Rachel Cohen

Looking at Poussin

Read the Essay in the Threepenny Review

This essay, on the occasion of the Metropolitan Museum's Poussin Exhibition, "Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions," February 12-May 11, 2008, appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of The Threepenny Review.  

"However, if you did not manage to get to New York, and if you live in London, St. Petersburg, Paris, Berlin, Liverpool, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston, Rome, Los Angeles, or Montreal, there are Poussins in your city. It takes a few technical skills of looking, which, over time, people seem generally to arrive at. (After years of working on my own method, it was a pleasure recently to come across the lovely passages of observation in T. J. Clark's The Sight of Death, and to see that there are just some natural ways of looking at Poussin, and the more time you spend with him, the more likely they are to develop.) But you may not have months, and so here is what you must do. First—and this is the only really important thing—you must agree with yourself that you will look at one painting for ten minutes. You shrug; you think, I've often done that; but in fact you have not. Ten minutes in front of a painting feels like an almost infinite amount of time. Your back will hurt, you will feel bored... take a friend, and certainly a watch: as with adjusting to a dark room, the eye cannot be hurried, and nothing will be accomplished unless you hold yourself to a single painting for ten minutes. Second, throughout, you must keep trusting your eyes and giving them freedom to rove about—they are figuring things out about how to look that your mind will not, for a while, be aware of."