Nicolas Poussin, perhaps the most famous French painter of the 17th century, lived and worked for many years in Rome. Yet he remained deeply engaged with cultural and political transformations occurring in France, argues Todd P. Olson in this exploration of Poussin's paintings, their production and their reception. Poussin's references to ancient literature and sculpture addressed a political elite -the Robe nobility - whose humanist education in classical antiquity equipped them to relate Greek and Roman history to contemporary events and to deploy ancient precedents in legalistic and political arguments. When the French Civil War known as the "Fronde" erupted in the 17th century, the paintings that Poussin exported to France responded directly in both subject and style to the crisis in monarchical authority and the disenfranchisement of his Robe patrons. Olson demonstrates that Poussin's association with a disgraced political group, his loss of official support, and his exile in Italy imbued his history paintings with a symbolic weight. The painter's audience considered the hard-earned pleasures of his restrained, difficult pictorial style a benchmark of integrity as well as a criticism of the Regency's indiscriminate collecting practices and taste for foreign luxury. Poussin transformed the easel painting - its making and collection - into an expression of cultural and political commitments binding a community. Olson's insights seek to reveal the importance of this painter's work to a learned and powerful French constituency at a critical moment in French history and demonstrate that Poussin's famously timeless style was far more responsive to historical contingencies than has been previously recognized.
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Todd P. Olson is assistant professor in the department of art history at the University of Southern California.From Library Journal:
Paradoxically, the greatest French painter of the 17th century and the artist who is arguably the founder of its national tradition lived for the greater part of his career in Rome. The essence of this fascinating but frustrating study by Olson (art history, Univ. of Southern California) is to reunite Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) with French culture and politics. In particular, Olson argues for an apprehension and appreciation of some aspects of Poussin's work in light of the preoccupations and patronage of the noblesse de robe. This was a potent but politically frustrated group whose concerns, according to Olson, both inspired and are reflected in the erudite content and severe formalism of Poussin's art. Central to the argument is the author's attempt to contextualize aspects of Poussin's oeuvre against the deep social unrest of the mid-century civil war. Although this is a work of the deepest scholarly exertion and erudition, it is marred, particularly in its conclusions, by arcane formulations and assertions both farfetched and beyond the range of a historian's ken. Yet whatever the flaws of what will surely be a controversial study, scholarly art history libraries will require this volume. Robert Cahn, Fashion Inst. of Technology, New York
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