Last Thursday a “glitzy” Baroque painting by French artist Nicolas Poussin went on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Poussin’s Agony in the Garden (1626-7) has just been donated to the museum by collectors Barbara and Jon Landau, and adds to the Met’s collection of works by the artist, which is already the most impressive Poussin collection in North America.
Poussin painted Agony in the Garden shortly after his arrival in Rome from Paris in 1624. It is a particularly unusual work by the artist, as it is one of only a few paintings he made on copper, as opposed to being on canvas. David Pullins, an associate curator in the Met’s department of European Painting, explains that, “the medium of oil on copper in 17th-century Europe was always understood as really a collector’s item, a luxury object – it upped the ante […] It’s a glitzy object from the start, calling attention to itself.”
The scene is from the New Testament, and shows the moment when Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane with Saints Peter, James and John following the Last Supper. The Met’s catalogue entry for the painting describes how it was made at a “crucial moment” in Poussin’s career, when he was “brimming with innovation and curiosity”. Further, the Met explains that “this painting clearly documents Poussin’s voracious absorption of the artistic traditions that he had traveled to Italy in order to study. His innovation and learned rearticulation of them as his own was, no doubt, what led to his almost immediate recognition as a leading light by Roman cognoscenti and paved the way for their patronage of larger-scale works.”
Pullins excitedly claims that this donation by Barbara and Jon Landau is “a pretty big deal”, and that Poussin is a “titan of European art”. Jon Landau, who is known for being a prominent American music critic, record producer, and manager of Bruce Springsteen, and his wife Barbara have been important art collectors since the 1970s. They began with American modernist art, then turned their attention to pre-Impressionist French artists, before expanding into old master paintings and Renaissance sculpture. They were alerted to Poussin’s Agony in the Garden by former curator at the Met George Goldner. Jon Landau recalls how Goldner “asked me one day if I was interested in seeing the most beautiful painting for sale in New York City”. They visited the Wildenstein & Co. Gallery in New York where they saw the Poussin painting. Landau explained, “we thought it one of the most beautiful paintings we had ever seen and soon made arrangements to acquire it.”
In discussing their decision to donate the painting to the Met, Jon Landau described his close relationship with the museum. “The Metropolitan has been our most important teacher of all […] Countless staff members have reached out to us in every way to increase our knowledge and experience of great art.”
Agony in the Garden is now on display in Gallery 621, alongside works by other prominent Baroque artists, including Peter Paul Rubens’s Venus and Adonis, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Esther before Ahasuerusand Anthony van Dyck’s Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine of Alexandria.