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Baldwin Poussins Venus Lamenting Adonis

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					Poussin’s Venus Lamenting the Dead Adonis and the Pastoral-Stoic Landscape

Robert Baldwin
Associate Professor of Art History
Connecticut College
New London, CT 06320

robert.baldwin@conncoll.edu

(This essay was written in April, 2008.)



The Classical Pastoral Tradition
Poussin’s Venus Lamenting the Dead Adonis plays richly on the complex tradition of elegiac
pastoral reborn in Renaissance art and literature while turning it to his own Stoic vision of
consolation amidst nature’s cycles. Among other things, Poussin’s painting eroticized death into
something akin to ecstasy, following pastoral literary tradition and a long visual tradition in
classical sculptural depictions of fallen, ecstatic warriors. It also used perfect youthful beauty to
heighten the tragedy of all death even as aesthetic perfection worked to keep mortality at bay.
And it used fiery color to heighten the burning passion of youth which age and death could not
fully extinguish, especially in the “timeless” universe of literature and art.

Poussin’s painting also developed an array of compositional and coloristic devices which
simultaneously invited viewer to share Venus’ private grief while universalizing that grief
through a chorus of lamenting onlookers and a larger, reverberating nature. By heightening the
passions of his viewers, Poussin offered visual equivalents to the rhetoric of pastoral lament
which used a similarly affective and sumptuous language to deepen the involvement of readers.
And by imbedding tragedy into a fertile landscape tied to cycles of death and rebirth, Poussin
invited educated viewers to move beyond the pastoral lament and the world of feeling to a
“higher” world of Stoic reason which encompassed both the cosmos and the microcosmic
viewer.

Perfection Amidst Death
Poussin painted the mostly naked body of Adonis unmarred by wounds, caught in the full flower
of youth, his legs parted sensuously, his head tilted back and right arm raised in a traditional
posture of ecstasy, as if swooning under the amorous ministrations of Venus. Bending over the
“sleeping” Adonis and pouring water to cleanse his wounds, Venus recalls the well-known
Renaissance theme of Psyche bending over her sleeping lover, Cupid, and dripping oil on his
perfect body. Here is the classical tradition of anatomical perfection amidst death, a visual idea
rebuking mortality and time by freezing youthful beauty into an aesthetic eternity. One thinks of
the pause in Homeric epic or Hellenistic pastoral to extol the perfect beauty of the fallen warrior
or hunter as in Bion’s Lament for Adonis.

       rather let Adonis have thy couch as in life so in death; for being dead; Cythera, he is
       yetlovely, lovely in death as he were asleep. Lay him down in the soft coverlets wherein
       he used to slumber, upon that couch of solid gold whereupon he used to pass the nights in
       sacred sleep with thee . . . 1

The rich array of reds and orange also heighten the emotional warmth and sensuality of the
scene, flushing the whole painting with color of amorous passion and heightening the intimacy
as the naked goddess kneels tenderly over her ecstatic lover as if bringing him to the peak of his
pleasure. Here Adonis’ red drapery works as a splendid cloak of honor against which the
loveliness of his pearly body glows jewel-like in its luxurious setting.

Poussin’s composition, handling of space, and color all work to draw the viewer into the
psychological experience of Venus while projecting her grief coloristically throughout the entire
space. In compositional terms, Poussin developed a series of long, horizontal forms within an
unusually long, horizontal canvas. At the far left, he painted the personification of the River
Adonis laid out along the ground, sleeping peacefully, his horizontal pattern taken up by the river
along the lower margin and the chariot of Venus above. The chariot rises slightly to add visual
focus and grandeur without breaking the horizontal principle governing the composition. This
horizontality culminates in the “sleeping” Adonis fully stretched on the ground, his left arm and
sword extending further toward the right edge of the canvas. No one stands in this painting. No
living thing save the majestic tree trunks breaks the relentless, overpowering rhetoric of
horizontality and death. Even Venus and the primary cupid continue the horizontal rhythms with
their limbs and stooping posture as if bent in sorrow in washing the dead Adonis and gathering
the flowers which spring up near his head.

In the handling of the foreground space, Poussin placed the figures in the kind of pastoral love
bower seen in most Renaissance and Baroque depictions of Venus and Adonis. In this way, he
extended the emotional intimacy of pastoral lovemaking into the later episode of grief. In
arranging the figures, he laid out the dead Adonis more for the real viewer to see and mourn,
allowing us to experience in visual and emotional terms the exemplary grief of Venus. If Venus
becomes our surrogate beholder, the experience of looking at the painting transforms us,
momentarily, into Adonis’s lover no less than the weeping Venus. Here one thinks of the
Hellenistic pastoral poems where the narrator (and by implication, the reader) repeats a series of
lamenting voices including Venus, Amors, and, in a further passage quoted later, the hills, dales,
and rivers.

       The beauteous Adonis is dead. Woe I cry for Adonis and the Loves cry woe again. The
       beauteous Adonis lies low in the hills, his thigh pierced with the tusk, the white with the
       white, and Cypris is sore vexed at the gentle passing of his breath; for the red blood drips
       down his snow-white flesh, 2

Poussin’s Adonis even turns toward the real beholder as if responding to our presence, drawing
us in with his face and arm even as he still reaches for his spear, after death.

Color as the Universalizing Theater of Nature and Landscape Painting
Along with these compositional choices, the handling of color works particularly well to extend
melancholy and pain through the entire scene. Reading left to right, Poussin sets the tone with a
fiery sunset before shifting to a deeper and more tragic red in the center of the painting in the
wide swath of Venus’ red drapery. Set off by the white doves which perch listlessly, this red
cloth overflows her chariot like a small river cascading down toward the dead Adonis and
continuing in the cloak spreading out under him like a pool of blood. Blood flows copiously in
classical pastoral and pools under the body of Adonis in another passage from Bion quoted
below.

This unifying flow of red and orange from the distant left to the right foreground and across the
planar composition works to suffuse the entire landscape with the blood of Adonis and the
lament of Venus. The red is all the more vivid combined with the deep blue of Adonis’ other
robe so that he repeats the colors of the heavens, azure smeared with red. (The blue flowers
springing up around his head and forming a kind of floral crown of amorous triumph, also
connect him to the heavens.) By coloristically projecting grief throughout the landscape, Poussin
transforms the experience of viewing the scene into yet another form of emotional participation,
all the power powerful because it takes place at a preconscious level and because the tragedy is
universalized through nature’s echoing lament. Once again the classical pastoral lament set the
tone for countless Renaissance and Baroque pastoral poems of death, grief, and longing.

       . . . Meanwhile, the red blood floated in a pool about his navel, his breast took on the
       purple that came of his thighs, and the paps thereof that had been as the snow waxed now
       incarnadine. The Loves cry woe again, saying 'Woe for Cythera." Lost is her lovely lord,
       and with him lost her hallowed beauty. When Adonis yet lived Cyris was beautiful to see
       to, but when Adonis died her loveliness died also. With all the hills 'tis Woe for Cypris
       and with the vales 'tis Woe for Adonis; the rivers weep the sorrows of Aphrodite, the
       wells of the mountains shed tears for Adonis; the flowerets flush red for grief, and
       Cythera's isle over every foothill and every glen of it sings pitifully ... 3

For all its pathos, Poussin’s Venus Lamenting the Dead Adonis played up nature’s vitality, youth,
beauty, and regeneration as a larger setting for individual tragedy. Above all, Poussin imbedded
personal tragedy into a lush and fertile landscape whose cycles of life, of day and night, and of
seasonal change echoed microcosmically in the human cycle suggested by two young lovers and
two small children. Seen in this light, the theme of death, however tragic, was also a kind of
peaceful sleep like that of the River Adonis at the far left, a sleep which invariably led to a new
awakening.

By developing the larger setting of landscape, Poussin created a Stoic theater of nature as
philosophical consolation long before this became a major theme in his sober late works. No less
importantly, Poussin developed a larger arena of color, of self-conscious aestheticism which
worked as a parallel arena to nature. For color, and painterly painting as a whole, made its own
version of nature’s universalizing theater, its own philosophical universe with its own special
consolations to educated art collectors. Even as it deepened heartache and the gamut of human
emotion, the rhetoric of color painting could lift and heal through its own, transfiguring radiance.
While the Venetian painters of the sixteenth century had been the first to develop landscapes of
pastoral lament and to explore the emotional and spiritual potential of color, it took the more
aesthetically self-conscious and rhetorically-minded landscape painters of the Baroque, above all
the young Poussin, to develop a landscape painting capable of new subjective pathos, on the one
hand, and Stoic consolation and transcendence on the other.
Appendix: Interaction with Christian Passion Imagery and Traditions
The main group recalls Poussin’s Lamentation from the same years and shows the larger theme
of human grief which turns more tragic in its Christian incarnation and elegiac in the world of
pastoral mythology. Both works gain in depth and complexity by talking on qualities developed
more in the other. Thus Poussin transformed the Lamentation into a dusky landscape at sunset
reverberating with the grief enacted across the foreground as tree branches, human limbs and
faces reach up to the darkening skies. Conversely, the Venus and Adonis recalls elements of the
Passion with its Lamentation and washing of the body (recalling Mary and Mary Magdalen), its
hilltop setting, and its imagery of maturity and infancy, floral rebirth, and its blue flowers
repeating the azure heavens.

1
    Loeb ed., pp. 391-393.
2
    Ibid, p. 387
3
    Ibid, p. 389

				
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