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Writings on art; ‘Poussin and an empty room’



At first sight, the colour is restrained, with a general look of wellbeing; a carefully constructed world of warm colours, a harmoniously arranged landscape of trees, hills, people – rustic types going about their rustic lives – distant buildings that suggest a good life. Life at its best. But somehow a life seperate from the one I now stand in.

Up high, a cloud, lit up like heaven. To one side, a tree, bending protectively. In the distance, a group of people emerge from a temple…the unheard music of a religious procession.

Then, the arrangement of houses, buildings, trees and hills unfolds as we take time to look. There is an order, a certain sureness or confidence in the way things are placed; there is something satisfying in seeing things laid out this way, arranged for the eye to wander, the mind to drift off and to simply enjoy the display of bare facts. That view across the lake to a prospect of road, figures, hills – all perfectly composed, like a set of complete scenes in themselves. Small separate pictures to wander down. Cutting across one such section are golden leaves caught in the light, a small branch of a larger tree that has been cut. Women go about their washing. A shepherd stands watching his sheep. Some people stand on raised ground, looking.

It is a world perfected, stilled, ordered. You remember a place just like it – it was one of those perfect moments when you glimpsed a distant hill beyond, in the late afternoon light, and your heart was moved with a longing, to go over there, where everything is perfect and free and feels like the home to which you always belonged …

In the foreground, what is this? Two men, carrying something. All is not as it seems.

Poussin Phocion drawing 2

Where are they going? It doesn’t matter. Where are they coming from? The city –  back where life continues.

Then the theme of the work starts to take hold; this is a picture about sadness.

The men before us are weeping, each alone in his grief. Their physical strength, their stoical mien, belied by the look on their faces. Look close. See their faces. Their shoulders set, their hands gripped tight…then see the shrouded figure they carry.

This was someone they loved. This will be you.

It is a picture that contains the poignant feeling of the world carrying on, seemingly indifferent, in spite of ones loss and pain. Something that everyone feels at some point in their life. And it is when we realise that this universal emotion is contained within the painting – something we all feel – that gradually it looks different; somehow more real, more powerful. And the fact that it takes time for this to happen is, for me, one of it’s strengths. Words like “heroic nobility” and “quiet solemnity” hardly come close to expressing it. It’s the fact that this expression  of personal pain is part of a calm, ordered world, contained within it, made part of it, that somehow makes it easier to bear. And also the fact that the painting is structured in a way that is stable, calm, peaceful. As time passes, I am aware of it’s timelessness – and I am sure it felt this way when it was first painted, because it is based partly on a Rome of the imagination, a Rome of longing, as much as the Rome of a quiet walk by the Tiber in 1648. And so, I am left feeling different about my own world, my own pain…

The world suddenly looks different. But it is not the world or the painting that has changed. It is me. As I stand in this room with this painting, it becomes part of me and I of it, and I feel better for it, in the sense that it has brought out something that is almost completely unconscious and intuitive. For those long, slow minutes standing before the painting, I feel both calmed and also enriched, as if I had been given a precious gift, or some invaluable advice that makes it all seem more bearable and lighter. It is a kind of meditation.

As I leave and pass the other paintings – brighter, more colourful, more modern though they be – most of them seem to be flimsy vessels, unable to contain the kind of deep, cold draught of water I have just been drinking…

Poussin Phocion drawing


“Landscape with the funeral of Phocion” by Nicolas Poussin can be seen in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.