AHCS Speaker Series | Hilliard T. Goldfarb: "Was Nicolas Poussin really an Atheist?: Faith, Archaeology and Classicism in Seventeenth-Century Rome"


Arts Building W-215, 853 rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montreal, QC, H3A 0G5, CA

Hilliard T. Goldfarb

"Was Nicolas Poussin really an Atheist?: Faith, Archaeology and Classicism in Seventeenth-Century Rome"

Bio: Hilliard Goldfarb is Senior Curator of Collections and Curator of Old Masters at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He has curated the exhibition Rembrandt Creates Rembrandt: Art and Ambition in Leiden, 1629–1631 at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston (Sep. 2000 – Jan. 2001), and most recently Splendore a Venezia: Art and Music from the Renaissance to Baroque in Venice at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Oct. 2013 – Jan. 2014). 

He is the author of numerous publications and exhibition catalogues, including: Toulouse-Lautrec illustrates the Belle Epoque (Yale UP for Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2016), From the Hands of the Masters: A Private Collection (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, 2013), Richelieu: Art and Power (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2002), Titian and Rubens: Power, Politics, and Style (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1998), Botticelli's Witness: Changing Style in a Changing Florence (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1997), A Humanist Vision: The Adolph Weil, Jr. Collection of Rembrandt Prints (Hood Museum of Art, 1988).

Abstract: Nicolas Poussin stands as the most revered artist in the history of France, although he lived and worked in Rome by choice for 40 years. This great figure influenced artists for centuries, from Jacques-Louis David to Pablo Picasso.

To some extent, our vision of Poussin has been molded by the work of our brilliant predecessors, scholars who unconsciously and consciously brought their own predispositions, including atheism, into their characterizations and focuses upon him. Poussin became the model of cool intellectualism and severe classicism, as asserted by biographers and art theoreticians of his own times (e.g. Giovanni Pietro Bellori), the Académie Royale des Peintures and its post-revolutionary successor, as well as such modern scholars as Anthony Blunt, Jacques Thuillier and their successors: he has been academicised into the embodiment of French secular rationalism. Yet nearly half of his works bear religious themes, including two remarkable series of depictions of the Seven Sacraments, among his greatest masterpieces.

This lecture will explore aspects of the actual Roman culture that Poussin experienced, of the passion for archaeological rediscovery of the earliest Church history, from explorations of the catacombs to the researches of scholars such as Cardinal Cesare Baronio. It will also examine the broader religious climate in Rome in which Poussin himself worked for most of his active career. It will present the evidence of religious affiliations of those close to him, explore the nature of neo-Stoicism in the seventeenth century, a philosophical movement with which Poussin is generally associated, and will close on some revealing archival discoveries on the artist himself.

The thesis of this lecture is essentially that the weight of evidence, both circumstantial and direct, is that Poussin, contrary to being an atheist, was a sincerely believing Catholic. Such a positing of faith in no way diminishes the breadth of sources and subjects that the artist explored, nor a neo-stoic disposition. The talk will culminate in an exploration of one of the most moving of Nicolas Poussin’s works, his sombre and profoundly tragic depiction of the Crucifixion of Christ.