Landscape during a thunderstorm with Pyramus and Thisbe, 1651
How do you paint a thunderstorm? Leonardo da Vinci, for one, provided pointers on the problem in his Treatise on Painting. The Frenchman Nicolas Poussin, who had studied Leonardo’s text closely, put a number of the latter’s ideas into practice here. The wind bends trees and bushes to breaking point; even the human beings need all their strength to brace themselves against it as they seek protection from the storm. The viewer has no trouble identifying the direction from which it is advancing.
Yet Poussin did not content himself with merely painting a storm scene. He combined his wind-ravaged landscape with the well-known story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, reflecting Thisbe’s emotions in the tumultuous meteorological event. In the foreground we witness precisely the moment of horror in which she discovers the dying Pyramus. Her beloved has stabbed himself with a sword in the belief that she has been attacked by a lion. Her arms spread in desperation, Thisbe throws herself against the wind to take her own life over the body of the dead Pyramus. Executed in Rome, like the majority of Poussin’s works, this is the artist’s greatest landscape painting – not only in terms of scale. It is also an ingenious combination of nature description and mythological narrative.