(b. 1594, Les Andelys, d. 1665, Roma)
The Adoration of the Golden Calfc. 1634
Oil on canvas, Iaid down on board, 154 x 214 cm
National Gallery, London
How Nicolas Poussin the son of a Norman farmer became Nicolas Poussin 'painter-philosopher' in Rome, with 'a mind...as it were naturalised in antiquity', is one of the great triumphs of pertinacity over circumstance. Few artists of his importance have had such inadequate training, or found their true vocation so late. His interest in art was aroused by a minor itinerant painter working in a local church in Les Andelys. In the same year, 1611/12, Poussin left home for Paris. After years of hardship, and two unsuccessful attempts to reach Rome, he attracted favourable attention in 1622 with six paintings for the Jesuits. In 1624 he finally settled in Rome, firmly intent on emulating Raphael and ancient sculpture.
Poussin's early period in Italy was barely easier than his years in Paris. As well as Raphael, engravings, statuary and a famous ancient wall-painting then in a princely collection, he studied Domenichino and Guido Reni and discovered Titian, whose Bacchus and Ariadne among other mythological scenes had just been brought to Rome from Ferrara. Not until he was about 35 did Poussin find his own voice, and patrons to heed it. From about 1630, with the exception of an unhappy interlude in Paris working for the king in 1640-2, he mainly painted smallish canvases for private collectors. Out of his very limitations, he created a new kind of art: the domestic 'history painting' with full-length but small-scale figures, for the edification and delight of the few. Seldom has a painter been more intense, more serious and, in the event, more influential.
The Adoration of the Golden Calf was originally paired with the Crossing of the Red Sea now in Melbourne. Both illustrate episodes from Exodus in the Old Testament; this painting relates to chapter 32. In the wilderness of Sinai the children of Israel, disheartened by Moses' long absence, asked Aaron to make them gods to lead them. Having collected all their gold earrings, Aaron melted them down into the shape of a calf, which they worshipped. In the background on the left Moses and Joshua come down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Hearing singing and seeing 'the calf and the dancing...Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.' The tall bearded figure in white is Aaron still 'making proclamation' of a feast to the false god.
Poussin is said to have made little figures of clay to use as models, and the story is confirmed by the dancers in the foreground. They are a mirror image of a pagan group of nymphs and satyrs carousing in Poussin's earlier Bacchanalian Revel also in the National Gallery. Within a majestic landscape painted in the bold colours Poussin learned from Titian, before a huge golden idol more bull than calf (and many earrings' worth), these Israelite revellers give homage to the potency of Poussin's vision of antiquity. As on a sculpted relief or painted Greek vase, figures are shown in suspended animation, heightened gestures or movements isolated from those of their neighbours, so that the effect of the whole is at one and the same time violent and static.