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 The Holy Family on the Steps, 1648, by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio. It was printed in an edition of twenty with ten artist’s proofs; Tate owns number three of the artist’s proofs.
Poussin’s painting depicts the Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth and Saint John the Baptist. Placed within an architectural setting recalling classical antiquity, the figures have been arranged in a triangular grouping. Concerned with achieving a perfectly harmonized composition, Poussin contained the figures within a triangular format; the heads of the central figure, the Virgin and Christ Child, being at the apex of this pyramid. Saint Elizabeth sits to their left on a lower step, looking up at them, while Saint John the Baptist is to their right, facing away from the central group. The steep perspective and the geometric purity of the forms give this small canvas a feeling of order and quiet monumentality. Kossoff’s response to this painting was to follow, indeed to emphasise, the stark pyramidal composition of the painting. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Poussin’s original. Areas of white space alternate with densely cross-hatched elements such as Joseph’s garments and the step in the foreground. Aquatint has been added in places to give a more subtle tonality to the composition. 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. Kossoff 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, 1629-30 (National Gallery, London):
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.30, 37, reproduced p.67 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