Skip to main content

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.

CAT 143 fig 2 poussin man washing feet at fountain london national gallery.jpg

Figure 2.  Nicholas Poussin. Landscape with a Man Washing his Feet at a Fountain, oil on canvas, 1648. National Gallery London.

The National Galley and Dulwich landscapes that Melville saw in 1849 have been seen as pendants ever since Étienne Baudet engraved them as a pair in 1684. Certain similarities in their pictorial ingredients (generic human figures traveling or resting near ancient stony remains and hearty shade trees along a road that bisects the canvas in the foreground before extending deep into an inhabited landscape toward distant mountains) have inspired considerable speculation as to what Poussin may have intended by certain conspicuous differences between them. Some commentators have treated differences between the paintings in a generic way, suggesting that the dirt road whose traveler is washing his feet at the fountain in the National Gallery painting represents a relatively early state of human history in relation the natural landscape, whereas the paved road and dense concentration of sophisticated architecture in the Dulwich picture represent a much more advanced stage of human progress. Over time, various commentators began to associate the earlier stage of civilization suggested by the landscape at the National Gallery with Ancient Greece and its more sophisticated successor at the Dulwich Gallery with Ancient Rome. As indicated on the Dulwich Gallery website, “the structure to the right” in its painting “is clearly based on a medieval ecclesiastical building,” whereas “the figures’ costumes and the column at the end of the road suggest that the scene is set in classical antiquity,” indicating that the painting as a whole “is most likely an idealized representation of a landscape from Roman antiquity,” this being in contrast to the painting at the National Gallery “known as the ‘Greek Road’” (“Landscape with Travellers Resting, known as A Roman Road”).

In 1996, Elizabeth Cropper and Charles Dempsey proposed more a specific association for the painting that Herman Melville had seen at the National Gallery in 1849, had acquired in the 1786 engraving by Pether, and had framed for his own pleasure at a frame shop only a few blocks away from his home on East 26th Street sometime before his death in 1891. Cropper and Dempsey offered The Greek Road (The Vale of Tempe) as a more appropriate name for Landscape with a Man Washing his Feet at a Fountain. They argued that Poussin “surely meant” this landscape “as the vale of Tempe in Thessaly” because of how closely it follows a literary source to which Poussin had proven access: “Aelian’s celebrated description in the Varia historia.” Aelian gave detailed attention to “the perfect amenities of the natural road meandering through Tempe, which was lined by cool shade trees for the traveler’s rest and abundant fountains for drinking and washing, and which was a holy place with multiple shrines affixed to trees for the worshipping of the local gods.” Cropper and Dempsey found Poussin’s contrasting views of the Greek and Roman Roads to be “especially remarkable” for being “the very earliest examples of an attempt to distinguish and contrast the appearance of Greek and Roman civilizations” (285-89).

Whether or not Melville might himself have connected Poussin’s luxuriant vista with the Vale of Tempe in Thessaly, he does allude to that exact site soon after the arrival of the Thessalonian banker in Clarel. Glaucon, the banker’s carefree servant and future son-in-law, casually mentions that “birding’s best in Tempe’s Vale: / From Thessalonica, you know / ‘Tis thither that we fowlers stray’” (2.5.46-48). The irony that someone would love to kill birds in the valley of Tempe that was dear to Greek poets, “in which Apollo had purified himself after killing the Python,” had first struck Melville during his own visit to Salonica in 1856. On December 7 he recorded in his journal that an Englishman there “Said he had been a day’s shooting in the Vale of Tempe—Ye Gods! Whortleberrying on Olympus, &c” (NN J 55 and C 764). The Thessalonian banker in Clarel has a view of Olympus from his own home, but knows no more of “Jove and gods / In synod mid those brave abodes” than he does of “Paul’s plea / Addressed from Athens o’er the sea / Unto the Thessalonians old.” Taken together, the corpulent banker from Thessalonia and his carefree servant from Smyrna who knows nothing of Homer having dignified his isle, prompts Rolfe to observe that Greeks today may “wear the kilt /Bravely; they skim their lucid seas; / But, prithee, where is Pericles? Plato is where? Simonedes?” Neither “Eden nor Athens shall come back:-- / And what’s become of Arcady” (NN C 2.1.109-116 and 2.8.29-37).

Melville had alluded to the Vale of Tempe even more darkly in “On the Slain Collegians” in Battle-Pieces in 1866. This poem is about those “generous boys in happiness thus bred-- / Saturnians through life’s Tempe led.” From both sides, these boys “Went from the North and came from the South, / With golden mottoes in the mouth, / To lie down midway on a bloody bed.” The “golden mottoes” in their mouths can be understood as evocations of a Golden Age of glory, of an Et in Arcadia Ego without the tomb. On both sides these young men are “Apollo-like in pride, / Each would slay his Python—caught / The maxims in his temple taught” (NN PP 118-19). Melville’s triple pun on temple—as the cognitive site in which the golden mottoes are caught, as the glorious part of the human head through whose skin and bone the undeceiving bullet bursts, and as the spiritual site of those societies who authorize the organized murder of their young—sets up an irony of situation as grave for the collegians in this poem as for the shepherds in the painted Arcadia. 

Each went forth with blessings given
By priests and mothers in the name of Heaven
.           .           .           .           .           .           .
They knew the joy, but leaped the grief,
Like plants that flower ere comes the leaf—
Which storms lay low in kindly doom,
And kill them in the flush of bloom. (PP 119)

Melville here pioneers the spiritual terrain of a slightly later American poem, Emily Dickinson’s “Apparently with no surprise” (c. 1884, first published in 1890, no. 1624 in Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas Johnson).

The Thessalonian in Clarel is the banker for whom Melville’s narrator imagines “Holbein’s Dance of Death / Sly slipped among his prints from Claude” (2.12.30-31). The image applies very well to the sly way Poussin had brought death to the shepherds of Arcadia—or Melville to the collegians of America. When Hazlitt celebrates the power with which Poussin registers the sudden encounter of the Arcadian shepherds with death as they are “going out on a fine morning in the spring,” he specifically identifies them as “the shepherds in the Vale of Tempe” in the essay “On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin” in the copy of 1845 edition Table-Talk that Melville inherited after the sudden death of his brother Gansevoort in London in 1846 (as we saw in our previous entry).

1846 was the same year in which the Walker engraving after The Shepherds of Arcadia that Melville acquired, and then framed (CAT 142), was published in London in S. C. Hall’s Gems of European Art. By the time Rolfe asks “What’s become of Arcady” in Clarel in 1876, Melville might have been making his own Thessalonian connections between his engravings after Poussin’s The Shepherds of Arcadia and Landscape with a Man Washing his Feet at a Fountain, whether or not he had as yet framed either or both. Humphrey Wine in 2001 indicated that the inscription in Pether’s mezzotint of Poussin’s Man Washing his Feet at a Fountain (not visible beneath the frame in Melville’s copy) begins with the words “A Grecian Votary” (282n3),

Herman’s brother Gansevoort was only thirty years old when he died in London on May 12, 1846. Herman, for some reason, seems to have been interested in keeping track of the age of the 1845 edition of Hazlitt’s Table-Talk that Gansevoort had acquired in New York the year before he died. An annotation, partly erased, on the title page lists the following numbers in a vertical column: 1845, 1863, 28, 1877, and 32. The number 32 would seem to indicate that Melville, in 1877, the year after he finished Clarel, was calculating that this 1845 book of essays by Hazlitt was now 32 years old (Cowen 5: 496). By then, Gansevoort’s personal copy of Hazlitt’s Table-Talk had lived longer than Gansevoort himself had, not to mention Melville’s son Malcolm, dead at age 18.