Nicolas Poussin (1594–1666)
Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (c. 1648)
Oil on canvas; 47 x 78 3/8 in. (119.5 x 199 cm)
The National Gallery, London
Professor T. J. Clark of The University of California, Berkeley once wrote a book about two paintings, one of which was Poussin`s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (National Gallery, London)
The book was entitled The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing
It is a fascinating work which explores amongst other things the repellent beauty of snakes and man`s reaction to them
The setting of the painting is a vision of Arcadia. But beside a stream, a man lies dead. A snake lies beside him. It is clear what has happened. A man sees the man. His fear is palpable and he is running for help. One does wonder why he doesn`t go towards the man and attempt to assist if he can. Why is he so sure that he is beyond help ?
The woman in whose direction he is running is alarmed by the man`s distress. She appears unaware of what the python has done. The fishermen in the background appear to be totally oblivious to what is going on a short distance from them.
There are other figures in the background at the far side of the lake. Presumably they are oblivious to what has happened.
The action lies a short distance from a great fortified town filled with people. Yet within a short distance from it, a solitary man has fallen victim to a deadly creature. Life will no doubt continue.
A landscape with poetic narrative and reflection.
Poussin's painting has been the subject of numerous attempts at interpretation. Clark`s book is the latest.
The snake is said to be a python. The python is not native to Europe. One wonders if the scene is Southern Italy and if so who introduced the python to the scene.
It kills its prey by a process known as constriction. Death is by asphyxiation. The life is squeezed out of the victim.
Did it lurk in wait for prey ? Or did the victim unfortunately come across the snake and disturb it by accident ? A horrible death.
Evil comes to Eden, or has it always been there ? The countryside and Nature were supposed to be refuges. But here there is danger and death.
One is reminded of the temporary and fragile nature of life, work and happiness. Fear and terror grip the man who has come upon the scene. Man is part of God`s creation, supposedly the acme of creation and here we see him snuffed out by another of God`s creatures.
Snakes and serpents have been symbols of evil, wisdom, the promise of fertility and the power of healing. Snakes have been represented in stories: Adam and Eve; Cadmus, the founder of Thebes; the death of Laocoõn the Trojan priest; and Cleopatra's suicide. Poussin has been described as a poet in painting.He has even been described as the Milton of Painting.
He wanted to understand Nature and its laws. His works are didactic. He explores morality and emotions.
It has been persuasively argued that Poussin embraced the tenets of Stoicism, with its emphasis on reason and detachment in the face of the "storms of life."
Another French artist who used the symbols of the snake or viper and paradise in a different medium was the French Catholic novelist François Mauriac (1885 - 1970)
In his speech of acceptance for the Nobel prize for Literature in 1952 he said:
"No writer who keeps in the centre of his work the human creature made in the image of the Father, redeemed by the Son, and illuminated by the Spirit, can in my opinion be considered a master of despair, be his picture ever so sombre.
For his picture does remain sombre, since for him the nature of man is wounded, if not corrupted.
It goes without saying that human history as told by a Christian novelist cannot be based on the idyll because he must not shy away from the mystery of evil.
But to be obsessed by evil is also to be obsessed by purity and childhood. It makes me sad that the too hasty critics and readers have not realized the place which the child occupies in my stories. A child dreams at the heart of all my books; they contain the loves of children, first kisses and first solitude, all the things that I have cherished in the music of Mozart.
The serpents in my books have been noticed, but not the doves that have made their nests in more than one chapter; for in my books childhood is the lost paradise, and it introduces the mystery of evil.
The mystery of evil-there are no two ways of approaching it. We must either deny evil or we must accept it as it appears both within ourselves and without - in our individual lives, that of our passions, as well as in the history written with the blood of men by power-hungry empires."
One of his most famous works was written before the Second World War: Le Nœud de vipères (1932)
In English, the title can be translated as The Nest of Vipers, or The Tangle of Vipers
The narrator is Monsieur Louis, an old lawyer who is approaching death. He starts writing. First it is to be a letter to his wife to be read by her after his death. It is to tell her how he has despised her. After the death of his wife, it becomes a journal.
He is accustomed to despising those around him: his wife and his children. He is accustomed to seeing himself as a lone and solitary "monster" as those around see him. It was not always so, we learn. But we feel that over a long number of years, he is like the victim of the python in Poussin`s painting: he has had the life slowly squeezed out of him and he has been unable to escape its grasp.
There are signs that he has not enjoyed this and has all this time been searching out for someone to love and for someone to love him.
He feels his wife is indifferent to him, that she lavishes all her love on their children, and he resents her religious piety. The only child for whom he ever felt true love, was Marie who died young
His wife dies. The Journal becomes involved more and more in his coming to terms with the acts of his life and how he plans to face his death
It is a profound work. It explores in great detail the emotions and motives prompting the main character and those around him, who react with him. Mauriac said in a note:
“The man here depicted was the enemy of his own flesh and blood. His heart was eaten up by hatred and by avarice. Yet, I would have you, in spite of his baseness, feel pity and be moved by his predicament. All through his dreary life, squalid passions stood between him and that radiance that was so close that an occasional ray could still break through to touch and burn him: not only his own passions, but, primarily, those of the lukewarm Christians who spied upon his actions, and whom he himself tormented. Too many of us are similarly at fault, driving the sinner to despair and blinding his eyes to the light of truth.”