The Funeral of Procion
POUSSIN is the first of the French academicians, and to his own countrymen,
one of the monarchs of painting. Born in Normandy of poor estate, he went to
Paris in his youth to study art, a starveling idealist filled with high thoughts
of the historic Italians.
After two unsuccessful efforts to visit the capital of
antiquity, fortune smiled on him and he married the daughter of a wealthy
French chef. With her dowry he built a house among the outlying hills of Rome,
where he lived to the end of his days, his Virgilian placidity suffering but one
disturbance-a return to Paris, by royal command, to decorate the long gal
lery of the Louvre.
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In Rome he dwelt in perpetual contemplation of ancient
monuments and the Renaissance masterpieces which, he asseverated in the
original bylaws of the French Academy, contained the everlasting subject
matter of art.
Constitutionally opposed to the human side of paintmg-the emotional
elements implicit m everyday experiences-Poussin extolled the intellectual
life, the life of pure thought or passive reverie.
He elected to deal with the far
past, and in consequence, approached his subjects-demigods, Roman deities,
nymphs, and Sabine women-through a classical intermediary.
golden quietude, he fondly imagined that he was one of the old Romans in
daily converse with the immortals, and his life was devoted to the reorganiza
tion of immutable forms into ideal combinations.
Of late, Poussin’s glory has been restored and polished, and his name today
is perhaps the most sacred in the pantheon of French painting.
It is not his sub
ject matter that compels admiration, but what has been called his “peerless
architectural harmonies.” The subject of the Funeral of Phocion, taken from
Plutarch’s account of a valorous Greek who was ignobly put to death and
clandestinely buried, would have incited Delacroix to a dramatic riot.
Poussin it is only a detail subordinated to the formal pattern in which clouds,
trees, earth, and buildings seem to have been painted in sections and then
stationed, once for all, in the controlling scheme.
The picture was not offered
as an anecdote or a description, but as the equivalent of the profound emotion
aroused within the artist by his meditations on the ancient world.
In its own
sphere, Poussin’s art is incorruptible-serene, precise, spaciously dimen
sioned, and beautifully consolidated-an art that inspired Cezanne and all
modernists preoccupied with structure to the exclusion of human issues.