Perspective | This masterpiece ‘Birth of Venus’ probably isn’t of Venus at all

This beautiful painting by Nicolas Poussin has for centuries bamboozled art historians, who can’t decide whether it’s showing the birth of Venus or the triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite.

Debates like this are the marrow of the specialist field of art history. If they don’t initially quicken your pulse, don’t worry. Just try to keep in mind something Edgar Degas once said (a mantra to live by, in my judgment): “What a delightful thing is the conversation of specialists! One understands absolutely nothing and it’s charming.”

What makes such debates unusually exciting in the case of Poussin is not only the Frenchman’s unrivaled reputation for philosophical richness but also — tangentially but titillatingly — that the leading Poussin authority in the 20th century was (a) in charge of Queen Elizabeth II’s art collection and (b) a Soviet spy.

The queen, who owned a great many works by Poussin, was told of Sir Anthony Blunt’s treachery in 1964 but deemed it in the national interest to remain discreet about it. So the rest of the world didn’t find out until Margaret Thatcher made it public in 1979.

Any art historian willing to take on Poussin, in other words, is also going toe-to-toe with a traitor who willingly served Joseph Stalin, mentored half of Britain’s art establishment and has been the subject of plays, spy dramas and novels.

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That said, Poussin can be a bit boring. As well as intellectually arcane, his pictures can look stiff when compared with Titian, whom he revered, or his contemporaries Velázquez, Rubens, Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Yet Poussin is at the center of the French classical tradition, and David, Ingres, Degas, Cézanne and Matisse all saw how dynamic and intoxicating his work can be.

This 1635 or 1636 painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a splendid example. Symmetrically structured, the picture is a perfect synthesis of frieze-like legibility (Poussin was heavily influenced by ancient reliefs and vases showing processions of Dionysian dancers) and convincing spatial depth, as Poussin shows the thrusts and counterthrusts of bodies revolving in space.

Illuminated from the left, its 10 principal figures (plus six putti in the sky, several background figures and various dolphins and horses) are all shown mid-movement. But those movements are so fastidiously choreographed that the entire confection expresses what the poet Wallace Stevens would later call a “blessed rage for order.”

Drawings Poussin made in preparation for the painting show that he was toying with the themes of the birth of Venus and the sea nymph Galatea. Recent scholarship, however, suggests that the most likely subject is Neptune and Amphitrite. Certainly, the well-muscled graybeard at left must be Neptune. You can tell by his trident.

In the 1960s, following Blunt’s lead, scholars began arguing for the birth of Venus, causing the Philadelphia Museum of Art to change the title. There is evidence for the Venus theory, but the main obstacle is that no ancient sources appear to show Neptune present at her dramatic birth. Amphitrite’s story, by contrast, can be found in various antique sources with which Poussin would have been familiar.

When Amphitrite married Neptune, she became queen of the sea and mother of all sea life. She had initially resisted Neptune, fleeing to the edge of the world in response to his advances. But Neptune sent a dolphin to find her and change her mind. Here, Poussin depicts Amphitrite after she has acquiesced to Neptune’s overtures and accepted her triumphal wedding ceremony.

What then, by choosing this subject, was Poussin trying to communicate? I defer to the charms of an expert:

“The marriage and journey of Neptune and Amphitrite across the sea,” writes art historian Troy Thomas, “symbolize the transition from this life to the next.” Poussin painted a celebration of marriage that also expresses, he continues, the “fragility of human existence and, with death, immortality and eternal joy.”

Sounds plausible to me. In any event, what a picture!

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