In Lyon, Nicolas Poussin reveals his graces

Before being statued as a master of the French classical school, the painter shocked many for his eroticism. Some of his paintings, early victims of prudishness, have been vandalized. The Musée des Beaux-Arts revives this sensuality of the work with a magnificent combination of Venus and Cupids.

Here, a couple kissing on the mouth. There, nascent Priapus endowed with a huge erect penis. And again: Venuses spied on by satyrs, one giving himself pleasure behind a tree. Everywhere arms milky, feminine, or golden, masculine, attracting, repelling, hesitating. Young plump breasts, loose hair, often strawberry blond, round hips and thighs, slender legs, hands fluttering over languid flesh, brushing against it, holding it back… What appetizing gynoecium!

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon, Nicolas Poussin once again sings about the pleasures of here below or testifies to the sufferings of the senses. No creation without love, he assures. And the goal of love, what would it be if not union? The language in these 30 paintings and 15 preparatory drawings is certainly mythological, but also so embodied. This society is indeed that of divinities. But these nymphs and fauns are dressed so lightly. It is that they dance, banquet or hunt. And how many ranges in this amorous discourse! Hopes, worries, swoons, abandonments… To think that most of these compositions were born in Rome, and were, oh how many, tasted by the greatest ecclesiastics in the intimacy of their palaces!

In 2015, at the Louvre, for the 350e anniversary of the death of the greatest painter of the XVIIe century, the chief curator of the Louvre, Nicolas Milovanovic, and Mickaël Szanto (University of Paris-IV) had exhibited biblical subjects, the Parisian museum having many of them among the forty Poussins it keeps. Under the patronage of the academician and former president of the Louvre Pierre Rosenberg, who plans to publish his catalog raisonné of paintings at the end of 2024 (four volumes for 300 notices at Flammarion, subscription is open), the duo had revived its graces.

This time, through remarkable loans, little-seen canvases, sometimes from private collections (including that of the King of England), through exemplary restorations such as that of The Poet’s Inspiration at the Louvre, and also with the support of Ludmila Virassamynaïken, from the Lyon Museum, our specialists awaken the spiritual significance of these expressions of carnal desire. Their subjects are inspired by Ovid and the poems of a friend: the Neapolitan libertine Giambattista Marino, a writer put on the Index but widely read at the time, even at the court of France where he was called, not without a mischievous shudder, the Marine Rider.

The two exhibitions show how much Poussin, Normand des Andelys, having stopped in Lyon on his way to Italy to make The Death of Chione (acquired by the MBA in 2016), was an accomplished painter-philosopher, between paganism and Christianity. A “Christian Stoic”, as the art historian Anthony Blunt had synthesized it.

“Dishonest Pictures”

The fact remains that after his death, from the end of the 17the century, in an era of end of reign and prudishness, even though the work had become the canon of French art, a fertile base for the entire Academy of Painting, the eroticism of certain canvases no longer passed. We then spoke of “dishonest images” and we worked to erase this sulphurous, libertine part. At the start of the XXIe century, restorers were able to repair this kind of damage. They removed the veils of modesty which, like the plaster vine leaves placed on Roman statues or the repaints on Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, had hidden the sexes early on.

In the 19the century, the false image of an austere Poussin, made up solely of virtues and elevation of spirit, had become even more firmly anchored. The painting showing Bacchus as a child tasting wine (a beverage considered a sexual tonic at least since Plato) was called Bad Education. Another example: a merchant had cut Venus and Adonis in the hope of benefiting above all from the landscape part. In his preface to the catalogue, Pierre Rosenberg outlines another personality than the severe one of the self-portrait as a master painter. He believes that Poussin died of syphilis and that he had been stricken with it when young. He suggests that his marriage at the age of 36 to the daughter of the hosts who treated his crises in Rome was only a way of giving thanks. That the union even remained white because the couple are not known to have any descendants.

But if we willingly admit this resolutely libertine Poussin, why such lively provocations in the foreground, with these beautiful elongated naked one hand under the nape of the neck another on their fleece? Or with those angels so mischievous that they go so far as to shoot arrows scented with nymph’s milk? “Rome was then the heart of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. She had decided to seduce with very sensual images. Painters had become experts in it. In addition, we had just discovered the frescoes of the house of Nerorecalls Nicolas Milovanovic. And there were already the Carracci, the Venetians Giorgione and Titian with their nudes, the voluptuousness of Raphaël and Julio Romano…”

chick and love, until March 5, 2023 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon (69). Catalog In Fine, 304 p., plus 59 p. on Picasso’s Bacchanalia, €39. Tel.:

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