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Divine Perspiration 

Concentration and effort went into the creation of Poussin's masterpiece, "Holy Family on the Steps."

"Holy Family on the Steps," by Nicolas Poussin, 1648.
  • "Holy Family on the Steps," by Nicolas Poussin, 1648.

T.S. Eliot didn't originally begin "The Wasteland" with the pronouncement that "April is the cruelest month." Surviving rough drafts show that he started out by describing a drinking match among three Irish men. Later on, Eliot rewrote this passage. Sometimes it's hard to imagine that monumental artistic achievements were ever fragmentary bits full of corrections and crossed-out lines. This is so, in part, because the myth of effortless inspiration persists today. The idea is that if an artist is really inspired, there will be no sleepless nights or false starts. It'll all happen like it did in the 19th century, when composers reputedly wrote instant masterpieces on menus and tablecloths.

A fine exhibit called A Painting in Focus: Nicolas Poussin's "Holy Family on the Steps," now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art from its permanent collection, demonstrates that artistic accomplishment is neither automatic nor effortless. The exhibit is more comprehensive than its modest title would suggest. It includes Poussin's 1648 painting of the child Jesus, Mary, and Joseph frozen in a moment of serene repose and surrounded by classical motifs. There are also preparatory sketches for the work, a re-creation of a box containing wax figures that the artist used to study perspective and light, other Poussin paintings with similar subject matter, and a copy on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which, for many years, was thought to have been Poussin's original.

This show may take up only one room, but there is enough here to reward several visits. The painting depicts Mary holding the infant Jesus; St. John the Baptist offers Jesus an apple, and while St. Elizabeth at far left leans toward the mother and child, St. Joseph on the other side of the work draws with his compass. The group rests on the steps of a classical building. For Poussin, the twin classical principles of concision and restraint were a credo, and this work, in which decorative detail is pared to a minimum (even the still life of apples at the foot of the stairs can be seen as a reference to the fall of man), has a calm grandeur that recalls ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. According to Diane De Grazia, chief curator of the museum and the organizer of this exhibit, the combination of Christian theme and pre-Christian architectural setting is not meant to be discordant. Rather, as she argues in a catalog essay, just as the Stoic philosophers believed in submitting themselves to fate, Jesus in the painting "accepts his sacrifice (the apple) as the will of God."

Poussin had always embraced contradictions. A Frenchman by birth, he preferred Rome. He said that drawing mattered more than color, and yet, viewing this piece, one is also drawn to the rich blue of Mary's dress and the subtle differentiations found in his rendering of apples. Poussin's dedication to the classical past was never in doubt, though. He liked the ancient relics, and he could spend hours strolling through Rome, gazing at its monuments and architectural felicities. This, for him, was what art was all about. If one studied the right models, chose subject matter that was grand and important, observed the rules of perspective and those of light and shade, and then executed the whole with conviction, something good could happen. It all sounds more like a prescription for machine-made objects rather than ones constructed from human hands. That's the irony of Poussin. All his maxims and rules suggest pedantry, but then, when one sees exhibits like this, the academic is revealed to be a human being who struggled to articulate his vision.

The final image evolved through a process which started with preliminary drawings. Scholars Carol Sawyer, head of painting conservation at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Marcia Steele, the Cleveland Museum's conservator of paintings, note that each of these surviving drawings (some of which are on exhibit) contains the idea of Mary's head as the apex of a triangle. The sides of that triangle are formed by the leaning St. Elizabeth, the seated Joseph, and finally the lower step on which Mary's foot rests. And yet other matters awaited elaboration. For example, Poussin was constantly fiddling with the placement of background elements, such as a vase filled with plants and the architectural elements which surrounded it. These were not minor details to Poussin -- he once said that he always sought to arrange objects precisely, so that "the old and commonplace becomes singular and new." To the 20th-century viewer this care with detail means that Poussin was not just interested in getting abstract details right. Those details had to serve the theme of the painting.

Because he had chosen to paint Jesus and Mary (and the perfection they embodied), Poussin might have looked upon any errors of perspective or lighting as sins that were both artistic and moral (though, with this artist, there is really no difference between these two categories). In any event, one has the feeling that he didn't allow himself much room for error. After all the backbreaking effort, the final work is a triumph. Near it, by point of comparison, stands a replica of the box through which Poussin peered at his miniature wax models. He built it to study lighting and perspective, and one can only conclude that all that detached clinical observation was good for something after all. It allowed him to refine his vision of Jesus's life and acceptance of the will of God.

The viewer's intuitive sense of the painting's harmony has been confirmed by experts who have discovered that the perspective lines formed by the stairs, walls, and Corinthian columns terminate in a single spot at Mary's feet. In Greek tragedy, mortals with overweening pride were punished by the gods. Poussin's perfection has no hubris in it. His way, in his view, was simply the way Jesus and Mary were supposed to be rendered, and he felt he was doing his duty by doing the job right. He did it very well.

The popularity of the painting in its own time led to the creation of about 20 known copies (including oil paintings, prints, and drawings) in the decades following its creation. One of these copies was so good, in fact, that it had the experts fooled for years. To cap off a tremendous exhibit, viewers now have the privilege of comparing the original with the copy owned by the National Gallery of Art. Keep in mind, though, that there is a difference between forgeries and works "executed in the school of" or "by a close follower of." A forgery is created with the intent to deceive, whereas works in the latter category are thought to be originals because at some point in the chain, misattribution has occurred. The latter situation seems likely where Poussin's painting is concerned. In fact, scholars now have a new treasure hunt on their hands: Who was the talented artist who produced this convincing copy? Whoever it was, the artist couldn't duplicate Poussin's perspectival feat. In the Washington copy, the perspective lines don't all meet at a single point, as they do in the Cleveland version. The Washington copy is also drier coloristically. (The blues and reds in Mary's clothing are not as rich and regal as those in the Cleveland version.)

Viewers will be able to make their own comparisons, and the 300-page catalog, complete with scholarly essays and illustrated with enlarged details from the Washington and Cleveland versions, will whet the appetite of anyone who relishes the process of sifting through clues. Poussin and his career are here seen in the best possible light. The emphasis, especially, on the artist's tireless devotion to his craft, is revealing. Sawyer and Steele tell us that Poussin's artistic process had two characteristics: "certitude and indecisiveness." That's not a bad combination for an artist who seeks to tackle big themes. The larger the theme, after all, the greater humility required of the artist. If Eliot was convinced he knew the reason that modern life could not compare with the glories of the past, he would never have struggled so much with "The Wasteland." So, too, with Poussin. He aimed for the heights, and this exhibit shows us how much concentration and effort it took to get there.

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