POUSSIN, Nicolas
(b. 1594, Les Andelys, d. 1665, Roma)

Landscape with St Matthew and the Angel

c. 1645
Oil on canvas, 99 x 135 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

In the Campanian landscape Matthew the Evangelist is sitting on a stone amongst the ruins of ancient buildings, harkening to an angel who stands before him. A painting of St John on Patmos, of similar design and equal size, in the Art Institute of Chicago was originally a companion-piece to the one in Berlin; they probably formed part of an unfinished series of landscapes with the four Evangelists. The two paintings appear to have parted company at an early stage. Unforeseen circumstances seem to have prevented the completion of the series. Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who presumably commissioned Poussin to paint the pictures (this work is mentioned in an inventory of the Palazzo Barberini of 1692), was forced to flee Rome in 1645, following the death of his uncle, Pope Urban VIII; this would have been reason enough for the painter to leave the series unfinished, in which case the St Matthew landscape must have been the only one the Cardinal actually received, and the second picture sold to another buyer. This would suggest that both pictures were painted before or around 1645, this date being borne out by the development of Poussin's style, for he had just returned to Italy after a luckless interlude as Court painter in Paris.

In the Berlin painting Poussin has introduced realistic impressions of nature, deriving ostensibly from the Tiber valley at Aqua Acetosa not far from Rome. But there is no question of an exact reproduction of the topographical features, such as the North European artists in Italy so often tried to achieve. As in all Poussin's works, the composition here is essentially imaginative: the double bend of the river conveys the full depth of the valley, while the soaring tower of a distant ruin is the dominant vertical feature of the landscape, lending emphasis to the quiet dialogue between Evangelist and angel; his own features shaded, Matthew looks up at the divine messenger who stands bathed in a bright light. The remains of the building material, stones cut in cubic and cylindrical forms, not only provide depth and perspective but also lend a note of gravity to this heroic landscape, and are so placed as to achieve the maximum artistic effect.

At the end of the eighteenth century this painting formed part of a legacy to the Colonna di Sciarra family, and its presence in their palazzo was confirmed in 1820. In 1873 it was acquired for the Berlin Gallery.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 8 minutes):
Johann Sebastian Bach: St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 (excerpts)