The Johns Hopkins Gazette: December 8, 1997
Dec. 8, 1997
VOL. 27, NO. 14


Cropper and Dempsey Win Mitchell Prize

Book on Nicolas Poussin brings prestigious award to JHU art historians

Leslie Rice
Homewood News and Information

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Since their graduate school days, Elizabeth Cropper and Charles Dempsey have individually studied the paintings of the great French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Both Hopkins art historians have authored the occasional scholarly papers and articles on the artist, often called "the French Raphael." And, over the course of the couple's 22-year marriage, Poussin's work and life has inevitably come up now and again over the dinner table. But despite their shared interest, it wasn't until four years ago that they decided to tackle the artist's work together professionally.

It's clear they make a remarkable team.

Their book, Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting, published in 1996 by the Princeton University Press, has not only received glowing reviews by their peers but was also recently awarded the coveted Mitchell Prize, one of the highest honors in the country for books written on art history.

Charles Dempsey and Elizabeth Cropper were recognized for their book Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting.

Both are scholars specializing in Renaissance and baroque art; Cropper, though based at Homewood, is director of Hopkins' Charles Singleton Center for Italian Studies at the Villa Spelman in Florence, and Dempsey is the former chair of the History of Art Department. Between the two, they have written scores of books and articles on Renaissance and baroque artists.

Last month, the couple traveled to the Knickerbocker Club in New York to accept the 1997 Mitchell Prize for the History of Art, a $15,000 prize awarded annually to recognize authors of books in English for contributing to the study and understanding of the visual arts. The award was established in 1977 by Jan Mitchell, a renowned art collector and president of the Mitchell Foundation for the History of Art.

Cropper and Dempsey decided to write about Poussin on the eve of a 1994 Paris exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the master's birth--one of the biggest Poussin exhibitions ever held. They wrote the manuscript that year at Villa Spelman in Florence, and it was published a year later.

What the couple set out to accomplish, they say, was a book that was a departure from existing examinations of Poussin's work.

"There are at least a half-dozen very good, very thorough scholarly catalogs of Poussin out there already, so it didn't seem necessary to produce another one," Demp-sey says.

"We also wanted to write a book that is accessible to a larger audience, not just to art history scholars," Cropper adds.

"One of the reasons why winning the Mitchell Award is especially pleasing to me," Dempsey says, "is that its committee is made up equally of art history scholars and those in the museum profession. That the book found favor with both groups is nice, because they don't always share the same interests."

Though he is considered one of the most important artists in French art, few art historians have written about Poussin beyond exhaustive chronology and iconography.

And for many modern viewers, says Norman Bryson, professor of fine arts at Harvard University, who reviewed the couple's book, Poussin's work is often inaccessible because the artist assumed a viewer well acquainted with obscure references to antiquity and classical literature.

Compared with Titian or Caravaggio, adds Bryson in The Times Literary Supplement, "Poussin's figures are small and dryly painted; they make no attempt to impress viewers with their scale, their physical allure, or--in any obvious way--the drama they enact. It seems that in order to appreciate them, an initiation of some kind is required. That is where the art historian steps in."

By interpreting the artist's work through the context of 17th-century France and Italy, his friendships, and his fascination with antiquity, poetry and early Christian archaeology, the authors have breathed new life into Poussin for the modern viewer.

For example, they unravel the meaning behind Self-Portrait, which he painted for his friend Paul Freart de Chantelou after a painful falling out between the two friends. Chantelou had accused Poussin of no longer valuing his friendship because he felt Poussin was painting better, more important works for other friends. The authors explain how Poussin responded with the portrait, laced with symbolism and meaning, which he subtitled "For the Love of Painting and Friendship."

"Poussin was devoted to working for his friends," Cropper explains. "Nearly all his paintings were gestures of friendship."

The book is divided into four parts: The first deals with patron Vincenzo Giustiniani; the second, Poussin's friend Cassiano dal Pozzo; the third, Poussin's fascination with the writings of Montaigne; and the fourth examines the influence of the poets of the artist's social circle.

Poussin was a consistent painter throughout his 30-year career, says Cropper, despite the fact that in his final years he suffered from severe hand tremors.

"We had a great deal of material to draw from and think about," she says. "We wanted to focus on only a few of them, so we had to choose very carefully the paintings we examine in the book."

There are eight chapters in the book; each author wrote four.

"Essentially what would happen," explains Dempsey, "was that one of us would write a chapter, give it to the other, who would absolutely rewrite it and add great chunks to it, and then pass it back to the original writer. Then it would go back to the reader one more time and back again."

"But," adds Cropper, "the original writer always had the last say."

Although the project was a great deal of work and effort, both say they found it to be tremendously rewarding and enjoyable.

"It's obviously the kind of thing that could only work when there is a great amount of mutual respect," Dempsey says.