Caravaggio/Poussin: The Politics of Art History Writing

Nicolas Poussin The Death of Chioné, 1622-23 Oil on canvas: 109,5 x 159,5 cm Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Our visual culture, focused on art of the immediate present, identifies three old masters as grand culture heroes: Piero della Francesca; Vermeer; and of course Caravaggio. (And now, Artemisia Gentileschi also belongs on that short list, as a feminist hero. ) Almost nothing is known about the lives of Piero and Vermeer, but we know something about Caravaggio (1573-1610). And this relatively short lived, gay, violent superstar, a rebel as if sent from central casting, inspires not only art historical research, but fictional biographies and even movies. A quarter of a century ago, I summarized this literature, little knowing how much was still to be written. A great deal more is known about Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). We have, for example, his extensive correspondence. He is most famous nowadays for saying that Caravaggio came into the world to destroy painting. Indeed, one French book about Caravaggio is simply called: To Destroy Painting. But unlike Caravaggio, Poussin doesn’t have a mystique. And outside of France, he isn’t a culture hero.

Caravaggio and Poussin never met, for by the time that Poussin got to Italy Caravaggio had died. Caravaggio has a great story. His fame is justified. But recent research has revealed that Poussin, too, has a story, which deserves to be better known. Born in Northern France, it took him some years to make his way to Rome, which was the center of the European art world in the way that in the 1940s New York City was the epicenter of ours. Poussin arrived only in his late twenties. Along the way he painted some pictures, which recently have been rediscovered. One of these early works, The Sack and Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem by Titus (1625-6), discovered in a London auction house by the famous connoisseur, Denis Mahon, has found an appropriate home, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. This large picture is recognizably in the style of Poussin’s later best known history paintings. A number of other early works, Sleeping Venus and Cupid and Venus (or a Nymph) Spied On by Satyr are two, from this period are more puzzling. They have been questioned for an interesting reason: these frankly lascivious scenes, textbook examples of male voyeurism, seem inconsistent , as one catalogue puts it, with “the conventional view of Poussin as an austere and serious artist.” And just last year the museum at Lyons presented an exhibition centered around another recently rediscovered work, also found in a London auction, La Mort de Chioné (1622). The subject is rare and disconcerting: Chione, who was the lover of Apollo and Hermes, vainly compared her own beauty to that of Artemis, and so Apollo’s sister killed her by shooting an arrow through her tongue. Learning that this painting was made in Lyons, it’s possible to fill in some of the gaps in Poussin’s early movements to Rome.

Another early rediscovered work is even more interesting. For some time a drawing of Poussin’s The Death of the Virgin, a painting that had long disappeared, has been known. And very recently, that work, painted in 1623 for Notre-Dame in Paris, was found in a Belgium church. The painting, made before Poussin made his final move to Rome, shows that he was probably familiar with Caravaggio’s The Death of the Virgin (1606). (He could have seen that work in Northern Italy.) You only need set the two pictures side by side to see how much he would have learned from this Caravaggio. Only someone who had once admired Caravaggio’s visual worldview would respond critically to it with such verbal violence later in life.

As a philosopher, I have been fascinated by interpretative debates about Poussin. (My Poussin’s Paintings: A Study in Art-Historical Methodology appeared in l993.) Since I am an outsider, perhaps it’s unsurprising that when the Courtauld Institute wanted to commemorate the anniversary of the unveiling of Anthony Blunt, in 1979, that they chose me to speak- for unlike many Poussin-scholars I had no personal relationship with him. The story of Blunt’s very belated unmasking as a Soviet spy is too well documented to require discussion. To make the key point briefly: there were in the 1930s a great many leftwing English intellectuals. If the only alternative to communism was National Socialism, then betting on communism was not absurd: a number of distinguished people did. Of course, by the 1960s, many such leftists changed their views. But since Blunt had enlisted early on as a spy, there was for him no going back.

Blunt’s highly influential account of Poussin argued that the painter, who lived and worked in Papal Rome, had seriously heterodox religious views. Blunt’s Poussin was a private figure, who shared his beliefs only with a few other trusted intimates. In an obvious way, then, Poussin as presented in these publications, appears modeled on Blunt himself. A very distinguished public official, owner of a Poussin; director resident at the Courtauld Institute, which is a major art research center; surveyor of the Queen’s pictures; a man who was knighted for these services: Blunt also was an important spy. Of course, many old master artworks have been controversially interpreted in complex ways. What, however, is perhaps unique, about Blunt was that it was precisely his role as a spy that made him sensitive to Poussin’s situation. Maybe only someone who himself led a double life could have fully understood Poussin if, that is, that artist also had a double life.

Blunt died in 1983, but his view of Poussin remains influential. We see it, as I noted earlier, in the idea, critiqued in the Lyons catalogue, that Poussin was too serious a painter to paint frivolous erotic scenes. And we found it also in the ways that the recent large retrospective exhibition in the Louvre, “Poussin and God,” (2015), took as its explicit target Blunt’s basic working assumptions. Blunt argued that Poussin was essentially a secular person- the catalogue for this show, that he was basically a Catholic believer. After my lecture at the Courtauld, argument broke out in the audience. My determinedly neutral analysis inspired debate. Some people thought that Blunt should have been hung; others, that it was unfair to deprive him of his knighthood. Nothing, it might seem, is less worldly than discussion of Poussin’s painting, which is a creation of the now distant old regime visual culture, art of interest only to a few specialists. And so it was very surprising for me to discover that this debate about Blunt’s political role even now affects how we understand his art.

Recently Linda Nochlin, the renowned modernist art historian published a pugnacious commentary on Lucian Freud’s female nudes, finding them grotesque and deplorably sexist. What, I wonder, would she make of these early Poussins? The Lyons catalogue aligns them with the nudes of Giorgione and Titian. The importance difference, however, is that while those Venetian pictures generally appeal to an implied male spectator, here that figure is depicted within the painting. To a modern viewer, these early Poussins look as heterosexual as the early Caravaggios, the small paintings made before he received his first commission for an altarpiece, appear pitched to a gay audience. Perhaps, then, the opposition between Caravaggio and Poussin need to be rethought.The art writer Julian Bell offers a marvelous constructive view of how I would begin discussion.

Around 1600, Caravaggio resuscitated the claim that ‘I saw it happen with my own eyes: these people in the Gospels could be the very people living on my street today’. A generation later, Poussin, by contrast, began to be interested in what we would now call historical accuracy.

Poussin, I think, has a story to tell. As much as does Caravaggio. And thanks to the recent scholarly research, that story is now becoming much more interesting. Perhaps Poussin too will become a culture hero.


David Carrier, Principles of Art History Writing (University Park, 1991), ch. 3.

Louis Marin, To Destroy Painting (Chicago, 1994).

Poussin & l’amour, exhibition catalogue (Lyons, 2022).

Poussin and Nature. Arcadian Visions, exhibition catalogue (New York, 2008).

Nicolas Poussin. Works from his First Years in Rome , exhibition catalogue (Jerusalem, 1999).

Poussin Before Rome. 1594-1624 , exhibition catalogue (London, 1995).

David Carrier,

Linda Nochlin,

David Carrier, “Anthony Blunt’s Poussin,” Word & Image, 25, 4 (December 2009): 416-26.

Julian Bell, What is Painting? (London, 2017).

Nicolas Poussin. Lettere sull’arte (1995)

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.