Abstract 
This essay outlines the relationship between José Donoso’s A House in the Country and the landscape paintings of French Baroque artist Nicolas Poussin.   It begins with an examination of the passage in which Donoso describes how his narrative has been constructed to resemble a Poussin painting, and follows with an analysis of additional portions of text, as well as specific paintings by Poussin, which further illustrate this connection.

A gallery of landscape masterpieces adorns the pages of Chilean author José Donoso’s 1984 novel, A House in the Country.  In the opening chapter, the adult members of the wealthy Ventura family depart for a picnic inspired by Celeste Ventura’s viewing of L’Embarquement pour Cythère, a 1717 painting by French artist Antoine Watteau, which hangs in the Ventura home at Marulanda.  Once thought to portray a trip to Cythera, the site where Venus was said to have risen from the sea, it is now widely understood that L’Embarquement most likely illustrates a departure from the mythical island, as indicated by the courtly pilgrims’ subdued gestures and comportment and, as described by Pierre Schneider, their reluctance “to leave their dreamy idyll and return to land, to reality” (Schneider 106).  

  This notion of a retreat from, or, more pointedly, obscuring of, reality forms one of the major themes of Donoso’s novel, and Celeste’s later references to the landscapes of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, as well as to Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, work to a similar effect, in that both artists present an idealized re-imagining of nature, rather than a duplication of space in their contemporary worlds.  Much like Celeste, who invokes paintings as a source of behavior to be imitated or scorned, Donoso breaks through the narrative on several occasions to explain how portions of the text mimic certain stylistic flourishes of Hubert Robert, Salvatore Rosa, Paolo Uccello, and Nicolas Poussin, all painters known for highly-stylized landscapes dominated by light, form, space, and color.  Although Donoso stops short of identifying a specific painting by any of these four artists that might provide a complete visual analog to A House in the Country, his focus on landscape as the site of retreat, and on the themes of blindness and nature’s wrath, link the novel to many of Poussin’s later landscapes in a way that is undeniably evocative.  
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Fig. 1.Watteau, Antoine. The Embarkation for Cythera. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

It would be difficult to undertake any comparison of A House in the Country to Poussin’s landscapes without first examining the passage in the novel in which Donoso explicitly mentions the artist in reference to the construction of his narrative:

Wenceslao, like my other children, is an emblematic figure:  the most memorable, perhaps, of a number of boys and girls, who as in a Poussin painting, caper in the foreground, untraceable to any model because they are not portraits, their features unconstrained by any but the most formal lineaments of individuality or passion.  They and their games are little more than a pretext for the painting to have a name, because what it expresses does not reside in those quaint games which merely provide a focal point:  no, a higher place in the artist’s intent has been given to the interaction between these figures and the landscape of rocks and valleys and trees that stretches toward the horizon, where, in golden proportion, it gives way to the beautiful, stirring, intangible sky, creating that unabashedly unreal space which is the true protagonist of the painting, as pure narrative is the protagonist in a novel that sets out to grind up characters, time, space psychology, and sociology in one great tide of language.  (Donoso 263)

In this passage, Donoso seems to suggest that if painted by Poussin, the escapades of Wenceslao and the other Ventura children would be called something like The Children’s Game, a title not found in the artist’s extensive oeuvre.  Poussin does, however, have several earlier paintings that feature children, usually cherubs, playing in the foreground of a landscape, as exemplified by the 1626 work, Venus and Adonis (View of Grottaferrata) (Fig. 2).  

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Fig. 2. Nicolas Poussin, Venus and Adonis (View of Grottaferrata), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.



      Painted during Poussin’s early years in Rome, the piece features five nearly-identical cherubs, or putti, playing near the embracing figures of Venus and Adonis.  While the putti do fulfill an emblematic role in their representation of love and youth, the landscape, with its overwhelming canopy; rather simple, monochromatic hills; and barely-visible sky; fails to achieve the level of grandeur Donoso describes as being the “true protagonist of the painting.”  Also problematic is its representation, not of an “unabashedly unreal space,” but of Grottaferrata, a location easily-recognizable to Romans of Poussin’s era (Rosenberg 140). 

The artists’ unsteady handling of natural space in early work like Venus and Adonis has been by well-documented by Poussin scholars, including Alain Mérot, who writes that, “There was little at first to suggest that Nicolas Poussin would become one of the greatest landscape painters in Western art” (Mérot 51).  According to Mérot, Poussin’s fascination with the “poetic sensuality of Venetian Renaissance painting” did not give way to an adept treatment of landscape until the late 1630s, when Poussin, then in his forties, began:

grappling with problems largely ignored until then, such as how to place his characters in a complex setting, how to create a sense of depth with this new space, and how to light an outdoor scene adequately—in short, how to make nature not merely an allusive and casually-rendered state décor, but rather the essential element of the composition.  (Mérot 51) 


One of the most famous examples of the sort of mature work Mérot describes, and to which Donoso implicitly likens the machinations of his novel, is Poussin’s Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice (Fig. 3), completed sometime between 1648 and 1650.  Though landscape clearly dominates the visual narrative, attempting to situate the Ventura children within it presents a different, though no less troubling, set of problems than the Venus and Adonis.  Instead of putti, it is adults who occupy the foreground, and while there is a sense of merriment expressed in Orpheus’ strumming of his lyre, there is also a feeling of profound unease, as demonstrated by Eurydice’s recoiling from a snake who has just bitten her heel, as well as in the fisherman’s look of concern and the clouds of smoke un-spooling into the sky (Rosenberg 238-239).  Despite the absence of capering children, the sudden disturbance of order caused by the snake in Orpheus and Eurydice echoes the growing sense of chaos in the seemingly tranquil grounds of Marulanda.  By the time the novel begins, the Ventura children’s carefree days of  frolicking on the lawn, if indeed there ever were such days, have drawn to a close, replaced instead by panic, delusion, and, in the case of characters like Wenceslao and Casilda, scheming.  If the correspondences between this suggested scene to either Orpheus and Eurydice or Venus and Adonis seem inexact, perhaps it is because Donoso, rather than wanting to limit a comparison of any one element of the novel to a singular painting by Poussin, instead sought to deepen the layers of artifice at work in the overall narrative by suggesting a relationship to not one, but many, of Poussin’s later landscape paintings. 

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Fig. 3 Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The staging of landscape as the site of retreat is a theme common to Donoso’s A House in the Country and to Poussin’s later works.  The very premise of the novel, a wealthy family retiring to their country home for the summer, mirrors the practice, common to many of Poussin’s early patrons, of retiring to villas on the outskirts of Rome during summer months.  Poussin, too, was known to value privacy and quiet contemplation, and his interest in nature is said to have taken hold around 1630, nearly a decade before he began producing his most well-known landscapes (Pace 76).  Quoting Poussin’s biographer Félibien, Claire Pace writes that Poussin “‘avoided social gatherings as much as he could so that he could retire alone to the vignes [vineyards] and most remote places in Rome. . . . It was during these retreats and solitary walks that he made light sketches of things he came across. . . .’” (Pace 75).  In A House in the Country, the idea of nature as a place of retreat first arises through the Ventura’s yearly habit of abandoning city life for Marulanda, a property seen most clearly just before the adults’ departure, as Wenceslao sneaks a visit to his father, Adriano, who is incarcerated in a garret.  Observing his cousins gathering on the south terrace, Wenceslao notes how his family “. . . belonged to this artful landscape:  to the urns and marble steps, the vistas of trimmed lawn, the shrines; to the flowers confined in their narrow beds” (Donoso 26).  Later, knowing the lackeys were occupied with preparations for the Venturas’ journey, Wenceslao climbs “. . . toward the uppermost floors, up, up above the mansards, to the rooftops and garrets where the towers rose toward the clouds like twisted fingers sheathed in ceramic scales, so high they seemed to be swaying in the dizzying sky” (Donoso 26).  The landscape of Marulanda, as with all narrative elements in A House in the Country, has been carefully constructed by Donoso to remind readers that “The synthesis produced by reading this novel . . . must never be the simulation of any real ground, but should rather take place in a world where the appearance of reality is always accepted as appearance, with an authority all its own” (Donoso 31).  According to Michel Makarius, a similar principle is at work in the landscapes of Poussin:  “In highly elaborate compositions, Poussin builds up the image through a process of formal geometrization: vegetal, structure, sculptural pose, rhetorical gesture—each component of the scene fends off reality” (Makarius 64).  Poussin’s 1651 Landscape with a Calm (Fig. 4) not only exemplifies the ordered arrangement of elements discussed by Makarius, it also portrays a scene of peaceful retreat, with a striking number of similarities to Wenceslao’s account of Marulanda, as well as a dramatic interplay between blue mountains and the “beautiful, stirring, intangible sky” (Donoso 263). 

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Fig. 4. Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Calm, The Getty Center, Los Angeles.


      The theme of nature as a retreat appears a second time, with the adults’ excursion to the idyllic site of their picnic.  When describing the “wonderfully private” locale to the visiting foreigners, Celeste, met with unwanted skepticism, exclaims:

‘Oh Arcadia, Cytheré, my Hellas, what cruel and spiteful eyes they turn on you,

those who thirst for our destruction.  Perhaps our jealous great-great-grandfather

sowed these vast realms with thistle grass, not hesitating to destroy all life in the

process, in order to shield this marvelous creation from eyes and hands foreign

to our blood, and therefore our enemies’.  (Donoso 316) 

In her invocation of Arcadia, Celeste touches upon a theme found in many of Poussin’s landscapes, often expressed through images of nymphs, satyrs, and Arcadian shepherds (Pace 79).  While present in the bucolic image of man tending his flock in the foreground of Landscape with a Calm, the complexity of Arcadia is expressed more fully in Poussin’s 1649 painting Landscape with Polyphemus (Fig. 5), which is said to illustrate transition and natural processes through its juxtaposition of Golden Age mythology and Silver Age imagery of pastoral occupations (Pace 78).  Explaining the concept of Arcadia, Pace writes that the term “has been defined as the ‘landscape of an idea,’” and “is one of potential seriousness and complexity, exploring the tension between man’s desire for an ideal world of nature and the ineluctable demands of the actual world” (Pace 79).  

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Fig. 5. Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with Polyphemus, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.


     For Celeste, the mythical lagoon, with its “warbling waterfall” and “honeyed blossoms where songbirds come to drink,” is certainly ideal, though she also laments the inaccessibility caused by the thistle grass, a natural force ultimately responsible for the Venturas’ destruction. 

The overtaking of Marulanda by thistle down provides some of the novel’s most dramatic imagery, and highlights the motifs of blindness and storms common to several works by Poussin.  Some, like the 1658 Blind Orion Searching for the Sun (Fig. 6), feature a sightless protagonist as the painting’s primary subject matter.  As Poussin’s giant hunter, Orion, strides through storm clouds towards the sun, he recalls a similar image of Donoso’s blind Celeste strolling through the rose garden “‘beholding’ their colors,” or taking “the arm Adriano gallantly proffered to conduct her to [a] work of art”  (Donoso 96, 97).  In both cases, the characters’ blindness works in the service of allegory.  According to Sheila McTighe, the hidden meaning in Poussin’s painting “is made visible in the trailing gray cloud that hangs over Orion’s eyes.  The storm cloud literally blinds the giant, just as his passions were the moral cause for his loss of vision” (McTighe 36).  The contrast of a dark sky punctuated by bright light, a stylistic element found in many Baroque paintings, was meant to reinforce the belief that mortal pursuits, as characterized by Orion’s blindness, were inherently flawed, and that any assertion otherwise was mere self-deception.  Celeste’s purported lack of sight takes on a similar moralizing purpose in Donoso’s novel.  While the reader is informed of Celeste’s blindness, and then made to question its legitimacy, the Ventura family, for whom she is the arbiter of taste, believes fully in her sightedness.  For both audience and actor, truth is continually masked by illusion, though only the residents of Marulanda are content to dwell in such obscurity.  In creating characters so wholly in engaged in self-deception, Donoso is able to highlight the same tendency shared by those complicit in furthering repressive political regimes.

As with Blind Orion, the 1651 Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe (Fig. 7) is meant to depict the passions of the soul, a subject frequently explored by Poussin and other artists during the Baroque period (McTighe 33).  However, Pyramus and Thisbe differs from Blind Orion, as well as earlier works, in that blindness occurs as the result of a natural phenomenon.  Referring to this shift in focus, McTighe explains that “Poussin simply varies the direction of this research, taking landscape instead of the human body alone as his vehicle, and expressing the “passions” of nature, in the form of a tempest and its aftermath” (McTighe 33).
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Fig. 6. Nicolas Poussin, Blind Orion Searching for the Sun, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


      In A House in the Country, the tempest arrives at Marulanda in the form of thistle down, which obscures everything in its path and leaves the Ventura family gasping and groping blindly.  In the final scene, several Ventura children press their faces to the windows and behold, “in the depthless atmosphere had begotten totality, nothingness, with its limitless presence, vaster than the plain, vaster than sky, in whose infernal bosom the blizzard raged like some small beast shaking its cage” (Donoso 351).  At this point, the storm has reached its peak, and a few moments later, the children watch Celeste and Olegario vanish into the swirl of thistledown “like some meaningless enigma.”  The characters once central to Donoso’s narrative have in the end been swallowed by the immensity of the landscape they had attempted to tame.  In Pyramus and Thisbe, as in Donoso’s novel, it is the tempest, rather than people, which dominates the scene; black clouds and lightening fill the sky, while a fierce wind buffets the trees, scattering the diminutive human figures across the landscape.  Central to the deaths in both these scenes is the underlying premise that human folly, rather than nature, is to blame.  Celeste, for whom appearance is always to be taken as truth, leads her husband out during a momentary clearing in the storm the to view “the newly exposed beauties of the park,” while Pyramus, incorrectly interpreting the clue of his lover’s bloodied scarf, hastily chooses suicide (Démoris 98).  

Poussin does not allow the landscape in Pyramus and Thisbe to negate the importance of subtle gesture and human action.  In a letter to his friend Jacques Stella, quoted by René Démoris, Poussin writes of the 1651 painting:  “All the figures to be seen play their part in relation to the weather: some flee through the dust and go with the wind which carries them along; others, in contrary fashion, go against the wind and walk with difficulty, putting their hands before their eyes” (Démoris 97).  In the middle distance of Pyramus and Thisbe, just in front of the strangely placid lake, a man on horseback raises a spear to fend off a lion set to devour a man pinned helplessly, leg lifted as if to kick, hands poised as if to surrender.  Nearer to the foreground, a panic-stricken woman flees the violence, arms outstretched, while at the far right, a man in a blue tunic struggles against the wind, hands pressed to his eyes.  Most striking, however, is the figure of Thisbe, whose arms and hands, highlighted by stark white light, reach for the fallen figure of Pyramus, while on her face is a look of pure grief.  The effect is at once astonishing and clear; only by peopling this landscape could Poussin express the true force of the storm.  John Rupert Martin writes that “In employing facial expression and gesture to convey his meaning in the most unequivocal fashion, Poussin was . . . adapting to painting the technique of the ancient rhetoricians, who defined persuasion as the proper business of the orator” (Martin 86).  Throughout A House in the Country, Donoso also assumes the role of the orator, imploring his readers, and sometimes himself, never to take the novel or the characters in it for anything more than an artifice.  In his final entreaty, Donoso speculates, almost rhetorically, about a scene that seems to happen offstage, out of view even to the author:  “We know that Juan Pérez and the Venturas choked to death on the plain, but what did it look like, their final gestures, their clutching fingers, the terror in their eyes, their doomed efforts to save themselves?” (Donoso 347).  It is difficult to ignore the painterly qualities of this imagined death.  Overcome by clouds of thistledown, the vastness of the plain would have dwarfed the Venturas.  Beyond the shelter of the family property, the landscape would have seemed immense: behind them, a faint outline of Marulanda, and further still, the craggy peaks of the blue mountains, barely visible on the horizon.  Perhaps, like the terrified woman in Pyramus and Thisbe, they would have at first attempted to flee, covering their mouths and eyes against the choking thistledown, like the man in the blue tunic blinded by the pelting wind.  Ultimately, however, their “doomed efforts,” like those of the man fending off the lion, or those of Thisbe, running for her dying lover, would have failed.  Donoso may not witness the Venturas’ deaths, but he assures his readers of their fate.   

Poussin was once quoted as saying that, “‘Painting is nothing else but an idea of incorporeal things’” (Makarius 64).  In a career that spanned over forty years, he drew deeply from sources as far-ranging as classical epics, mythology, the Bible, and political history, encoding in each scene a rich, and often open-ended, narrative.  Although Donoso mentions Poussin by name just once in A House in the Country, evidence of his style and themes echoes throughout the novel, lending both visual and intellectual resonance to a narrative deceptively described as little more than an artifice.  Tracing the path of just one painter named in A House in the Country reveals layers of complexity, but what of Uccello’s hunters, or the stately ruins of Hubert Robert and Salvatore Rosa?  Donoso clearly appreciated the narrative aspects of painting, as well as its beauty, and has filled his house in the country with enough art to explore for years to come.

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Fig. 7. Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.



Works Cited

Démoris, René.  “From the Storm to the Flood.”  Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions

     Ed. Pierre Rosenberg and Keith Christiansen.  New York: The Metropolitan Museum

     of Art, 2008.  91-101.

Donoso, José.  A House in the Country.  Trans. David Pritchard and Suzanne Jill Levine. 

     New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Makarius, Michel.  Ruins.  Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 2004.

Martin, John Rupert.  Baroque.  New York: Harper & Row, 1977. 

McTighe, Sheila.  Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape Allegories.  New York: Cambridge

     University Press, 1996. 

Mérot, Alain.  “The Conquest of Space: Poussin’s Early Attempts at Landscape.” 

     Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions.  Ed. Pierre Rosenberg and Keith Christiansen. 

     New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.  91-101.

Poussin, Nicolas.  Blind Orion Searching for the Sun.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New

     York.  http://www.wga.hu.

---. Landscape with a Calm.  The Getty Center, Los Angeles.  http://www.getty.edu/art.

---. Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice.  Musée du Louvre, Paris. 

     http://www.wga.hu.

---. Landscape with Polyphemus. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. 

     http://hermitagemuseum.org.

---. Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

     http://www.wga.hu.

---. Venus and Adonis (View of Grottaferrata).  National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. 

     http://nga.gov.au.

Pace, Claire.  “‘Peace and Tranquillity of the Mind’:  The Theme of Retreat and  

     Poussin’s Landscapes.”  Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions.  Ed. Pierre

     Rosenberg and Keith Christiansen.  New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

     2008.  73-89. 

Rosenberg, Pierre and Keith Christiansen, eds.  Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions

     New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.

Schneider, Pierre.  The World of Watteau: 1684-1721.  New York: Time Inc., 1967.

Watteau, Antoine.  The Embarkation for Cythera.  Musée du Louvre, Paris. 

     http://www.wga.hu.

 

    Author

    Erin Namekawa
    University of Houston


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