the holy scriptures” (n.p.).

This late-career New Testament scene after a painting by Poussin is fascinating to compare with the one late-career New Testament scene that Melville acquired after a drawing by Claude, Landscape—Christ Tempted (CAT 135). The softness of the light, the recession of the distant mountains, and the fluidity of the river give Claude’s image a much more mysterious feel than Poussin’s hard-edge miracle on the stone steps of the temple. That contrast exemplifies what is generally thought to be the essential difference between these two painters. But compare Claude’s drawing of Landscape—Christ Tempted with Poussin’s very late pen and ink drawing, until recently known as Two Hermits in a Landscape, in the 2008 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum (cat no. 64), and you see similarities not only in the postures of the two figures but in the suffusing spirituality of the landscape itself (see fig. 1 below):


Figure 1. Nicolas Poussin. Two Hermits in a Landscape (The Temptation of Christ?), pen and brown ink over black chalk, 1660. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Rosenberg noted in 2008 that the above sheet, “which corresponds to no known work of the artist, can easily be placed at about 1660,” because it so clearly reveals the "trembling hand" that afflicted Poussin in the last years of his life. In 1994 Rosenberg had suggested Two Hermits (?) in a Landscape as its title, but now “it seems more likely to reflect on a passage from Luke (4.4-9) in which Christ in the wilderness is tempted by the Devil.” Without referring in any way to Claude’s late-in-life drawing of that very scene (our CAT 135), he describes the sketch by Poussin in words that speak equally well to its Claudean counterpart: “The drawing’s charm and emotional tenor arise from the perfect integration of the dialogue between Christ and the devil in the heart of a wild but superbly composed nature” (Rosenberg and Christiansen, p. 288).