Poussin's Reflection

By Unglaub, Jonathan | The Art Bulletin, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Poussin's Reflection


Unglaub, Jonathan, The Art Bulletin


No two artists have seemed as diametrically opposed in their expression of the representational purpose of painting as Michelangelo da Caravaggio and Nicolas Poussin (Figs. 1, 2). Each conceived of painting as a reflection, but understood in radically different terms. Caravaggio's Medusa exemplifies painting as mirror. Executed on canvas mounted on a wooden parade shield, it assumes the convex form of Perseus's polished shield. Its surface reflects the gruesome face of the decapitated Gorgon frozen in an instant of petrifying horror. Medusa's androgynous visage captures the artist's own expression studied in the mirror, slightly veiled through the mythological guise, and this is why it captivates us with such unmitigated force and immediacy.1 Caravaggio, as we know from contemporary testimony, boasted that nature alone was his master. Whatever the dramatic roles assigned to his figures, they retain the palpable presence of the model or, in some cases, the artist himself, as if reflections on a mirror.3 Poussin, we are told, found such immediacy and naturalism anathema and allegedly said that Caravaggio "had come into the world to destroy painting."4

The condition of "reflection" seems to apply to Poussin's works only in the abstract philosophical sense, of a meditation on the illustrated subject, its larger theme, and his own art.5 Even when he undertook a self-portrait, which demands verism and records the encounter of the artist and his reflection in a mirror, Poussin undermines the illusion of specular presence (Fig. 2). The rigid and formal image of the artist is a construction in which the representation of the concept of painting takes precedence over mirroring an individual resemblance. The painter's effigy forms the figural counterpart to the inscribed epitaph and the cast shadow, both of which preclude any misreading of the surface as that of a mirror. The grid of frames behind the artist transforms his re-created presence into an abstract conceit. As Elizabeth Cropper, Charles Dempsey, and others have shown, Poussin constructed the portrait as a rhetorical argument that imparts to the viewer his interpretation of the ideal of painting. Although the artist gazes out toward the beholder, initially his intimate friend Paul Fréart de Chantelou, for whom he made the portrait, Poussin subordinated this perceptual confrontation to the allegory framed within one of the stacked canvases. Here a personification of Painting, crowned with the eye of perspective, is shown in profile extending an embrace toward the hands of friendship. In place of the visual axis that binds likeness and viewer, "I" and "you," that Medusa affirms and overwhelms as a simulacrum of the mirroring shield, Poussin reoriented the encounter of painter and friend across the lateral axis. This allegorical narrative, at right angles to the artist's gaze, reveals the true objective of painting: to extend the viewer's judgment through perspective and highly calibrated visual drama.6 As many have observed, the Self-Portrait manifests the category of vision that Poussin termed the "prospect," or the intellectual viewing of a rationally constructed representation. This he opposed to the "aspect," or mere empirical seeing, which fails to differentiate between representation and reality-precisely the distinction that Medusa, as a painted reflection, collapses.7

Contemporary testimony, the criticism of Louis Marin and others, not to mention the oeuvres themselves, all reinforce the Caravaggio / Poussin dialectic.8 Yet, as hitherto unobserved, one of Poussin's works contains a reflection that rivals the illusionistic presence of Caravaggio's mirroring shield and even takes shape on polished armor. Unlike Caravaggio's face, which evokes an immediate frisson of recognition, Poussin's reflection is camouflaged and emerges only from close looking. Once detected, the most literal and painterly of reflections signals a deeply pensive analysis of art, life, and the depicted literary episode. …

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