Poussin and France: Painting, Humanism, and the Politics of Style

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Nicolas Poussin, perhaps the most famous French painter of the seventeenth century, lived and worked for many years in Rome. Yet he remained deeply engaged with cultural and political transformations occurring in France, argues Todd P. Olson in this original exploration of Poussin's paintings, their production, and their reception. Poussin's references to ancient literature and sculpture addressed a political elite-the Robe nobility-whose humanist education in classical antiquity equipped them to relate Greek and Roman history to contemporary events and to deploy ancient precedents in legalistic and political arguments. When the French civil war known as the Fronde erupted in the middle of the seventeenth century, the paintings that Poussin exported to France responded directly in both subject and style to the crisis in monarchical authority and the disenfranchisement of his Robe patrons.

Olson demonstrates that Poussin's association with a disgraced political group, his loss of official support, and his exile in Italy imbued his history paintings with a symbolic weight. The painter's audience considered the hard-earned pleasures of his restrained, difficult pictorial style a benchmark of integrity as well as a criticism of the Regency's indiscriminate collecting practices and taste for foreign luxury. Poussin transformed the easel painting-its making and collection-into an expression of cultural and political commitments binding a community. Olson's fresh insights reveal the importance of this painter's work to a learned and powerful French constituency at a critical moment in French history and demonstrate that Poussin's famously timeless style was far more responsive tohistorical contingencies than has been previously recognized

Author Biography: Todd P. Olson is assistant professor in the department of art history at the University of Southern California.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Paradoxically, the greatest French painter of the 17th century and the artist who is arguably the founder of its national tradition lived for the greater part of his career in Rome. The essence of this fascinating but frustrating study by Olson (art history, Univ. of Southern California) is to reunite Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) with French culture and politics. In particular, Olson argues for an apprehension and appreciation of some aspects of Poussin's work in light of the preoccupations and patronage of the noblesse de robe. This was a potent but politically frustrated group whose concerns, according to Olson, both inspired and are reflected in the erudite content and severe formalism of Poussin's art. Central to the argument is the author's attempt to contextualize aspects of Poussin's oeuvre against the deep social unrest of the mid-century civil war. Although this is a work of the deepest scholarly exertion and erudition, it is marred, particularly in its conclusions, by arcane formulations and assertions both farfetched and beyond the range of a historian's ken. Yet whatever the flaws of what will surely be a controversial study, scholarly art history libraries will require this volume. Robert Cahn, Fashion Inst. of Technology, New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300093384
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 7.80 (w) x 10.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Table of Contents

Ch. 1 French Humanism and Patriotic Visual Culture 1
Rome in Fragments 11
Published Sources 12
Encomia and Entrances 16
Absolutism and Relational Power 21
Ch. 2 Object Lessons 25
Education and Exemplarity 25
Historical Skepticism and Material Culture 28
The Politics of the Antique Object 30
Classicism as Conflict 34
Ch. 3 Emergent Clients 37
Portraying Michel Passart 38
The Robin: Prestige and Political Theory 40
Power in the Archive 41
Camillus and the Schoolmaster 43
Conduct for Sieges 47
Disorder or Fleeing Confusion 48
Differential Readings 56
Ch. 4 Antique Moses 61
Flavius Josephus 64
Exchanging Moses 68
Ch. 5 The Fronde, Poussin, and his French Clients 71
Letters from Abroad 74
Disgrace 75
The Fronde 77
Clients and Social Actors 80
Passart and the Chambre des comptes 81
Robins for Nobles 83
Cafe de la Fronde 84
The Brothers Freart 85
Outside Institutions 86
Portraits, Retreat, and Recalcitrance 89
Sublet's Portrait 90
Strategic Power and Relative Autonomy 96
Ch. 6 Mazarinades and Cultural Resistance during the Fronde 101
Antiquity: The Language of Contemporary Politics 102
Inversions 104
Unstable Signs 105
Oppositional Historiography 106
Reading Coriolanus 111
Female Agency 116
Ch. 7 Frondeurs and Artistic Discourse 123
Failed Patronage 126
Suspect Collections 128
Appropriate Collections 132
The Orion Landscape: Collecting Thematized 134
Ch. 8 Reception, Style, and Drawing 137
Poussin's Argument 139
Bold, Rude, and Abbreviated Signs 142
Paper Gallery 146
Drawing upon Circumstance 149
From Ink and Wash to Oil 151
Archaism and Opacity 156
Ch. 9 Interventions: Painting and Renunciation 163
The Early Modern Testament 163
Social Practice and Self-Reflexive Painting 166
The Painted Legacy and the Legacy of Paint 174
Duration and Attention 175
Difficulty and Opacity 177
Perception and Political Theory in Practice 181
Ch. 10 Institutional Appropriation 187
The Incomplete Support of Vouet 190
Reorganizing the Arts 191
Conciliatory Moves 193
The Fronde Enters the Academie 195
Robe Patronage 197
Poussin Enters the Academie 199
Transmission 200
Les Mays: Ambition and Public Display during the Fronde 204
Eustache Le Sueur's May Painting of 1649 207
Nicolas Loir and Louis Testelin: The May Paintings of 1650 and 1652 207
Ch. 11 Painting and Landscape 213
Retreat 221
Eclogues 223
Genre 227
Ekphrasis 229
Paint without Art 235
Notes 245
Bibliography 294
Photograph Credits 307
Index 308
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