Most days, we walk to an obelisk which sits on top of the downs near here. The views from there are never static: look carefully and you can always see people and livestock about, the occasional bonfire, and (these days) vehicles hurrying along lanes and roads. If you were to paint that, omitting those details would be changing the landscape.
Do such details form a narrative, though? In a generic sense of being the story of a part of this country for a part of a day, maybe. But they lack the coherence of what we recognise as a definite story.
It is easy when considering the landscape paintings of Nicolas Poussin to lose sight of such common sense, to be overwhelmed by the strongly narrative content of the great majority of his works, and the vast literature by many of the most eminent art historians. To assume that every painting by Poussin must contain a coherent narrative is thus an easy error to make.
Reading some of Poussin’s wonderful landscapes can be straightforward: even if you were unaware of the story of Orion, the clues in this painting are staring you in the face.
The figures don’t have to be so large or so incongruous to make the story apparent.
In Stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651), the gaze is drawn from the couple in the foreground, to the lioness attacking the horses behind, then into the imminent thunderstorm all around. Anyone familiar with the story of Pyramus and Thisbe will pick up the clues and put them together. Here, Poussin’s pictorial language is not hard to understand.
Again in Summer (1664), from Poussin’s Four Seasons, the visual clues to the Biblical story of Ruth and Boaz are put in plain sight, in the foreground, while the extras get on with the harvest behind.
To the modern mind, some of Poussin’s narratives may be quite opaque. The woman in the foreground here is doing something unusual: gathering from the ground what appear to be ashes, while a companion is looking edgily around to see if anyone is watching them. Behind are the everyday activities of an idealised classical city, its figures enhancing that impression.
Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion (1648) is made easier to read by its companion work, the Funeral of Phocion (1648). Together they tell the shameful story of a distinguished Athenian general and statesman. He was falsely condemned, executed, and his corpse taken to the outskirts of Megara, where it was burnt. His widow is here gathering his ashes so that she can inter them properly, her servant keeping watch.
Then there are a few of Poussin’s landscape paintings which have signs of being narrative, but whose narrative is currently obscure. Landscape with Two Nymphs and a Snake (c 1659), for example, greets the gaze with two partially nude women, reclining beside a small lake and a large urn, who have turned round to look at a very large snake, which is close to them but no immediate threat.
The ‘nymphs’ and the snake are clearly not routine staffage, not what you might expect in such a landscape. They could be related to Poussin’s small series of landscapes with snakes, including his famously enigmatic Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (1648). I think that it is fair to say that these at least refer to a currently unrecognised narrative.
The most intractable problems come in reading Poussin’s apparently purest landscapes, the pair of Landscape with a Storm and Landscape with a Calm from about 1651.
The Storm has not aged well, and the little detail which can now be seen appears to show travellers taking shelter from the storm, in their wagon.
Thankfully its companion, Landscape with a Calm (c 1651), has survived in much better condition, and for many of us is one of the greatest landscape paintings of all time. Is it a pure landscape, though, or does it contain a narrative or allegory?
In the foreground is herdsman with his dog, tending to a small flock of goats, which are grazing erratically at the borders of a track which meanders down to the lake. The only distinctive feature of the man – and indeed of this whole passage – is how non-descript he is. He has nothing which could be interpreted as an attribute, and gives no clue as to his identity. Just above his head is the distinctive arrowhead of broken water in the otherwise mirror-like surface of the lake, but there is nothing else of remark.
The most prominent feature of the painting is its large Italianate villa. In front of its outermost earthworks, two herdsmen tend a flock of sheep and cattle. The man on the left is playing bagpipes. There are figures scattered just outside and within the grounds of the villa, and two visible at its ground floor windows. There is nothing which appears to be out of the ordinary here either.
The greatest human activity in the painting is at the left, where there are two horses with riders, and another horse visible within the outbuilding. One horse and its rider are just galloping off to the left; the other horse, its rider still mounted, is drinking from a trough under a portico at the end of the building. Above that horse’s hindquarters is an inscription which is illegible.
Among the background details there are bonfires. One burns vigorously with bright orange flames, and their smoke wafts erratically into the air, indicating the calm.
All the clues which the artist gives us point towards the calm and peace in this landscape. Its one small burst of activity is a galloping horse. The air is so calm that the lake reflects like a mirror, and one tiny patch of broken water stands out.
Could we construe a story to connect some of the figures, perhaps? We can certainly speculate, and Poussin provides the detail which we can use in our imagination. But there is not a shred of evidence that Poussin wanted to tell us a story here. The figures are just what we might expect in such a landscape: narratively incoherent but essential to it.
Clark TJ (2006) The Sight of Death, an Experiment in Art Writing, Yale UP. ISBN 0 300 11726 4.
Rosenberg P & Christiansen K (2008) Poussin and Nature. Arcadian Visions, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 13668 5.