This beautiful picture by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) is currently in the Detroit Institute of Arts – but it is possible that the museum will sell its collection to cover some $15-$17 billion in debt.
Poussin was the greatest painter of the classical French Baroque style. He lived for most of his life in Rome, where he felt he had access to the greatest masterpieces of antiquity. There is a stately majesty to his work, a brilliant command of drawing, and a sure eye for composition. Though he would fall out of favor for a long period after his death, his work was appreciated by intelligent aesthetes and he would go on to influence artists as diverse as Jean-August-Dominque Ingres (1780-1867) and Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825).
This remarkable picture tells the story of Selene and Endymion. Though accounts of the story vary – with Endymion either a shepherd, astronomer or king – they all agree upon his remarkable beauty. In one version of the story Selene, the Titan goddess of the moon, thought Endymion so beautiful that she asked Zeus to grant him eternal youth so that he would never leave her. Zeus granted her wish, but put him into eternal sleep. Selene would visit him each night where he slept – over time, the two would have 50 daughters. (Obviously Endymion was a light sleeper.)
In another version of the story Hypnos, the god of sleep, in awe of Endymion’s beauty, causes him to sleep with his eyes open, to better admire his natural face. Selene grew to love him from afar, and brought love to him during his dreams.
Selene was the twin sister of Apollo, so she was herself a great beauty. The Romans would later come to worship her as a triple deity, Luna (the sky), Diana (the earth), Hecate (the underworld).
The story of Selene and Endymion has captured the imagination of artists and poets from antiquity on. Endymion would stand as a symbol of eternal beauty – a joy forever. Poussin's painting shows Endymion awake, kneeling to welcome the arrival of the moon goddess, while her brother the sun-god is just beginning his journey across the heavens in his golden chariot.
The stagecraft of Poussin here is remarkable. The heavy blue curtains of night are opened to reveal the chariot of the sun lighting up the sky with various shades of yellow and gold. The scene is revealed almost like a theatrical tableaux, and the dramatic intensity is palpable.
The sheep and dog and the background point to Poussin illustrating the Endymion-as-shepherd version of the tale. The sleeping putti speak to the overall enchantment of Endymion and his environs and it is clear that we are in a mystical space.
One of the most interesting things is the relationship between the figures of Selene and Endymion. The youth falls to his knee in supplication before the moon goddess – this is not an act of romantic love, but religious adoration. Selene, with her half-moon diadem, returns the gaze, but it does not seem to be romantic (or even erotic) love she shares with the boy, but possession and comfort.
However, she holds love’s arrow in her hand, and she is as much a victim of Cupid as any mortal. To Poussin, the gods are magnificent and supernatural, but not unmoved by human passions.
This is not a large picture (some 48x66), but the scope of Poussin’s vision is impressive. The story of Selene and Endymion is also rife with subtext; Endymion finds the love of an idealized god (and eternal youth) in his dreams. How richly populated by myth and beauty are our own dreams? To what extend are our dreams our true lives, the realest manifestation of our selves? The power of myth is closely akin to the power of dreams, and we dismiss the power of either at our own peril.
Tomorrow, we go to the movies see a contemporary blockbuster.