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Poussin, Landscape with St. John

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with Saint John on Patmos, 1640, oil on canvas, 100.3 x 136.4 cm / 39-1/2 x 53-5/8 inches (Art Institute of Chicago).  Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[PIANO MUSIC PLAYING] STEVEN ZUCKER: In the middle of the 17th century, Rome was reborn. There was a tremendous building campaign. Think about the extravagant spaces of the Church of Il Gesu, with this extraordinary illusionistic ceiling. This was operatic, it was theatrical. BETH HARRIS: It's hard to imagine how, at the very same time that we have that Baroque theatricality, we have the classicism, the repose, the peacefulness, the rationalism of Poussin. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Art Institute of Chicago. And we're looking at Nicholas Poussin's "Landscape with Saint John on Patmos." This is a painting that really is about classical order and measured reality. We know this is Saint John because of the eagle that stands beside him, which is a traditional symbol of this evangelist. BETH HARRIS: We're looking at Saint John seated in the foreground writing the "Book of Revelation," writing about the end of time, the second coming of Christ. A really violent moment, but within this incredibly serene and peaceful landscape. STEVEN ZUCKER: And of course, it's Poussin who has been credited with inventing the ideal landscape. And that's exactly what we have here. BETH HARRIS: And it's going to be very important for art history, for actually centuries to come. Artists will look back at the classical landscape and reinterpret it. STEVEN ZUCKER: And in fact, Poussin's style was so influential that it became the standard for the French Academy. BETH HARRIS: And those who painted landscapes in this way, with a sense of rigor and order and rationalism, and a kind of ideal landscape, became known as the Poussinists. STEVEN ZUCKER: So what has he actually done here? He's placed the main figure in the foreground, but he's really quite small in relationship to the landscape. He sits in a very classicized pose. In fact, we think that Poussin took this pose directly from representations of river gods from ancient Rome. And of course, Poussin, although he was French, was in Rome for most of his life. BETH HARRIS: And that figure of Saint John is illuminated in the foreground. It's surrounded by the ruins of classical antiquity. We see ruins to his left and to his right. And also in the background, where we see the ruins of a classical temple and an ancient obelisk. So he's in this landscape that has a sense of the passage of time as he's writing his book about the end of time. STEVEN ZUCKER: The notion of passage, I think, is important to understanding the way that Poussin constructs a landscape. Saint John is placed in the very foreground, right at the bottom of the painting. But we can't race back to the middle ground where that temple is that you had mentioned. Instead, we have a couple of visual paths. We might try to go down and straight back. But there we see water, not once but twice. BETH HARRIS: And also, a curtain of trees. STEVEN ZUCKER: And so that way seems too difficult. So instead, our eye meanders over to the right. And we see a road that seems to go back, that it draws our eye slowly through this landscape, so that we slow down and enjoy the space that he's created. BETH HARRIS: And at each point in the landscape, he gives us something to look at-- the foreground with Saint John, and the ruins. That pathway, punctuated by trees. Into the middle ground, with that temple and obelisk. And then again, into the background, with the mountains. And then further back, with the aerial perspective and more mountains and clouds. At each place, our eye has a place to rest in the landscape. STEVEN ZUCKER: The landscape is not a specific place. This is very much a collage of ideal forms. And this makes sense for an artist whose aesthetic is being shaped by Rome, which itself is layers of cultures. Look, for instance, in this painting, where you've got the classical Greek or Roman temple. But it's next to an Egyptian obelisk. We're actually seeing references to two cultures, both of which had ruled, but had both fallen. BETH HARRIS: The idea here, by showing those ruins, is to show that there's the new Christian order that will be eternal, foretold by Saint John's "Book Of Revelation." The landscape is carefully, rigorously composed. Everything has a sense of order and structure and geometry. STEVEN ZUCKER: But that is so counter to what we expect when we think about Saint John writing the apocalypse. This is a wildly violent vision. It is the end of time. It's an important reminder that this artist was actually studying Stoic philosophy from ancient Greece. This idea that the control of emotion was of the utmost importance. BETH HARRIS: And not just Poussin, but the circle of patrons that he found in Rome. We need to remember that there was more going on in Rome than the Pope's commissioning these theatrical works of art in the churches of the Counter Reformation. Poussin found a circle of patrons, many of whom were interested in Stoic philosophy. And that he painted canvases like this one. STEVEN ZUCKER: So Poussin has accomplished what seems to be nearly impossible. He's created poetry out of the rational, out of the ideal. [PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]