Poussin in Perspective: The Louvre Retrospective 1960 Above and Beyond

Henry Keazor

Universität Heidelberg

Although today it seems almost inconceivable that French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665) was once forgotten respectively despised in France as “old fashioned“ and “square”,  this was actually the way he was treated, before, starting from 1820 on, he was unearthed by (most tellingly: not French, but) British and German art historians such as Maria Graham (1820), Otto Grautoff and Walter Friedländer (both – also tellingly – in the year of the break-out of World War One, in 1914). And even if modern artists such as Francis Bacon (in 1927) and Pablo Picasso (in 1945) had discovered the “modernity” of Poussin already earlier, it nevertheless took, after 1914, another 46 years before the first monographic exhibition on Poussin was held in the Louvre in Paris, organized first of all by Sir Anthony Blunt, then the undisputed leader of Poussin-research. It was certainly his series of art historical lectures, held in 1958 in the context of the A.W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art Washington, that primed the exhibition, since the impact of Blunt’s view of Poussin as an “intellectual” and “philosophical” artist on the exhibition provoked Blunt’s rival Sir Denis Mahon to publish his “Poussininana” (1962) and especially his “Plea for Poussin as a Painter” (1965) as critical afterthoughts on the Louvre-exhibition. The show was, however, also prepared by an interdisciplinary colloquium, held in Paris between September 19 and 21. If one compares this with recent exhibitions (1994/95 in Paris, London and Rome for the celebration of the quarter centenary of Poussin’s birthday; 2015 in Paris: “Poussin et Dieu” for the commemoration of the 350. anniversary of the painter’s death), one can note certain differences: for example, whereas in 1958 the colloquium served in order to prepare the exhibition in the first place, the colloquia, held in 1994/95 or in 2015, were rather accompanying the shows, thus showing a shift of the function of such gatherings.

My paper will discuss these connections, but will also look at the political circumstances in France (disintegration of the French colonial empire between 1946 and 1962, birth of the Fifth French Republic in 1958, founding of the EEG in 1958 with France as one of the driving forces), but also abroad (the “unmasking” of Blunt as a Soviet spy in 1979) which influenced the re-discovery of Poussin as a “European” painter as well as the later view on the Louvre-exhibition from 1960 in art history.