Jean-Luc Martinez was chosen by Président François Hollande to be the director of the Louvre one year ago. Recently he announced that the museum’s major Vélazquez exhibition, scheduled for 2015 had been cancelled. In its place an equally large exhibition on Poussin was now planned. The reasons why the Vélazquez was scrapped almost surely have to due with budgetary problems in Madrid and at the Louvre, with neither the Spanish government nor the Louvre being able to shoulder the costs of transporting and indemnifying the many large paintings the museum had hoped to borrow. At least they were spared the embarassment of having to cancel the show days before it was scheduled to open, as was the case in 1993 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art cancelled The Art of Medieval Spain 500 – 1200 because they had not yet secured final loan approvals from the dithering and inefficient Spanish lending institutions for several keys objects.
The choice of Poussin as the replacement is practical: the Louvre has scores of major paintings by the artist in its collections and has Poussin exactly the same art historical valence as Vélazquez. Martinez acknowledged the fact that there was a major Poussin exhibition at the Grand Palais in 1994, which a great success with the public and with scholars because it had been 34 years since the last Poussin show in Paris and in that time the scholarship on Poussin had grown and changed dramatically, justifying the reassessment of a big career-surveying exhibtion. In others words one learned from the show because it was filed with new insights and discoveries. Since 1994, the field of Poussin studies has not changed much at all and it’s hard to imagine how the artist can be repackaged. Furthermore, seeing a lrge chunk of the show will be drawn from the Louvre, one wonders if visitors will be interested in paying a special admission to see works regularly on view in one part of the museum hanging in a different part of the museum. On verra.
Nicolas Poussin’s two Seven Sacraments series depicts the New Testament events held by the church to have initiated the seven basic sacraments, or outward signs of inward grace. Those rites include baptism, the eucharist, confirmation, penance or reconciliation), marriage, ordination and extreme unction. The first series was commissioned by Poussin’s Roman benefactor, the antiquarian Cassiano del Pozzo, 1636. The second series was painted for Poussin’s French patron, Paul Fréart de Chantelou in 1646-47. Chantelou initially asked the artist to duplicate the series, but Poussin, who accepted the monumental task only reluctantly, was not interested in retracing his steps and insisted on creating new pictorial compositions for each of the seven subjects.
Despite their theological subject matter, neither series was destined for a liturgical setting or intended to be used for devotional purposes (Chantelou’s canvases were probably destined for his cabinet de peintures, where they would have been set into gilded boiséries following a particular order as their different sizes suggest). Even though the subject matter was Christian, both patrons would have viewed them as depictions of the initiation of the seven sacraments, or, as history paintings, the subject matter of which, by definition, had to be derived from ancient sources and noble in sentiment. Poussin’s paintings were prized by more learned collectors because the artist went to great lengths to depict period settings, costumes and objects with a high degree of historical accuracy. For example, in the representation of the the Last Supper, which illustrates the institution of the Eucharist, Christ and the apostles recline while dining, as was the ancient custom, and the meal is set in carefully reconstructed Roman triclinium of the type Poussin would have known from ruins visible in Rome. The lamps and sconces seen in the Marriage of the Virgin (Matrimony) are faithful depictions of Roman fixtures found in excavations around the city, and so on.
Poussin is said to be the ultimate “classicizing” painter, but this terminology gives the impression that his primary interest was an abstraction called antiquityper se. It would be more accurate to say Poussin was a history painter who scrupulously mastered and represented the visible details of classical antiquity not for aesthetic of formal reasons, but because the accession of his pictures to the highest pictorial genre depended on their historicity, which was classical. This is confirmed by the striking fact that despite being surrounded by the remains of classical art, Poussin rarely quotes from well-known ancient artworks, as was common practice among his Italian contemporaries. His subject matter called for the correct rendering of vessels, furniture, garments, hairstyles and weapons all’ antica , but not the Laocoön or the Farnese Bull. To put it another way, his interests were not in antiquity but in history painting. He was not a nostalgic painter fixated on the past but a modern painter engaged with contemporary academic and theoretical debates about the nature of art. Even though he lived in Rome, his intellectual focus was French, and for these reasons his work must be interpreted within the context of French painting.