This print is one of many etchings executed by Leon Kossoff in response to, and literally in the presence of, oil paintings by old masters; in this case Cephalus and Aurora, 1629-30 (National Gallery, London) by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Tate owns three prints by Kossoff after this Poussin painting (Tate P11690-2). The artist’s ability to explore a number of separate responses while making drawings and prints from a single subject is illustrated in these etchings. This version is printed in brown ink on white paper. It was printed in an edition of twenty with ten artist’s proofs; Tate owns number three of the artist’s proofs.
The story of Cephalus and Aurora is told in Book Seven of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Cephalus, an Athenian hero, fell in love with and married Procris. Shortly afterwards while hunting deer he caught the attention of the Goddess of Dawn, Aurora. She had a roving eye and was frequently attracted to young mortal men. Descending from her mountain home, Aurora carried Cephalus off with her. However, on finding that he remained faithful to Procris, she allowed him to return home, privately swearing vengeance. She caused a spirit of jealousy to infect their marriage and this eventually resulted in the accidental death of Procris who suffered a wound inflicted by Cephalus with his hunting spear.
Poussin’s painting portrays a seated Aurora clinging on to the waist of Cephalus who is struggling to get away from her. Poussin makes explicit the reason for Cephalus' rejection of Aurora by depicting a winged infant holding up a portrait of Procris. It is the portrait that lures Cephalus away from Aurora. A god, probably Oceanus, lies sleeping to the left of the protagonists, while behind them is Pegasus, the winged horse, and a goddess, probably Terra, who is associated with the beginning of the day. Kossoff’s spare response to this painting traces the core relationship of the couple and their attendant cast. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Poussin’s original. This print is more delicately etched than its two counterparts held by Tate. There is little shading, with most of the forms being rendered solely in outline. Unlike the painting, this print marks out the landscape as much as the figures in the foreground, thus merging them in with their surroundings. The marks depicting their bodies are echoed by the lines carving out the space around them. In the painting, the bodies of the characters are rendered in rich, cream and peach tones that contrast with the predominately brown tones of the landscape and the primary colours of their garments. In Kossoff’s etching, the monochrome linearity reduces these contrasts and renders the figures at times almost indistinguishable from their surroundings. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Poussin’s painting, nor does it seek to transcribe, copy or paraphrase it. Rather, it acknowledges the gulf that separates it from the pictorial culture of former times and reveals his desire to find points of contact with Poussin. He has described the value of this kind of draughtsmanship as a means to building up an acquaintance with the subject of a picture made by another artist until he feels free to ‘move about in its imaginative spaces’ (Kendall, p.19).
Kossoff has described the moment of intense elation, which occurred some forty years ago, when he first established a vital connection with Poussin’s art. As a youth and then as a student in London, he had become familiar with the rich historical collections of the National Gallery. One day he had a transformative experience while looking at Poussin’s Cephalus and Aurora:
It seemed as though I was experiencing the work for the first time. I suppose there is a difference between looking and experiencing. Paintings of this quality, in which the subject is endlessly glowing with luminosity, can, in an unexpected moment, surprise the viewer, revealing unexplored areas of self.
The recent prints made by Kossoff after paintings by Poussin therefore emerge from almost half a century of involvement with Poussin’s oeuvre, initially stimulated by this moment of insight at the National Gallery but more immediately by the 1995 retrospective exhibition, Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
The etching plates were prepared by Ann Dowker, a London artist who later collaborated with Kossoff on biting the plates with acid, wiping them before printing, and making trial proofs. In some cases, areas of the etchings were washed with aquatint; in others, lines were emphasised by drypoint. The etchings were printed by Mark Balakjian at Studio Prints, London.
Richard Kendall, Drawn to Painting, London 2000, pp.37, 42-3, reproduced p.95 in colour
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, pp.27-30
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Council, Venice 1995