Poussin’s Landscapes with Travelers in London in the 1840s
We have already seen Hazlitt’s tribute to The Shepherds of Arcadia in the essay on “A Landscape by Nicolas Poussin” in the 1845 American edition of Table-Talk that Herman inherited from Gansvoort (declaring that the inscription on the tomb that the shepherds encounter on a fine springtime morning “in the vale of Tempe” will “forever speak . . . of ages past and ages to come”). Hazlitt made a similar tribute to Poussin’s Landscape with Travellers Resting in the essay on “The Dulwich Gallery” in the copy of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art that Melville acquired in 1870 (Sealts no. 263a). Hazlitt comments with his characteristic gusto on five separate paintings by Poussin he saw in the Fourth Room of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The first is a copy of The Education of Bacchus from “the fine original at the National Gallery” (a different version of the same subject than the one Melville acquired in Storer’s engraving from Poussin’s painting at the Louvre, CAT 137). The copy of The Education of Bacchus at Dulwich makes Hazlitt “thirsty to look at. . . . The infant Bacchus seems as if he would drink up a vintage—he drinks with his mouth, his hands, his belly, and his whole body.” Hazlitt is equally taken, in a different way, by Poussin’s The Flight into Egypt. This painting “instantly takes the tone of scripture history. This is strange, but so it is. All things are possible to a high imagination” (33-34).
The mythological subject of The Education of Bacchus and the scriptural subject of The Flight into Egypt were familiar topics for students of Poussin when Hazlitt was writing in the early 1820s, but images of generic travelers along unidentified roads had not yet become a recognizable category among his oeuvre. Hazlitt had no name for the painting at the Dulwich Gallery that is now widely known as Landscape with Travellers Resting or A Roman Road. But he offers this painting as “proof” of his idea that “all things about which we have a feeling, may be expressed by true genius.” He introduces it as “a dark landscape . . . in a corner of the room. . . . There are trees in the fore-ground, with a paved road and buildings in the distance. . . . The large leaves are wet with dew, and the eye dwells ‘under the shade of Melancholy boughs.’” Hazlitt feels that “the Genius of antiquity might wander here, and feel itself at home” (34). In the catalogue of the Dulwich collection in Melville’s copy of Hazlitt’s Criticisms of Art, this painting is one of eleven paintings by Poussin in the Fourth Room. While all the mythological and biblical subjects have specific titles, this one is listed as simply “Landscape” (no. 279, Appendix 3).
In 2008 the curators of the Poussin and Nature exhibition in New York could make a category of Poussin’s “Travelers through Landscapes” because they could supplement the two paintings Melville had seen at the National Gallery and the Dulwich Gallery in 1849 with four additional paintings. Doing so, however, had only been possible since the late twentieth century, after those four paintings had finally been acquired by public museums after spending nearly all of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century in private collections in England. Only now in the twenty-first century, Rosenberg and Christiansen suggest, with the added evidence provided by these newly discovered canvases, can we begin to come to a full understanding of Poussin’s supreme achievement as a painter of “the road and travelers” in those two landscapes that have been in continuous view at the National Gallery and the Dulwich Gallery since early in the nineteenth century. For now, what they can say is that both of “these majestic, inhabited landscapes unfold in numerous planes, each of them holding our gaze, from the travelers in the foreground, at the very edge of the canvas, to the distant view, with a wealth of detail, none of it gratuitous” (p. 217).
By the time Melville arrived in London in 1849, the two landscapes of generic travelers he saw at the National and Dulwich galleries had already received considerable critical attention. Hazlitt was not the only prominent commentator who had recognized the “genius of antiquity” in these paintings. One surprising burst of praise had come from John Ruskin in the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843. Ruskin in that volume consistently ridiculed Claude Lorrain and other seventeenth century painters of Italianate landscapes in order to elevate those of Turner, but he called the Landscape with a Man Washing his Feet at a Fountain “one of the finest landscapes that ancient art has produced—the work of a really great and intellectual mind, the quiet Nicholas Poussin, in our own National Gallery, with the traveler washing his feet.” Of course Ruskin had then severely chastised Poussin for his inconsistent and untrue depiction of light in both the National Gallery and Dulwich landscapes. Melville had potential access to the First American Edition of Modern Painters as early 1847 in the New York library of his friend Evert Duyckinck (Wallace, Melville and Turner, pp. 73-74, 126-27) but he would have had personal access to Ruskin’s praise for this painting by Poussin in the five-volume American edition of Modern Painters he acquired in 1865 (Sealts no. 431; 1:142).
Turner had himself been influenced by the Dulwich painting as a young man. Poussin’s painting was then in the collection of Noel Desenfans, whose private collection was to become the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1811. Turner had seen the painting in 1802, shortly before the Peace of Amiens had made it possible for him, like William Hazlitt and young Allan Melvill, to travel to France and see the paintings in the Louvre for the first time (Turner was born in 1775, three years before Hazlitt). In addition to visiting Paris, Turner traveled to the region of Bonneville in the Alps and made sketches that informed oil painting Chateaux de St. Michael he exhibited at London’s Royal Academy the next year (Butlin and Joll no. 50, pl. 59; fig. 3 below).