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 Nurture of Bacchus, circa 1628, by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), owned by the National Gallery, London. Tate owns the only artist’s proof.
The subject of this painting by Poussin comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (Books III and IV). Bacchus was the son of the god Jupiter and the mortal Semele. Jupiter's wife Juno brought about the death of Semele and Jupiter took the child from her womb and sewed it into his thigh, from where it was born. The infant Bacchus was watched over by Semele's sister Ino and Juno sought vengeance on Ino and her husband Athamas, but Venus transformed them into gods. In Poussin’s painting Bacchus' aunt Ino watches as he is held by his uncle Athamas. A satyr feeds the baby from a silver plate, watched by a cherub and a goat. Behind them two infants embrace.
Kossoff’s response to this painting was to cut back the landscape setting and most of the detail. He focused on the bodies of the characters and contrasts their forms with those of the earth, rocks and foliage by which they are surrounded. Their figures are suggested by little more than curved lines that are contrasted with the straight forms of the landscape around them. This etching is lightly rendered in black in on cream paper. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Poussin’s original. 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, p.37, reproduced p.66 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