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January 1995

The “High Art” of Nicolas Poussin

by Karen Wilkin

On the Poussin retrospective at the Louvre.

Hardly anyone dares use the term “High Art” these days—not without high irony—but it’s difficult to know how else to categorize works that present elevated and learned themes with great formal rigor and scrupulous evocation of the antique. Think of the stately rhythms of Corneille’s verse dramas, the astringent harmonies of Charpentier’s operas, and the recondite plots, drawn from mythology, of both; then think of the sober, passionate canvases of their near-contemporary, Nicolas Poussin (1594– 1665), and you know exactly what I mean: arcadian landscapes and scenes of ancient cities, where idealized men and women, gods and heroes, patriarchs and saints, solemnly enact remote dramas, like stage performers frozen in noble, expressive attitudes—pictures whose authority and sureness, no less than their subject matter or manner, make only the problematic phrase “High Art” seem appropriate. ...

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Karen Wilkin is an independent curator and critic.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 January 1995, on page 18

Copyright © 2015 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

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