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

Landscape with Diana and Orion

Oil on canvas, 119 x 183 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Poussin in old age was the grand old man of French painters in Rome. Esteemed by all and collected by discerning connoisseurs, he was revered as the man who had elevated painting to a much more serious plane than many of his Italian contemporaries, whose stature was often that of a decorator. In the early 1660s, however, a great change, which has to be described as a totally new phase, came over Poussin's art. Only a few pictures from this period survive, the earliest of which is probably the Landscape with Diana and Orion.

The change is in the completely different handling of paint, which shows his preoccupation with surface texture, and a relaxation of mood. His sense of severity and order has disappeared and been replaced by a mood much more akin to the last works of Titian, such as the Diana and Actaeon in the National Gallery, London. In the New York picture the forms are less rigid than previously, and there is a return to the sense of rhythm last seen in his work of the 1630s. The landscape becomes a much more sensual interpretation of such types of painting as the Diogenes.

In Greek mythology Orion was a hunter of gigantic stature. Drunk with wine he once tried to rape a princess of Chios, but her father punished Orion by blinding him. An oracle told him to travel east to the furthest edge of the world where the rays of the rising sun would heal his sight. On his journey he passed the forge of Vulcan whence he carried off an apprentice named Cedalion to guide him on his way. In due course Orion's sight was restored.

Poussin shows the giant, bow in hand, striding through a wooded countryside towards a distant sea. Cedalion perches on his shoulders. Vulcan stands at the roadside pointing out the way. A cloud, wafting round Orion's face, suggests that his sight is veiled. Another myth tells how Orion eventually died at the hand of Diana who set his image among the stars. She is seen floating above him.