Sunday, November 18, 2007

Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake

A few months ago I did a search on Scholars for paintings with titles starting ‘Landscape with…’ I was curious to see some of the subjects that gave artists as excuse to paint landscapes. There were landscapes ‘with’ each of the following:
Animals, Aqueduct, Artist Drawing, Baptism of Christ, Baptism of Christ and St. John the Baptist Preaching, Birds, Board Fence, Boat, Bowlers, Bridge, Bridge and Castle, Buildings, Castle, Castle and Inn, Castle on Lake Shore, Cephalus and Procris, Chateau (Le Chateau au Crepescule), Christ Carrying Cross, Christ on the Road to Emmaus, City and River, City on the Sea, Classical Ruins, Clay Pipe, Cow Drinking, Cows, Cows and Duck Hunters, Dead Tree, Deer Hunt, Domestic Animals and Children, Figures, Figures and Rainbow, Finding of Moses, Fishermen, Fishing Boats, Flight into Egypt, Footbridge, Ford, Gallows, Good Samaritan, Green Corn, Grove of Trees, Gushing River, Gypsies, Hermit (St. Fulgentius), Hunters, Inn, Inn and Skittles, Ironworks, Loaded Boats, Man and Trees, Mill, Peasants, Pythagoras, Rest on Flight into Egypt, Rising Moon, River, Road to Emmaus, Robbers, Ruins, Ruins of Monastery, Satyr, Saw Mill, Scenes from Life of St. John the Baptist and Christ, Shepherds, Shepherds and Countryfolk, Shipwreck, Square Tower, St. Anthony the Hermit, St. Christopher, St. Francis, St. Jerome Penitent, St. Paul the Hermit, Stormy Sea, Thamar and Juda, the Fall of Icarus, Tower, Trees (Rocks and Trees), Trees and Village, Two Trees, Viaduct, Mont Saint-Victoire, Village, Village by the River, Washerwomen, Waterfall, Wild Horses, Windmill, Woman Washing Her Legs, and Women in the Foreground.

There is an interesting essay in the posthumous Louis Marin collection, Sublime Poussin (trans. Catherine Porter), called ‘Description of an Image’ which talks about the ways titles like these operate. Marin notes that ‘Landscapes with a subject’ are a subgenre of landscape painting and as the list above indicates, the subject can itself come from different genres. Marin discusses Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (c1648), where the subject may be a myth, story or contemporary event: the title is not explicit. If it were called Landscape with Cadmus and the Snake, as it has been in the past, it would take its place more firmly in the genre of mythological paintings.

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, c1648

The trees, sky, lake and pathway which take up most of this picture can be expressed in just one word ‘Landscape’, but the human subject needs more words to pin it down. Marin notes that this may reflect the opposition between ‘timeless’ static landscape which can be shown pictorially, and sequential narrative which is easier to relate in words. But it is more complex than this. The landscape is like the setting for a drama, and Marin distinguishes between decor, the backdrop which has no link to the human action, and stage which is the situation for the story: actors tread the stage but do not interact with the decor. In Poussin’s painting, the stream at the bottom is tied in to the action: this is where the man lies killed by the snake, perhaps after going to draw water. However, the sky, the trees and the mountains in the distance are more like decor, a (welcome) distraction from the events unfolding at the front of the stage.

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