Friday, March 11, 2016

Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun

Nicholas Poussin, Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun, 1658

I write this surrounded by piles of books with a couple of pictures propped against them.  This would be pleasant except that they've all been brought upstairs to be out of the way of some imminent building work.  Sadly there's too much I've got to do here in the house to spend time writing anything very thoughtful about landscape and art.  So here instead I will just give you a couple of beautifully written passages from an essay by William Hazlitt, 'On a Landscape of Nicholas Poussin.'
'Orion, the subject of this landscape, was the classical Nimrod; and is called by Homer, 'a hunter of shadows, himself a shade.' [...] Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and fresh with dews, the 'gray dawn and the Pleiades before him dance,' and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean. Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. It breathes the spirit of the morning; its moisture, its repose, its obscurity, waiting the miracle of light to kindle it into smiles; the whole is, like the principal figure in it, 'a forerunner of the dawn.' The same atmosphere tinges and imbues every object, the same dull light 'shadowy sets off' the face of nature: one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms pervades the painter's canvas, and we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things. [...] To give us nature, such as we see it, is well and deserving of praise; to give us nature, such as we have never seen, but have often wished to see it, is better, and deserving of higher praise. He who can show the world in its first naked glory, with the hues of fancy spread over it, or in its high and palmy state, with the gravity of history stamped on the proud monuments of vanished empire,--who, by his 'so potent art,' can recall time past, transport us to distant places, and join the regions of imagination (a new conquest) to those of reality,--who shows us not only what Nature is, but what she has been, and is capable of,--he who does this, and does it with simplicity, with truth, and grandeur, is lord of Nature and her powers; and his mind is universal, and his art the master-art!'
Poussin's Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun is now owned by the Met but when Hazlitt saw it, the painting was 'one of a series from the old masters, which have for some years back embrowned the walls of the British Gallery, and enriched the public eye.'  His essay praises what were the world's first regular temporary exhibitions of Old Master paintings.  Pictures, he concludes, 'are scattered like stray gifts through the world; and while they remain, earth has yet a little gilding left, not quite rubbed off, dishonoured, and defaced.'  I don't think Hazlitt would have thought much of the Alexander Calder lithograph I'm about to pack away in an old sheet for a few months.  But he would have agreed that to take pleasure from art it is unnecessary to have pictures hanging on the walls around you.
'Pictures are a set of chosen images, a stream of pleasant thoughts passing through the mind. It is a luxury to have the walls of our rooms hung round with them, and no less so to have such a gallery in the mind, to con over the relies of ancient art bound up 'within the book and volume of the brain, unmixed (if it were possible) with baser matter!' A life passed among pictures, in the study and the love of art, is a happy noiseless dream: or rather, it is to dream and to be awake at the same time; for it has all 'the sober certainty of waking bliss,' with the romantic voluptuousness of a visionary and abstracted being.' 

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