He discovers an erotic painting by Nicolas Poussin at the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon

Posted January 20, 2023, 10:00 am

If the French are known as great lovers of courage, the history of art is full of dramatic stories about how paragons of virtue destroyed priceless works under the pretense of being brave. Even the most exceptional artists were not given shelter. A painting is like that Leda and the swan, by the hand of the venerable Michelangelo, was removed by order of François Sublet de Noyers, the warden of the king’s buildings, because it was considered too lascivious. In the same spirit, the vengeful widow of Michel Particelli d’Emery, collector and advisor to Richelieu, disposed of a masterpiece by the Baroque artist Guido Reni. Bacchus and Ariadne. Very thought provoking…

In this catalogue, as explained by the French historian Michel Szanto, several paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) are also visible. “An X-ray of one of his ‘Venus Spyed by Two Satyrs’ shows that he was hit hard in the hip. But the result was happy as the painting was well restored. » He also quotes the collector and prelate Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne (1727–94), who in his memoirs details Poussin’s actual torture of Venus: “A few days ago I painted a veiled Venus, actually very bare and extremely modest, but by cutting it out and covering the Venus figure with clean eyes. I divided the drawing in two […]. I wiped her beautiful goddess feet and changed her head to where her feet were. »

Vengeance and careful censorship

Of course, nothing remains of this painting. Recent research on the famous Frenchman, who spent most of his life in Rome, shows that he has repeatedly become the object of censorious revenge by moralists. But the real surprise comes from what was once his favorite subject. Or how the openly erotic period of this artist, who is considered to be the toughest artist of his time, passed. Recall that the Louvre, for example, dedicated an exhibition to Poussin and God in 2015. Respected by historians and artists, the artist who wanted to leave a memory of a scientist, as in his self-portrait in the Louvre today, therefore created very sexy compositions.

Until March 5, the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon hosts an exceptional exhibition on this topic – “Poussin and love”. The forty paintings and drawings brought together are above all a great lesson in the history of great beauty. We see Titian (even c Venus of UrbinoIn Florence or Danae, to Madrid). We feel the legacy he left to his successors, Courbet, Ingres, Picabia, and more recently John Currin. The Museum of Fine Arts also zooms in on how Picasso found inspiration in the various Bacchanalia painted by Poussin. For a short story, let’s remember that Jeff Koons is a French art collector.

At first (1624-1630), when the young Nicholas is preparing to leave for Rome, he creates many naked, voluptuous, lazy women in complete ecstasy, sensual, happy, lovely, loving and surrounded by voyeurs. There is no trace of guilt. The sin hiding behind the tree is not the shadow of the serpent… But why has this aspect been hidden for several centuries?

A painting that has been in the basement for a long time

He has been working on the artist’s catalog for fifty years for Pierre Rosenberg, a very charismatic art historian and former patron of the Louvre (1), “For a long time, historians specializing in this subject wanted to preserve the image of seriousness associated with Poussin. Perhaps the fact that the latter were all gay did not prompt them to reveal the most scandalous side of Pussy in a conservative era. This aspect worried him. It was also difficult to accept the representation of men and women masturbating. Thus, “Venus Spyed by Two Satyrs” remained in the basement of the National Gallery for a long time, and its attribution to Poussin was even questioned.

“Venus Spyed by Two Satyrs” (circa 1626), by the lewd Nicolas Poussin. Where we see one of the satyrs interested in the pubis of Venus, who is about to pleasure herself.©Kunsthaus Zurich

Mickaël Szanto, co-curator of the Lyon exhibition, says that this obsession for the artist did not come from a woman, but from the Italian poet Le Cavalier Marin (1569-1625). Famous and free, protected at the French court by Marie de Medici, she inspired, among others, a very young artist who would represent her. A Poet’s Inspiration. “Le Cavalier Marin fights for creation under the rule of anger. The strongest of them is love.” Michaël Szanto analyzes.

Multiple symbols

Although the paintings exhibited in Lyon seem less complex than usual, Poussin juggles with symbols. It is clear that the angels, who are abundant in the compositions, shoot arrows of love. Dogs represent loyalty, a swan is one of Venus’s attributes, and two doves are shared feelings. In Ovid’s triumph, produced around 1624, it shapes his admiration for his contemporary Ovid, his friend Marinus. In the foreground, a sleepy Venus sees her breast kneaded by a cherub who moistens her shaft with milk. Sumptuous The fairy was spied by two shepherds she suggests herself in her sleep, her arms above her head, her crotch highlighted by a duck cover. Bolder, about 1625 Mars and Venus shows a goddess daring to cuckold her cuckold lover while Adonis bides his time from afar.

Detail from The Triumph of Ovid (1624-25). An angel uses milk drawn from a nymph’s breast to sharpen his arrow.©Enrico Fontolan/Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica, Rome (MIBACT)/Bibliotheca Hertziana, Istituto Max Planck for la story dell’arte

For some time, no personal explanation could be found to justify Poussin’s sexual obsession. According to Pierre Rosenberg, her correspondence reveals neither a romantic relationship nor a sensual relationship, except that she contracted syphilis at a very young age and produced no children from her marriage. But why? As Leonardo da Vinci said “Art e una cosa mental”. Pierre Rosenberg concludes in other words: “Moses or Venus is always himself. In Poussin, even sex is intellectual. »

(1) “Nicolas Poussin. Catalog of the painted work”. 4 volumes. Flammarion (release scheduled for late 2023).

“Poussin and love”, Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon, until March 5. www.mba-lyon.fr

Venus and her satyrs

The Lyon exhibition presents at least three options Venus spied by two satyrs, one to the Kunsthaus in Zurich, another to the National Gallery in London, and the third is part of a private collection. It is undoubtedly the most daring subject ever employed by the French artist, and according to Pierre Rosenberg, the English version remained in reserve for a long time. Comment by Mickaël Szanto in the catalogue: “Under the shade of a soft moist tree, Venus surrenders to the pleasures of the senses, while the satyr removes the veil that covers her to better examine what he has come to see: the pubis.” It assumes the voyeurism of the observer himself. It should be noted that the beautiful creature placed his hand on the “origin of the world”, which, according to experts, means that he is ready to enjoy himself. It seems that the satirist hidden behind the tree is engaged in the same type of activity. Poussin was inspired by a series of engravings here, Lascivious By Italian Renaissance artist Agostino Carraci. Everything here is symbolic, even the vine climbing the tree, which suggests a loving embrace. The great art historian Anthony Blunt (1907-83) exhibited the Zürich canvas in a 1960 Poussin retrospective at the Louvre, before it was also judged. “beautiful” the following year, then delisted it in 1966. Other experts will also accuse Pucci of choosing such a subject for commercial purposes. The last word is given by Pierre Rosenberg, who included it “sure” In the catalog raisonné, which will be published by the end of 2023.

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