Nicolas Poussin
French, 1594–1665
Landscape with Saint John on Patmos
1640

Oil on canvas

100.3 x 136.4 cm (39 1/2 x 53 5/8 in.)
A. A. Munger Collection, 1930.500

Nicolas Poussin was among the most influential of 17th-century French painters, and his art has become synonymous with the ideals of Baroque classicism. Although a native of France, he spent the majority of his career in Italy, where he was close to the ruins and remnants of the ancient Greco-Roman culture he so admired. His study of Neo-Stoic philosophy, which was rooted in ancient Greek thought and stressed pursuit of moral duty and emotional self-control, exerted considerable influence on the themes and style of his paintings. Devoted primarily to history painting and biblical and mythological imagery, Poussin often set his subjects within landscapes, as seen in this presentation of Saint John the Evangelist on an imaginary recreation of the Greek island of Patmos. Banished there by the Roman Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81–96) for his Christian beliefs, the saint, seated in the foreground, records his visions of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. An eagle, a traditional symbol of Saint John, stands in profile behind him. The painting is one of a pair. Its pendant depicts Saint Matthew and hangs in the Berlin Museum.

In keeping with Neo-Stoic ideals, which placed importance on reason and the laws of nature, Poussin imposed rigorous order on the natural scenery he painted. Spatial depth is clearly defined and reinforced by a series of zig-zags and curves that gradually lead the eye from foreground to middleground to background. Repeated shapes, such as triangles (formed by the ruins in the right foreground, Saint John's body, and the peak of the obelisk) also emphasize the order and structure of the natural world and man's place within it. The ruins of antiquity surrounding the saint are intended to suggest the fall of pagan beliefs of the Greco-Roman world, which were supplanted by the new faith of Christianity. In addition to several recognizable landmarks of ancient Rome in the distance (such as Hadrian's tomb), Poussin included an ancient Egyptian obelisk and an imaginary temple-like structure with Corinthian columns.

Jacob van Ruisdael

Dutch, c.1628–1682
Landscape with the Ruins of the Castle of Egmond
1650/55

Oil on canvas

38 7/8 x 51 3/8 in. (98 x 130 cm)

Inscribed in lower right: JUR in ligature
Potter Palmer Collection, 1947.475

Unlike Poussin, who set his landscapes in the ancient world, Jacob van Ruisdael depicted contemporary Holland. The work, which portrays the ruins of the Castle of Egmond, is an overtly patriotic statement of Dutch freedom. The castle was damaged in 1575 during a war in which the Dutch fought to free themselves from Spanish occupation. Rather than surrender the castle to the enemy, the Prince of Orange ordered his troops to set fire to it.

Beside the stirring reminder of national sacrifice that the ruins provide is the theme of the power of nature over man. Against a gray, threatening sky, nature runs rampant over the castle remains. Trees, shrubs, and ivy grow over the walls. Nature's greenery, including the forested hills, triumphs, overwhelming man (note the tiny shepherd) and his achievements. Ruisdael's view of nature is apparent in the following passage from a letter to his fellow artist and friend Nicolas Bercham: "Nothing endures on this earth—time, wind, and water all grind to dust, the feeble works of human hands as well as trees and rocks."

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