Poussin’s Landscapes with Travelers in New York in 2008
In their catalog for the exhibition Poussin and Nature at the New York Metropolitan Museum in 2008, Pierre Rosenberg and Keith Christiansen placed Poussin’s landscapes featuring a road with nameless travelers passing through an atemporal nature at the heart of the painter’s pictorial achievement. They illustrated the evolution of that theme by bringing together six paintings in two groups of three. Poussin’s early treatment of the theme was seen in Landscape with a Man Pursued by a Snake, Landscape with a Man Scooping Water from a Stream, and Landscape with Travellers Resting. All three paintings, all from the late 1630s, show a few generic figures engaged in anecdotal action along a path in the foreground that opens onto into a sparsely inhabited landscape stretching all the way back to a mountain range in the far distance (cat. 27, 28, and 29). Seeing those three paintings together deepens one’s sense of the spatial complexity and interpretive sophistication Poussin was to be achieving by the end of the next decade, when he was placing similarly generic traveling figures in landscapes that offer much more for the viewer to see, assimilate, and think about.
At the 2008 New York exhibition, the Landscape with a Man Washing His Feet at a Fountain from London’s National Gallery and Landscape with Travellers Resting from the Dulwich Picture Gallery were joined by a third landscape from 1648, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (cat. 38, 39 and 44). All three paintings show more spatial complexity than their predecessors, with more intersecting planes from the foreground all the way through into the background, as well as more incident from one side to the other across the canvas, while also allowing a continuous sightline all the way up and out through the middle of the perceived landscape. This latter effect is particularly strong in the two paintings Melville would have seen in London in 1849, each of which is bisected by a continuous road so prominent as to have inspired the 2008 curators to provide a subtitle for each, the A Dirt Road for the National Gallery painting contrasting with A Roman Road for the Dulwich canvas. This contrast between the two roadways is clearer when we see the National Gallery painting in full color (fig. 2), as Melville would have seen each of them in 1849.