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Louvre: Nicolas Poussin – The Inspiration of the Poet

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Nicolas Poussin - The Inspiration of the Poet

This work is not currently visible in the rooms of the Museum

At the foot of a tree, Apollo, the god of the arts, sits, a large cloak draped over his superb body of Olympian. His head is crowned with foliage, and his right arm, leaning on his lyre, is directed towards the tablets of a young poet who, his face illuminated by an ideal flame, feels the divine breath of inspiration penetrating into him. Deus, ecce Deus! The quivering face of the neophyte reflects both joy, fervor and ecstasy. Above his head steals a Cupid, wearing crowns which he girds on the poet’s forehead. Towards him also turns another Cupid, armed with the symbolic quiver, which seems to promise him other laurels, as sweet as those of glory. Behind the god, and contemplating the scene, a woman of ideal beauty, muse or goddess, listens with a delighted air to the stanzas inspired by the young and charming rapsode.

In this harmonious composition are summed up all the beautiful and solid qualities of Poussin’s art: clarity, consciousness, the purity of lines, the firmness of drawing. It’s the purest classic, but what a life in the figures, what a simplicity in the attitudes, and with what art the painter kept away from the academic coldness!

The Louvre is rich in works by Poussin. He possesses no less than forty canvases of that austere, laborious, and fertile master who could be defined as the philosopher of painting. “All his compositions,” writes Théophile Gautier, “are marked with the seal of good sense, of rectitude and will. If the eye is not always satisfied with his paintings, the reasoning never has anything to do with it. Poussin earns a great deal in engraving, like painters who are more concerned with thought, with order and with drawing than with the pleasure of color, and even when arriving at the canvases whose prints are admired, one sometimes experiences a sort of disappointment, because the tones, usually placed on a red impression that has grown back, have taken a sad and darkened appearance. But if we do not let ourselves be put off by this first sight, it soon emerges from this withered and neutral color, a severe charm like certain pieces of Corneille, which at first seem boring, and of which we feel later the male beauty. Poussin studied the ancient, Raphael and Jules Romain. But although he has spent most of his life in Rome, and has died there, he has nevertheless remained French, and at home the idea trumps the sensation. Nature does not act by its own attraction, and it sees in forms only means of expression. Execution at home is always subordinate to the subject, and does not express itself in the free joy of the artist who paints to paint. In spite of that or because of that, nobody deserves better than Poussin the title of grandmaster. It has been, if not by temperament, at least by all the noble virtues which are acquired, regulated and developed under the guidance of a firm reason. If he does not have the great style of the Italians, he has the sustained correction, the gravity, and the masterful certainty of drawing.” All these qualities, fortified by the moral beauty of his character, earned Poussin the admiration of his contemporaries. “The Apelles of our century is dead,” wrote a prominent Frenchman who attended his funeral.

Posterity has ratified this judgment. At no time has Poussin’s glory been eclipsed; it has continued to shine through the centuries like a sun that clouds could not cloud. School quarrels and rivalries have attacked many geniuses to discredit or undermine them; they have always respected Poussin. Better than that, everyone claims it. Ingres is his enthusiastic panegyrist and sets the old master in front of romanticism as the standard bearer of tradition. For his part, Delacroix, opponent of classicism, claims Poussin as a precursor, as a quasi-revolutionary. “We have repeated so much,” he writes, “that he is the most classical painter, and that we may be surprised to learn that he was one of the boldest innovators in the history of painting. Poussin arrived in the midst of fashionable schools where the profession was preferred to the intellectual side of the art. He broke with all this falseness.”

Poussin was a fan of his art. He painted with conviction, without any concern for profit. And if he was right, in principle, to pay for his effort, he asked for little money for his paintings: a great composition of Poussin was sold for about a thousand francs. Often he even proportioned the price of a painting to the number of figures it contained, each figure having cost him a particular work.

Some critics have challenged the authenticity of the Inspiration of the poet, which they attribute to Vouet. The works that we have of this painter do not allow to assign him this one. Never did Vouet have this nobility, this harmony, and especially this firmness of design.

The Inspiration of the poet is at the Louvre of recent acquisition. This painting is also known as Apollo and the poet.

Height: 1.30 – Width: 1.90 – Figures half-nature size.

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