Date of Creation:
Musée Condé de Chantilly
Musée Condé de Chantilly
The three wise men found their way to the kingdom of Judea by following the so-called "Star of Bethlehem," and upon their arrival asked the king, Herod the Great, if he knew how they could find "the king of the Jews."
By this point in his life, King Herod was not in the best of shape. Born in Palestine to a family that was close to Julius Caesar and himself a personal friend of Mark Anthony, Herod grew up in the midst political intrigue and turmoil, and evidently the pressure got to him. With age Herod became increasingly mentally unstable, paranoid, and irrationally violent, even going so far as to kill one of his ten wives and her two sons, as well as her brother, grandfather, and mother.
Upon hearing that the Magi were looking for "the king of the Jews," Herod immediately grew fearful that this infant would steal his throne. He sweetly asked the three wise men to bring the baby back to his palace, so that he could worship the infant just like them, secretly planning to kill the child upon first sight.
The Magi had a dream revealing Herod's plan, however, and left Bethlehem in secret so that the irate king would be unable to trace their steps back to the infant.
Mad with rage and fear, Herod instructed that all boys under the age of two in the town of Bethlehem and the immediate vicinity be slaughtered. Luckily for Mary and Joseph, Christian belief holds that an angel came to save them and guided them to safety in Egypt. Herod eventually took his own life soon after.
Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents was painted for Vincenzo Giustiniani during Poussin's early years in Rome. Ironically, this wealthy and influential Italian aristocrat, banker and art collector is perhaps most famous for his patronage of Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio, the artist that Poussin most despised.
Unlike every other example of Massacre of the Innocents Poussin focuses on one individual and isolated act of brutality. Poussin shows the scene from a low angle and places the figures in the extreme foreground of the painting, making the viewer feel as if they were in the very midst of the violence.
By focusing on one particular group of figures instead of cramming his canvas full of infanticide, Poussin makes the violence individual and personal, thus maximizing the emotional effect.
Poussin was extremely influenced by Classical art, architecture and philosophy, and many art historians have noted that the poses and gestures of the figures in Massacre of the Innocents seems to be inspired by a group of antique sculptures known as the Medici Niobid Group.
An essential part of Poussin's style is the artist's "theory of the modes," which held that each and every element of a painting (line, color, form) had a significant psychological impact on the viewer.
According to art historian Yona Pinson, in Massacre of the Innocents, even the architecture is intended to have an emotional effect. The heavy, dark, foreboding column which dominates the left-hand side of the picture plane is intended to express the obdurate forces of evil, as represented by the grimacing soldier who is about to chop off the head of the wailing baby he crushes beneath his foot.
The Greek temple in the background of the picture, on the other hand, represents the opposite. This temple is decorated with the Corinthian order which, according to ancient Greek architect Vitruvius, represented the feminine principle. In this painting, Poussin intends this Corinthian temple to represent the feminine frailty and helplessness of the bereaved mothers.
Poussin is often accused of being too cold, too intellectual and too detached for anyone except the most erudite of viewers to appreciate his works. This painting proves those critics wrong: Poussin's painting is certainly more Classicizing and more restrained than earlier versions of this theme, but no one can deny the raw, passionate emotions that infuse this painting.
The coarse brutality of the soldier, the desperation of the kneeling mother, the mindless grief of the woman in the background, the fear and pain of the injured infant: this is anything but Classical detachment. In fact, modern artist Francis Bacon was so moved by the central figure's cry of pain, he described it as "probably the best human cry ever painted. "
Giotto, Massacre of the Innocents. 1306:
Giotto's presentation of the subject is simple and traditional: a rather undignified heap of infant corpses is shoved into the center of the foreground, just in front of one of the marauding soldiers who attempts to grab another little boy to add to the heap.
The image is crowded and the style is simple, but if the fresco lacks in emotional strength it compensates with its utter clarity. Painted at the turn of the 14th century, Giotto's Massacre of the Innocents shows the very beginning of Renaissance experimentation with perspective, and may seem somewhat awkward to the modern viewer as a result.
Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Massacre of the Innocents. 1565:
Typical of his unique style, Brueghel shows the bloody scene from an elevated, birds-eye perspective. The scene is set in contemporary, 16th century Netherlands, complete with Dutch houses and a thick layer of snow. Space is far more expansive and better-defined than in the Giotto example, but the multitude of miniature figures makes the scene far from easy to read: Giotto's fresco is much clearer.
In this painting, Breughel is making references to contemporary events (especially the civil wars that spread across Europe after the Protestant Reformation of 1517), thus drawing a parallel between ancient and contemporary barbarity.
Guido Reni, The Massacre of the Innocents. c. 1611:
Reni's version of this theme seems to have been an important influence on Poussin. Reni's painting is typical of the Italian Baroque, infused with dynamic energy and movement, stark chiaroscuro, and impassioned, dramatic gestures and facial expressions.
Unlike in the earlier Renaissance examples, in this Baroque artwork the figures are given an unprecedented weight and monumentality. This tangled web of human bodies may lack the clarity of Giotto's painting, but the viewer can still easily identify the subject thanks to the pale little corpses in the foreground of the picture plane.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Massacre of the Innocents. c. 1612:
Ruben's variation on this subject was one of the most popular in the history of art. Out of all the paintings shown above, Rubens's painting is by far the most chaotic and explosively dynamic, which is typical of this Flemish Baroque artist's style. The writing, contorted, half-naked figures overlap to the point that they seem to form one seething mass of flesh, with pale, limp corpses scattered about their feet.
Bacchanal Before a Statue of Pan
The Triumph of Pan
Compositions, though often still crowded, are now even more orderly and rationally composed, contours become even more pronounced and sharper-edged, and Poussin perfects his use of the "rhetorical gesture," which he derived from the writings of classical orators.
Poussin's style changed after he had the opportunity to carefully study the masterpieces of antique art in Rome. In Poussin's mature period, Greco-Roman friezes, antique statues, and ancient philosophy were his most important influences. Masters of the Italian Renaissance were also an important influence, especially Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.
Poussin was neither the symbol of 17th century French painting and painter of the establishment, nor was he completely devoid of Baroque dynamism and emotion. Poussin himself would hardly have cared whether or not he was adored or reviled, however.
This artist, a fervent believer in Stoicism, appears to have been interested in little more than his studies and his painting; fame and wealth were but mere secondary concerns. Poussin's sober personality and his carefully thought out theories of art have earned him the nickname of "the philosopher painter."
Poussin's reputation as a cold, cerebral artist of the intellect, is certainly deserved, but only to a point: as classically detached and coolly rational as Poussin's paintings may be, a closer look at this French Baroque artist's oeuvre reveals that they are also so much more.
Poussin may have lived in a different country, however, but the impact of his art back home cannot be overestimated. Poussin's style became the official style at the French Academy in Paris for the rest of the 17th century, and Poussin's paintings were much admired by France's top historical figures, like King Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIV, and his ministers Colbert and Le Brun. Thus, even if Poussin wasn't living and working in the heart of the French Baroque, he did have a profound influence on the molding of its style and concerns.
Furthermore, although he lived in Rome for most of his adult life, Poussin was not immune to current events in his motherland: Poussin's correspondence reveals that the civil war of the mid 1640s was extremely upsetting for the artist.
Poussin's paintings may not have been known to a wide audience during his own lifetime, as the artist painted almost exclusively for elite, private patrons, but his art and theory of painting enjoyed undeniable popularity and had an enormous influence on art criticism of the age.
Yet, with the arrival of Romanticism things began to change. Not only was Poussin's art derided by new generations of up-and-coming artists, but art critics began to turn against it as well. The very end of the century started to see a turn in opinion as avant-garde Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne was unequivocally a fan of Poussin and greatly inspired the modern artist in many of his abstract compositions.
Poussin's reputation began to be restored in the 20th century. Anthony Blunt, that notorious Soviet spy-cum-art historian, is widely regarded as the preeminent Poussin expert of the century, and is the author of the definitive tomes on the artist. Poussin still may not be terribly popular amongst museum goers, but the artist has assuredly earned his place as one of the greatest masters in Western art.
For more information about Poussin and his works please refer to the recommended reading list below.
• Bätschmann, Oskar. Nicolas Poussin: Dialectics of Painting. Reaktion Books, 1990
• Beresford, Richard. A Dance to the Music of Time by Nicolas Poussin. Trustees of the Wallace Collection, 1995
• Blunt, Anthony. The Paintings of Nicolas Poussin: Critical Catalogue. Phaidon, 1966
• Carrier, David. Poussin's Paintings: A Study in Art-Historical Methodology. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993
• Cropper, Elizabeth and Charles Dempsey. Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting. Princeton University Press, 1996
• Friedlaender, Walter. Nicolas Poussin, a New Approach. Abrams, 1966
• Lagerlöf, Margaretha Rossholm. Ideal Landscape: Annibale Carracci, Nicolas Poussin, and Claude Lorrain. Yale University Press, 1990
• McTighe, Sheila. Nicolas Poussin's Landscape Allegories. Cambridge University Press, 1996
• Oberhuber, Konrad. Poussin, the Early Years in Rome: the Origins of French Classicism. Hudson Hills Press, 1988
• Olson, Todd. Poussin and France: Painting, Humanism, and the Politics of Style. Yale University Press, 2002
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