( My Massacre of the Innocents. Oil on canvas. 34” x 29” )
Over a year ago I began working on my own version of a painting by Nicholas Poussin, the Massacre of the Innocents which he painted between 1625 and 1631.
It is a complex painting, a riot of shapes and of colours and it is perhaps the opposite of the still, calm, controlled paintings that I usually make. If they are three minute pop songs then this beast is an opera.
( Nicholas Poussin. The Massacre of the Innocents. 58″ x 67″ 1625-1632 )
Cezanne wanted to do Poussin again from nature and I have always wanted to get under the skin of one of Poussin’s paintings to better understand his composition.
I also have enormous respect for Euan Uglow’s work. Between 1979 and 1981 Uglow had made his own copy of the Massacre of the Innocents. I thought it would be interesting to walk in both Nicholas Poussin and Euan Uglow’s footsteps. I deliberately didn’t look at Uglow’s version during all of the time that I was wrestling with Poussin. Only now that I have finished am I comparing Uglow’s painting to my own, seeing how he dealt with exactly the same problems that I have had to resolve.
(Euan Uglow. Massacre of the Innocents, after Poussin. 16 1/2 ” x 19 1/4 “)
I worked on my painting for three months but it was not resolved. I did like bits of my painting; the economy with which I described the soldier’s red cloak and the baby who is about to be murdered (he looks like Ian Hislop) but I didn’t ever feel that I had brought everything together, my colours didn’t belong together as though they were lit by the same sun. In March 2018 I put the painting aside.
For the next nine months the unfinished canvas… gestated as it leaned against a wall in my studio.
It took a while to work out that the problem I had with the painting, and the reason that I put it aside, was an existential one; more to do with the nature of the task than a technical problem. I had not had a clear idea of what it was that I had been trying to achieve.
I have never seen the original painting. I had been working from a photograph, a good photograph but less than half of the size of my canvas and a photograph, any photograph, is a distortion or a part of the truth.
Was I trying to copy a photograph ?
A part of the right hand side of the original painting looks as though it might have been damaged because the colour seemed to have leeched out.
Why would I faithfully reproduce damage on the original painting ?
Or, should I be trying to recreate whatever I imagined Poussin’s original painting probably looked like?
Or should I be using the original painting as I would use a still life and constructing his objects in my own painting ?
During the dead days between Christmas and the New Year I began again and I promised myself that I would spend only one last month working on the painting
It is as if a skin forms and I have to break through an imaginary varnish. I find it hard to begin working on a painting after an interval. I always go back to drawing when a painting gets lost. When I’m drawing I’m trying to simplify and understand how it all fits together, as much in my head as on the canvas. I redrew the objects and relationships across the canvas.
In photographs the pillars on the left of the original painting are so dark that I could not quite work out what was going on. I finally found this etching, an old copy of the painting, which helped.
I wrote about my lack of and then slow progress on my Facebook Group (RussellDoreysStudio) and in response to one post a couple of people commented that it wasn’t really their kind of thing. It takes a comment like that to remind me how little I notice the subject of a painting. I had worked on this Massacre of the Innocentsfor weeks before, one evening, after a long days painting, I stepped back and thought with surprise what an awful thing to do to a baby! It might seem unlikely but when I’m working I’m looking at line, colour and tone, volume and space, harmonies and contrasts.
and now i’ll have to sell the damn thing !