“One sees that Poussin, who was the most learned and the greatest painter, after having imitated Titian for a time finally focused on Raphael, thereby showing that he esteemed Raphael above the others. Monsignor Butti said that he had seen Poussin’s wonderful picture Germanicus.
—Diary of Cavalier Bernini’s Journey in France,
an entry dated October 10, 1665, recorded by Paul Féart de Chantelou“One can never forget compositions like the Germanicus of the Testament of Eudamidas,
once having seen them. The French School of painting must return to the ideas of Poussin.”
—Napolean Bonaparte“My reason compelled me to admire the famous painting of the Death of Germanicus,
by Poussin. The dying hero begs his friends to avenge his death and to protect his children.”
—A Roman Journal,
by Stendhal, an entry dated August 20, 1827The Institute has acquired a world-famous painting by Nicolas Poussin that must now challenge the place of Rembrandt’s Lucretia
as the supreme work by an old master in the collection. Questions of intrinsic beauty or quality aside, the Death of Germanicus1
has undoubtedly exerted the more obvious historical influence; something of the wonder and awe with which Poussin’s early masterpiece was regarded may be surmised from the first two quotations above, and estimate confirmed, at the popular level, by the repeated references to it in old guidebooks of Rome. Even Stendhal, child of a Romantic age that looked to “inspiration” and sensibility rather than intellectual control as the governing force in artistic expression, somewhat reluctantly confesses admiration for the “famous” painting. The position of Germanicus as a symbol of traditional authority, and of the classical outlook, must have been almost unassailable to pass muster before Stendhal’s irreverent, scrutinizing eye.It is generally known that Poussin’s “heroic” style, as transmitted and codified by the French Academy of Charles Le Brun and supported by the rational Cartesian tendency of the seventeenth century, became the basis of the academic Grand Manner.2
Every age, it seems, has taken its stand with Poussin, or against him, reading him in the light of its own experience and preoccupations. In his own century, and in his own country, Poussin’s formal style legislated as imperiously as the classical tragedy of Corneille and Racine dominated literary modes. During the light-hearted, hedonistic eighteenth century his reputation was in the shadow, although some of his rhetorical devices were adapted, curiously enough, by Greuze, in his attitudinizing genre figures, and Chardin’s compositional schemes owe more than a little to Poussin’s abstract geometry. Then, at the end of the century, beginning in 1785 with the celebrity of The Oath of the Horatii,
David reestablished contact with both the forms and the elevated moral sentiment of Poussin’s classicism.3
His great “history” paintings, and particularly the Germanicus
and the Death of Eudamidas,4
became the basis for David’s more frigid and doctrinaire Neo-Classicism. The heroic attitudes and noble composure of Poussin’s stoical, dying heroes of antiquity were freely adapted, in the service of Republican ideals of patriotism, duty and devotion to the state.During the Romantic period Poussin was all but ignored. As one notable example, Delacroix gravitated instead to Rubens’ colorism and high baroque composition, since a classical reticence and calm could scarcely suit his agitated and protestant moods, or his restless quest for the most striking pictorial effects. The violence of the Romantic reaction was in itself perhaps a tribute to Poussin's importance. Then, once again, at the end of the century, his art gave sanction to a reform movement: a new recall to classical principles of order and design, crystallized by Cézanne, in opposition to the casual and informal techniques of the Impressionists. It was Cézanne who later wrote that he wished to “do Poussin over again after nature.” Poussin’s dramatic imagery and humanistic content were lost on Cézanne and succeeding modern artists of more radical abstract inclination. But his analytical spirit and rational spatial constructions did provide a norm which persists to the present day. One may assume that it will continue to do so, for the classical ideal, whatever its contemporary application, will always represent one of the great, generic expressive tendencies available to the artists of any age. To comprehend the significance of the Germanicus,
in its own time and in Poussin’s oeuvre, we must examine the artist’s early career, and then go to the painting itself. Nicolas Poussin was born in 1593 or 1594 of peasant stock in a small village near Les Andelys in Normandy.5
His early studies were with Quentin Varin, a minor Mannerist, and then, after coming to Paris in 1612, with the Flemish portrait painter Ferdinand Elle and perhaps with Lallement. From this period until 1624 he worked in Paris, studied engravings after Raphael and Giulio Romano, made his first acquaintance with Roman statuary and reliefs, and, like so many other young artists of his day, learned to revere antique ideals of figuration. He probably was aware of Raphael and Titian directly through the royal collection of paintings which was accessible to him.He also met and worked briefly with Philippe de Champaigne, who was later to fashion his own austere and finely-chiseled classicism of an unadorned simplicity and monumental calm. Perhaps it is worth noting that Champaigne’s classical rigors were preceded by a more naturalistic phase, under the ubiquitous international influence of Flemish realism and the Caravaggio. His Adoration of the Shepherds,6
c. 1630, which Poussin could not have seen, shows a rather more gracefully ordered and idealized version of the dramatic lighting, realistic characterization and many of the expressive mannerisms of gesture and bodily contortion found in Caravaggio’s Roman period. It seems at least possible that Poussin retained memories of the Franco-Flemish Caravaggesque, which were revived again in Rome. Although most of the facial types in the Germanicus
can be related to Venetian or Roman painting, there is one profile, the fourth from the left, framed by two helmeted heads, which strikingly suggests the quiet, contemplative mood of Champaigne’s realistic peasant faces. Despite the negligible reputation of the tenebrosi in Rome by 1620, we know that at least one painting of Poussin’s early Roman period, The Massacre of the Innocents,7
does show reminiscences of Caravaggio’s dramatic, dark manner.The so-called second School of Fontainbleau was also apparently an influence on Poussin in his later Paris and earliest Roman years, and one name particularly from this School, that of Martin Fréminet, seems to have some bearing on the artist’s early evolution. There is a certain mincing artificiality of movement and gait in Poussin’s first figures, and a mannered complexity of pose which cunningly exploits such devices as parallelism and antithesis in the disposition of limbs, with the result that the figures themselves take on an abstract and emblematic character; figure groups are read in tandem, or portmanteau, rather than as separate and distinguished entities existing in space. Something of that composite quality of his human forms, set in a shallow, relief space, survives in the cluster of soldiers at the foot of Germanicus’ bed. This typical Mannerist device of flattening and merging for the sake of surface pattern is apparent in a Mars and Venus8
by Fréminet now on the European art market. Even more striking is the similarity of facial type of Fréminet’s Mars with the typical, bearded figures of Poussin’s early Roman paintings, which otherwise find their prototypes in Veronese or perhaps Titian. The most conclusive existing evidence of Mannerist influence are the drawings Poussin executed in Paris as illustrations for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, on commission of the Italian poet Marino, who was Marie de’ Medici’s laureate.It was Marino who discovered Poussin’s genius, fed his growing admiration for classical antiquity and encouraged him to go to Rome, whose reputation as the great international center of art had been restored by the Bolognese eclectics, the Caracci brothers, Agostino, Ludovico and Annibale, and their followers, Guido Reni, Domenichino, Guercino and others.9
Poussin’s biographer and friend, Bellori,10
tells us that the artist made two abortive attempts to reach Rome, and finally succeeded on the third, in 1624. His friend and first significant patron, Marino, left for Naples shortly after the young Frenchman arrived, and died there the following year. Before leaving, Marino introduced Poussin to a Marcello Sacchetti, who, in turn, brought the young French artist to the attention of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, one of the greatest potential patrons of art in Rome and a nephew of the recently elected Pope Urban VIII. Unfortunately, the Cardinal left almost immediately on a mission to France and Spain, and Poussin’s first months were impoverished and unhappy.Upon the return of the Cardinal, however, Poussin received a number of important commissions, the first of which, apparently begun in 1626, was the Germanicus;
Bellori describes it as a “tragic subject,” represented with “great force of expression, and the finest colors.” Felibien, a later biographer, following Bellori’s account, cites Germanicus
as Poussin’s first important commission, and characterizes it as “the beautiful Germanicus,
where the noble and knowing (savantes) expressions touch one so deeply.”11
We have good reason, then, to believe that Germanicus
launched Poussin’s extraordinary reputation as a painter of “histories,” a painter who could give convincing visual form to a gesture—a language of expressive eloquence. In the French Academy, later in the century, Poussin’s rhetorical devices were reduced to stylized posturing, and a mechanical doctrine of illustrating the “passions” from a strictly circumscribed repertory of gestures, bodily movements and facial expressions.Bellori tells us that around the time of the Germanicus,
Poussin was making studies after antique statuary and reliefs, that he greatly admired and perhaps studied with Domenichino—whose classicism was opposed to the more vehement early baroque of Guido—and that he had already begun to emulate Raphael. For a time he shared living quarters with the Flemish sculptor, Dusquesnoy, who, even at the height of Bernini’s reputation, was regarded as a distinguished exponent in sculpture of that clear, contained baroque-classicism12
also exemplified in Poussin’s mature paintings. Rounding out our picture of Poussin’s formative influences, Bellori observes: “One cannot deny that in his beginnings he had not well observed the colors of Titian.” Until recently, it had been taken for granted that Titian’s influence referred to the period of the early thirties when Poussin, forsaking public commissions and the dramatic genre of “history” painting, worked in an elegiac, poetic mood, elaborating themes taken from classical mythology and Tasso, saturated with the spirit of Venetian pastoral painting. His biographers tell us how impressed he was with Titian’s bacchanals which could not be seen in Rome at the Villa Ludovisi, and we can find figures and motifs in his paintings of 1630-37 which are freely, but unmistakably, derived from them. Now, however, convincing documentary evidence has been produced to show that Poussin spent a number of months in Venice before coming to Rome in 1624,13
which makes altogether more comprehensible the rich and mellow coloration, and the strong and deep Venetian flavor of the Death of Germanicus,
as well as other early Roman paintings preceding his famous Ovidian love stories of the thirties.Out of the various stylistic influences and emotional atmosphere which Poussin was assimilating at this time—a Venetian opulence, Mannerist intellectuality, the stoical morality of antiquity, and Roman design—emerged the Death of Germanicus.
It is an entirely fresh and individual creation which at once marks a definite turning in the artist’s style and anticipates, precociously, and even more severe classicism which was not to appear again so forcibly for more than ten years. Sir Anthony Blunt has described this critical work in the following manner: “The height of Poussin’s achievement in the years before 1630 is shown in the Death of Germanicus,
a painting in which there appears for the first time something of that heroic grandeur which was to be the great quality of his mature work.”14
The choice of theme was, of course, significant, and must be noted if we are to understand Poussin’s main reputation in his own time as a learned storyteller.15
The story is taken from Tacitus,16
and describes the death in Syria of the Roman consul, Germanicus, son of Nero Drussus and rival of Emperor Tiberius. There is the suggestion that he has been poisoned by the agents of Piso, at the order of the indecisive Tiberius who feared his popularity. Germanicus is described as a noble Roman “greatly grieved” in death, and is compared to Alexander: “Both his looks and his words had inspired respect. Yet his dignity and grandeur, befitting his lofty rank, had been unaccompanied by any arrogance or jealousy….Though not so rash as Alexander, he was no less of a warrior….Both were handsome, both died soon after thirty, both succumbed to treachery of compatriots in a foreign land…. If he had been in sole control, with royal power and title, he would have equaled Alexander in military renown as easily as he outdid him in clemency, self-control, and every other good quality.” Dying, like Shakespeare’s “Cleopatra, in the high Roman fashion,” Germanicus is mourned by his wife Agrippina, his three children and their nurse, and he is surrounded by his soldiers to whom he gives last instructions. He exhorts them in this way: “If it was I that you loved, and not my rank, you must avenge me!” Tacitus continues: “His friends touched the dying man’s right hand, and swore to perish rather than leave him unavenged.” One must note that in the pictorial version of the story, Germanicus emerges both as a model of Roman vertu,
and also pietas; his brimming eyes, soulful regard and dreaming, languorous pose summon up the tender elegiac sentiment of some of Poussin’s sad love stories of the early thirties. It is the attendant figures who give the drama a sterner dimension, and even they are more touched than intent to vindicate their leader’s honor.The appeal to the seventeenth century of this story were its themes of sullied honor, of revenge, and the noble idealism of its main protagonist—a heroic figure of antiquity larger than life owing to his blameless moral character. Even in death, the noble Germanicus triumphs over his enemies’ wicked lust for power, for Piso’s ultimate ruin is prophesied by the motif of swearing revenge. Like the plays of Corneille and Racine, Germanicus may be said to represent the victory of will over the passions,17
whether of love or hate. In a century consecrated anew to principles of reason and order, after the disrupting tensions of the counter-reformation, the emotions were considered bound by mechanical laws susceptible to intellectual control and analysis. While the tumultuous and jubilant rhetoric of the high baroque in Italy and northern Europe later restored emotion to a pre-eminent place, Poussin remained characteristically French in his adherence to classical ideals. Even his subsequent pastoral idylls and mythological themes are given a far different inflection than the robust paganism of Venice; they usually conceal a moral lesson, and achieve, progressively, a more impersonal classical decorum, as in the early and middle period versions of shepherds in Arcadia.The Death of Germanicus
is in many ways a puzzling composition, though of radiant beauty and, ultimately, most exciting and fresh in invention. One looks in vain to the classicizing Roman art of the day, to engravings after either the antique or Raphael, or, indeed, to Raphael himself for the sources of the general compositional scheme. Dr. Friedlaender has suggested the Meleager sarcophagus (figure 4)18
as its basis, and certainly the flat handling of the figures in a shallow space suggests Roman relief. But few of the figure attitudes can be closely related, and the Endymion figure in the great Detroit Institute of Arts’ painting, for example, makes significant and vital contact with the classical past.19
On the other hand there are many intriguing and more “contemporary” connections, pointing to Poussin’s eclecticism (a word not in such bad odor in his own day as it is ours) during this period when he fashioned his mature style: the Michelangelesque pose of the grieving mother, and perhaps even of Germanicus, which seems a softened and more poignant reminiscence of the monumental Adam on the Sistine ceiling; the delight in material textures (of armor, draperies, bed clothes) and the rich, warm tonalities which, of course, suggest Venice. Even more forcibly, do the two figures at the far left refer to Venetian painting: the superb back of the soldier holding a standard, like nothing so much as one of Veronese’s repoussoir half-length male nudes, and the rather Giorgionesque head immediately to his right. Despite their grief, these two figures are very much like the lazzarone,
or idlers, one finds lingering outside the action in so many great high Renaissance Venetian compositions, figures, of course, which Caravaggio adapted to his own purposes in so many paintings of his Roman period.It would be rash to pursue the Caravaggesque elements when almost everything in Poussin’s subsequent oeuvres, in his own statements and in his biographers’ writings would seem to controvert them. However, one cannot overlook the low horizontal position of the figures set against a rather bare and cavernous, though strangely thin, architectural setting, and the magical radiance of the lighting, which seems miraculously to find and illuminate the dying hero, and at the same time is somehow antithetical to the action, coming tardily from behind and leaving much of the important stage business obscured in shadow. Could Poussin possibly have been responding to the powerful dramatic imagery in the Contarelli Chapel? A similar expressive ambiguity of lighting can be seen in Jan Janssens’ Annunciation (figure 3);
here also the tight, almost oppressive diagrammatic interlocking of gestures takes on an abstract significance, as in the Germanicus,
where gesticulating hands, diagonal lances and sword point become the nerve-centers of the composition. One senses that Poussin may also have planned originally to introduce a Venetian veduta20
under the arches at the right.Veronese’s, Disciples at Emmaus (figure 2),
shows a somewhat similar, low, asymmetric arrangement of figures against an architectural setting with a deep view into landscape at the left. Opposing diagonal staffs frame an important figure, the very nub of the story, and there is a rhythmic linking of gestures, quite literally to point up the action. Of course, there is no anticipation in Veronese of Poussin’s processional flow of movement, as if different figures were successive, cinematic “frames” of the same figure in motion—a motion suddenly arrested by the slight diagonal inclination and the abrupt, angular gesture of the soldier who swears revenge. Veronese’s massive figures face us and their contropposto creates a stately decorum of balanced contrasts; there is a gain in amplitude and forcefulness, but the whole action lacks the unified psychological concentration of the Germanicus.
It is interesting to note that in an early preliminary drawing Poussin, following a Venetian convention, planned to give a heightened sense of spatial recession by introducing two figures on steps at the upper left. In tune with our proposal that the young Poussin, confronted with his first great commission, was trying to take the best from many modern styles and in this sense to paint a “contemporary” picture, is the architectural setting itself, which is almost exactly contemporary though rather freely altered towards an unadorned simplicity. It recalls Pozzo or the early Maderna, rather than either Roman architecture or the architectural forms of the High Renaissance which one might have expected Poussin to revere as the nearest Golden Age in time.Finally, it becomes demonstrably clear just how Poussin’s classicism emerged from mannerist influence. Aside from the many compositional devices already commented upon, a Mannerist horror vacui
is illustrated by spear tips and sword point which seek the edges of the molding to enclose and continue their movements in another direction; the central gesture of upraised arms becomes a bridge between two heads emphasizing continuous surface design at the expense of articulation in depth, and even of expressive force, to a degree. Almost all glimpses of spatial openings, either intervals between hands and legs, or the two cut-off arches and the door aperture, also create a feeling of unrest and tension by their narrowness. Yet, we thereby appreciate all the more the generous sweeps of draperies and bed clothes which do so much to stabilize the composition and resolve all its small, interconnected movements building up so cunningly to the climactic gesture of swearing vengeance. In this context, and with so much of the paintings in profile, how satisfying a caesura is the handsome full back at the far left; the brightly lit face of the back wall under the arches, and, most importantly, the great oval of pillow and white shirt which frame the philosophic Germanicus. Again, there is an extremely lovely and poignant oval circuit of regards and turning heads, from Germanicus around his circle of soldiers and back again—another accent of breadth and fullness.A noticeable and significant change in the function of color should also be noted. In the apparently earlier Mars and Venus21
at The Toledo Museum, we find a few of the same dominant color notes, in similar sequence; a rich Titian brown, vivid blue, red and the honey color of armor. The more Mannerist qualities of decorative brightness, of shot effects in the red draperies, and the diffusion of psychological interest would seem to date the painting earlier than Germanicus.
In the Boston Mars and Venus,22
however, the color spotting of large areas, including green and rose-colored draperies, almost exactly matches Germanicus,
and the figures are rather similar in scale, although their contrapposto
and diagonal axes create a more convincing sense of three-dimensional space. In both paintings the dominant colors are isolated and employed rhythmically to create a pictorial counterpoint to the dramatic action, and to the play of contrasting bodily movements. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that five years or more separate the Boston picture and our own. One must remember, however, that between the Germanicus
and Boston’s Mars and Venus
occurred such paintings as King Midas Washing His Hands in the River Pactolus
in The Metropolitan Museum of Art,23
where Poussin essayed a more massive, early Baroque, possibly under the influence of the Bassani, adopting a somber color scheme of drab olive greens and red-browns. The artist’s early chronology still remains somewhat obscure, nevertheless.The Germanicus
shows Poussin breaking away from a mixed stylistic atmosphere towards the clarity, brightness and logic of compositional order which characterize his mature classicism. More than anything else, it impresses by the artist’s original and unerring powers of pictorial organization; the painting is stamped with that compositional genius which has continued to magnetize and inspire painters well into the modern period. With its enriched surfaces and fascinating ambiguities, the Germanicus
stands in relation to Poussin’s more bare and architectonic classicism of the forties as Rembrandt’s brilliant, early Night Watch
stands in relation to The Syndics.
The composition is not so farfetched as it might at first appear; at least it is not if we are willing to distill Rembrandt’s essential classicism from the rich amalgam of material splendor and mysterious lighting of his later phases. Emerging either from Mannerist or Caravaggesque influence, each artist in his own distinct style arrived at an imposing classical formula which served to check the tendency of the age toward Baroque excess.Endnotes
Referenced Works of Art
- Oil on canvas, c. 1627, 58 1/4 x 77 3/8 inches, acquired through the Dunwoody Fund, 1958. Fully documented in Nicolas Poussin, exhibition catalogue. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1958, p. 24.
- Cf. Poussin’s celebrated letter to Chatelou, dated Rome, April 28, 1639, describing the expressive emotions of The Israelites Gathering Manna, and Charles Le Brun’s lecture of 1667, “Concerning Expression in General and Particular.” Both can be found in Elizabeth Holt, A Documentary History of Art, vol. 2, Doubleday Anchor Books, New York, 1958. See also S.V. Keeling, Descartes, London, 1934.
- See Walter Friedlaender, David to Delacroix, New York, 1952, pp. 6-9.
- Otto Grautoff, Nicolas Poussin, Sein Werk und Sein Leben, vol. 2, pl. 112.
- The author has relied on Sir Anthony Blunt’s succinct biographical account of Poussin’s early years in Art and Architecture in France 1500-1700, Penguin Books, London, 1957, pp. 158-160.
- Ibid, pl. 115.
- Op. cit., Grautoff, pl. 17.
- Owned by the Paris dealer, Heim, in the winter of 1958.
- Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750, Penguin Books, London, Baltimore, 1958, pp. 31-54. A fascinating and precise account of the battle of styles in Rome during the first two decades of the seventeenth century, underlining the triumph of the Carraccis’ classicism.
- Giovanni Pietro Bellori, Vite de’ pittori, scultori et architetti moderni (The Lives of Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects, 1672). Facts and quotations are taken from the French edition of an extract of Poussin’s life, Vie de Poussin, Geneva, 1947, pp. 21-27.
- Félibien, Entretiens Sur las vie et les ouvrages de Nicolas Poussin, Geneva, 1947, p. 33, an extract from The Chronicle of the Lives and Works of the Most Excellent Ancient and Modern Painters, London, 1705.
- Op. cit., Wittkower, p. 178.
- Denis Mahon, “Nicolas Poussin and Venetian Painting: a new connection—II.” The Burlington Magazine, February, 1946, pp. 37-42.
- Op. cit., Nicolas Poussin exhibition catalogue, p. 6.
- Op. cit., Mahon, p. 38.
- Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin Books, England, 1956, pp. 102-125. The literary source of Germanicus was first pointed out by Walter Friedlaender, Nicolas Poussin, Munich, 1914. A more complete “commentary” on the painting will appear in his revised monograph soon to be published in English by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.
- Cf. Blunt, op. cit., p. 166, for an enlightening discussion of the differences, as well as the similarities, between Poussin and Corneille.
- Op. cit., Friedlaender, pl. 136.
- See Rensselaer Lee, “Ut Pictura Poesis: The Humanist Theory of Painting,” The Art Bulletin, XXII, 1940, pp. 197-263, figs. 3, 5, 6, and discussion pertaining thereto; also, Walter Friedlaender, “Iconographical Studies of Poussin’s Work in American Public Collections,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, XXIII (1943), fig. 1, and pp. 26-30.
- Condition report on the Death of Germanicus, September, 1958, submitted by Richard D. Buck, Conservator, Intermuseum Laboratory, Oberlin, Ohio: “Under the arches at the upper left traces of a blue layer beneath the paint suggest that a landscape may have been painted first.” The presence of landscape in a preliminary stage of the painting must remain only a theory, however, until x-radiographs can be made.
- Op. cit., Nicolas Poussin exhibition catalogue, fig. 7.
- Ibid, fig. 10.
- Ibid, fig. 8.
Death of Germanicus
58 1/4 inches x 77 3/8 inches , French, 1627-1631
William H. Dunwoody Fund, 1958
- Nicolas Poussin: Death of Germanicus, c. 1627, 58 1/4 inches x 77 3/8 inches, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Dunwoody Fund, 1958
- Paolo Veronese: Disciples at Emmaus, Louvre
- Jan Janssens, The Annunciation, 1621-27, Museum, Ghent
- The Death of Meleager, engraving after antique sarcophagus relief
- Death of Germanicus, engraved by Guillaume Chasteau, 1663
- Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1786, Louvre
- Death of Germanicus, pen and bistre wash, 7 3/16 x 10 1/8 inches, British Museum, London
- Michelangelo: Adam, 1509-11 (detail) Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican
- Nicolas Poussin: Mars and Venus, 1630-35,
61 x 84 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston