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: A Poussin Tapestry


Jane Altic

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
When, in 1624, Nicolas Poussin arrived in Rome, he was known only to the small circle of “amateurs” around the poet, Marino. Two years later, he had become the favored artist of the powerful Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of the reigning Pope, Urban VIII, and one of the important art patrons in Rome. From that time until he returned to France in 1640, Poussin depended almost entirely on the patronage of the Cardinal and his friends. When the Cardinal established his own tapestry manufactory in 1627,1 it was only natural that he should commission Poussin to execute the designs for a group of tapestries. The result was The Apollo Series, a suite of five tapestries depicting scenes from the Apollonian myths, woven from Poussin’s cartoons circa 1636-1644.2 Apollo and Attendants Flaying Marsyas (figure 13), from this suite, has recently been acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.3Like the other tapestries in the series, the Institute’s work consists of a central panel executed in a style characteristic of Poussin’s poetic paintings of the late 1630s, based on Ovid and antique myths. This central panel is surrounded, however, by an architectonic border that contrasts strikingly in its symmetries and formal balance with the freer treatment of the central scene. The border is uniform for the set of five tapestries, serving to bind together as an identifiable group the various subjects which comprise the series.4 The marked contrast between the central panel and the ornamental border in each case is explained by the fact that for Poussin the border served as a rather rigid frame, an accepted convention for tapestry design of the period. In effect, the border takes the place of an elaborate, ornate sculptural picture molding, setting off, and hence establishing, the illusion of pictorial depth. This can be discerned not only in such sculpture-like forms as the caryatids at either side, and the cartouche, with the Barberini family symbol of three bees, at the bottom, but also in the narrow facsimile of a molding immediately surrounding the central panel. Like a picture frame, the border encloses the central scene, both animating and giving plausibility to the action. In the Apollo and Marsyas tapestry, the artificial frieze-like forms of the caryatids offer and demand contrast with the more fluid, natural forms of the trees.Again, like the other designs in the series, the Apollo and Marsyas tapestry depicts a scene from the Apollonian myths which presumably had further allegorical significance to Poussin’s contemporaries. The practice of choosing subjects which carried complicated allegorical allusions was common in the period. Félibien writes that the artist “…must, like the historians, represent great events, or like the poets, subjects that will please; and mounting still higher, be skilled to conceal under the veil of fable the virtues of great men, and the most exalted mysteries.”5 André Félibien’s remarks are based on the seventeenth-century French esthetic theory, which in turn was based on a Renaissance and antique humanism, whereby art was to represent heroic actions. According to this concept, the epic was assumed to have another meaning “under the veil of fable.”The scene shown here is the culmination of a contest between Apollo and the satyr Marsyas. Marsyas had found a flute discarded and cursed by Athene when she discovered how ridiculous she looked playing the instrument. On finding the flute, Marsyas tried to play it. The flute, still under the influence of Athene’s music, played by itself. The peasants of the countryside were delighted by the satyr’s music and declared that even Apollo could not produce more charming music on his lyre. Marsyas’ failure to contradict them had as its result the scene depicted in the tapestry. The story is related by Robert Graves:“This, of course, provoked the anger of Apollo, who invited him to a contest, the winner of which should inflict whatever punishment he pleased on the loser. Marsyas consented, and Apollo impanelled the Muses and a jury. The contest proved an equal one, the Muses being charmed by both instruments, until Apollo cried out to Marsyas: ‘I challenge you to do with your instrument as much as I can do with mine. Turn it upside down and both play and sing at the same time.’ This, with a flute, was manifestly impossible, and Marsyas failed to meet the challenge. But Apollo reversed his lyre, and sang such delightful hymns in honour of the Olympian Gods that the Muses could not do less than give the verdict in his favor. Then, for all his pretended sweetness, Apollo took a most cruel revenge on Marsyas: flaying him alive and nailing his skin to a pine (or, some say, to a plane tree), near the source of the river which now bears his name.”6Poussin evidently wished to communicate something more to his contemporary audience than this simple tale of the Gods. Such paintings usually were intended and understood to have an allegorical significance. Here, further meanings may be reasonably adduced from what we know of the conventional employment of such figures in the Baroque period, and from our knowledge of Poussin’s allegorical aims in other works.7 This, the figure of Apollo may be said to represent both reason and true art. Marsyas, on the other hand, stands for excessive vanity, a quality suggested in the myth by his willingness to accept the undeserved praise of the peasants. The scene, then, may be broadly interpreted as the triumph of true art over false art. There are, however, two divergent principles involved. While Apollo’s triumph over Marsyas is necessary in order to maintain lawful authority and harmony, Marsyas, a victim of Athene’s curse and his own conceit, can be viewed as a tragic symbol and a figure of pathos.As in his paintings, Poussin tells his story by depicting its most dramatic episode, communicating, through the attitudes of the actors, a moment of psychological crisis. By means of facial expressions, gestures and movements, he conveys the particular state of mind of each participant. Apollo stands imperiously, ready to give the order for the flaying; in contrast, Marsyas struggles, awaiting the knife in terror. The slave, eager to begin, leans forward looking expectantly at Apollo and pointing to Marsyas. The right hand of the slave becomes an extension of Apollo’s gesture. Our eyes are led to a deliberate, and dramatic juxtaposition of the slave’s hand with the knife and the helpless hand of Marsyas. This contrast between an active cruelty and bound helplessness, the core of both the drama and the figural composition, sums up the divergent moral points made by the myth, and also unites the two halves of the triangular composition. Poussin is bale, then, to combine within a unified composition both moral lessons: the rightful authority of Apollo representing reason, and the pathos of Marsyas, his victim. The synthesis, at high tension, of two somewhat conflicting, but equally valid, precepts, makes this tapestry an exciting study in dramatic interpretation.The Apollo Series remained in the Barberini family until 1889, when Charles Mather Ffoulke, an American, purchased the entire Barberini collection of tapestries and brought them to the United States. Until this time, The Apollo Series had most probably remained in storage, which accounts for the remarkably fresh color and excellent condition of the Apollo and Marsyas tapestry. The series has since been broken up and four are in American museums, with the remaining tapestry now on the New York art market.Endnotes
  1. Urbano Barberini, “Presada Cortona and the Barberini Tapestry Plant,” Bollettino D’Arte, Anno XXX, serie IV, No. 1 and No. II, 1950. Professor Urbano Barberini assigns the date of 1627 to the founding of the Barberini manufactory by Cardinal Francesco Barberini.
  2. All the standard works on Italian tapestry state that Poussin furnished cartoons for some of the tapestries manufactured in the Barberini palace. The Apollo Series is the only suite of tapestries in the collection that could possibly have been executed from his cartoons. See The Ffoulke Collection of Tapestries, MCMXIII, arranged by Charles M. Ffoulke, p. 311. Date of weaving assigned by H. Göbel, Wandteppiche, II Teil, Die Romanischen Lander, Band I, Leipzig, 1928.
  3. Dimensions: 13 ft. 7 in. x 15 ft. 6 in., Miscellaneous Purchase Fund, 1959. The Apollo Series is also discussed in an article by M. L. D’Otrange-Mastai, “Nicolas Poussin and the Barberini Tapestries,” Apollo, January-June, 1956, p. 171-176.
  4. The other subjects comprising the series are: “Latona with her Children, Apollo and Artemis;” “Daphne Fleeing from Apollo;” “Apollo Guarding the Herd of Loamedon;” and “Apollo and the Nine Muses.”
  5. André Félibien in the preface to his Conféerences de L’Académie Royal de Peintre et de Sculpture, Paris, 1669, as quoted by Rensselaer W. Lee, “Ut Pictura Poesis: The Humanistic Theory of Painting,” The Art Bulletin, 1940, p. 213.
  6. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, vol. I, 21-f through 21-g.
  7. See Poussin Studies by Anthony Blunt, The Burlington Magazine, August and October, 1947, 89:218-26, 266-271; January, 1948, 90:4-9; February and March, 1950, 92:38-41, 69-73.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Nicolas Poussin:
    Apollo and Attendants Flaying Marsyas,
    Tapestry, ca. 1636-1644,
    13’7” x 15’6”,
    Miscellaneous Purchase Fund, 1959
  2. Apollo and Attendants Flaying Marsyas, (detail)
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Source: Jane Altic, "A Poussin Tapestry," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 49, no. 1 (January-June, 1960): 18-22.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009