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Poussin and Rubens were considered the two poles in the Baroque debate between the forces of passion and reason. I want to show which pole each artist represents, and what characteristics in the work of each artist reflect their attitudes.
Each of the artists has a particular purpose as well as a particular expression. Poussin and Rubens, even though belonging to the same period of art, called Baroque, represent a different focus in art, two different ways of expression.
Of course the best way to prove that would be the simple contemplation of their paintings. If they were able to put it into words, they wouldn’t have had to paint it. We will give the words to explain it.
Baroque was above all a dominant style between Mannerism (1520-1600) and Rococo (1700). It is a style that flourished during the 17th century and shows vigorous motion and emotional intensity.
Many art critics would call it “the religious and political art of light and drama.”As principal characteristics we can point out action, motion, exploration of emotions, and interest in exploring the effects of light. Baroque is also a style with parallel styles within it, just as classicism with Poussin as the head, naturalism led by Caravaggio, and passion by Rubens and Bernini.
Peter Paul Rubens was born on June 28, 1577, in Siegen, Nassau, Westphalia [Germany] and died on May 30, 1640, in Antwerp, Spanish Netherlands (now in Belgium). “He was a Flemish painter who was the greatest exponent of Baroque painting’s dynamism, vitality, and sensuous exuberance.” 1
Rubens is perhaps the Baroque painter who captures motion in all its intensity and expressive value. Rubens is emotion itself in the baroque style, being at one the poles of this great period of art.
As I said, Rubens is in opposition to Poussin, whose lines go towards a classic pole. Rubens better represented emotions than anyone else. The passion of his style is contained above all in his techniques.
That is due to his constant search to depict emotions. The religious theme in his works is the most perfect example of exploration of emotions. When Rubens was a child he had to flee the Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium) with his whole family because of a religious persecution for his Calvinist beliefs.
After Jan’s death in 1587, the family returned to Antwerp, where young Peter Paul, raised in his mother’s Roman Catholic faith, received a classical education. Then the value of his faith contributed to depict the emotion of those moments. Really he was painting about something seated deep: his faith.
The art of Peter Paul Rubens is a fusion of the traditions of Flemish realism with the classicizing tendencies of the Italian Renaissance. Rubens was able to infuse his own astounding vitality into a powerful and exuberant style that came to epitomize the Baroque art of the 17th century. The ample, robust, and opulent figures in his paintings generate a pervasive sense of movement in vivid, dynamic compositions and passion
Nicolas Poussin, was born in June 1594, in Les Andelys, Normandy (now France) and died on November 19, 1665, Rome, Papal States (now Italy). He was a French painter and draftsman who founded the French Classical tradition. He spent virtually all of his working life in Rome, where he specialized in history paintings—depicting scenes from the Bible, ancient history, and mythology that are notable for their narrative clarity and dramatic force.
Poussin represents as said above, the most classicist style in the Baroque period, the one who ruled more ore towards the pole of reason. His earliest works are characterized by a sensuality and coloristic richness indebted to Venetian art, especially to Titian. This is something close to what Rubens did during his whole life.
But by 1633, Poussin had repudiated this overtly seductive style in favor of a more rational and disciplined manner that owed much to the Classicism of Raphael and antiquity. “Reason and not passion won his style in the end.” 3
The principal thesis of his style is the desire for perfection, which he only found in the reasonable art. He executed the majority of his canvases in this intensely idealized style. “Towards the end of his life, Poussin’s art underwent a further transformation as he diversified to depict landscapes and a group of profoundly pantheistic allegorical works that were ultimately concerned with the order and harmony of nature.” 4
His conversion to the art of reason, a more severe and cerebral style, had several consequences in his style such as clearly emphasizing delineation and modeling forms, and cold, pure colors. His compositions also became more rigorously ordered, with the figures often arranged in a friezelike manner parallel to the picture plane, in the style of an ancient relief.
Several art critics say that Poussin and Rubens were an antithesis of one another. They saw that there were two kinds of art (and artists), not readily reconcilable with one another
Nicolas Poussin was the master to emulate. He had the “grand manner” of Classicism, whose “first requirement…is that the subject and the narrative be grandiose, such as battles, heroic actions, and religious themes.” In practice this meant that a painting should show a certain restraint and moderation. It should be led by reason. 5
In other words, we can exalt Poussin’s sobriety, but also recognize Rubens’ passion and emotion as a different pole in this period of art. In 1647, Poussin outlined another theoretical principle that was to be crucially important for future generations of artists, particularly in the 19th century: his so-called “theory of the modes.” Basing his ideas on the modes of ancient music, Poussin observed that all aspects of a painting should be chosen to arouse an emotion in the viewer that is appropriate to the subject.
Rubens’ compositions tend to be crowded and confusing for lack of a focal point where the viewer can focus his attention. He uses bright colors. The protagonists are muscular (men) and fat (women). He uses constantly the spiral composition, as we can see in the The Assumption of the Virgin. The Baroque works of art are like a drama taking place on a stage.
This polarization of artistic theory—the recognition that there are two fundamentally different modes of art, whichever the critic prefers and theoretically justifies—recalls the ancient distinction between an art that is more rational than sensuous and an art that is more pleasing to the senses than to reason. It is in effect a distinction between painting that adheres to the rules of reason—evident in proportion and perspective and reinforced by linear clarity, that is, pure drawing—and painting that indulges in artistic license, which in practice means that it is colorful and painterly and thus erotically stimulating
Rubens and Poussin left a huge contribution to art. Both influenced painters after their death. At the Royal Academy in France the champions of color over line—the Baroque over the Classical—found their model in Rubens. The advent of the Rococo style, heralded by Antoine Watteau early in the 18th century, coincided with the triumph of these Rubenists.
Rubens’ profound stylistic influence extended over three centuries—from Van Dyck to the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir—and ranged far beyond Flanders. 7
Poussin with his theory of the modes, as I said, influenced painters of the 19th century. Despite this success, he employed no assistants or collaborators and reputedly never permitted anyone entry into his studio when he was working. His influence was only after his death, while Rubens taught in his own workshop, constantly working together with his fellows. He produced many more works than Poussin.
Not every artist is equal, they teach us how to express ourselves with different techniques, there is some that we may like best and others we don’t, but all of them did contribute for the history of art, we should be grateful for them.
5. M. STOKSTAD, Art history, Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, NY