Passed down, bought, and sold over the centuries, a glitzy collector’s item from the 17th century has finally entered a museum collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has received Nicolas Poussin’s Agony in the Garden (1626–27), courtesy of New York collectors Barbara and Jon Landau, who have been listed on ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors list each year since 1995.
The Met already owns six Poussin paintings, including Midas Washing at the Source of the Pactolus (ca. 1627), which was part of the original seed purchase that established the museum in 1871. Now, it has seven paintings by the artist with the addition of Agony in the Garden, which goes on view today.
The Landaus have owned Agony in the Garden for the past 22 years, and it has held pride of place ever since in the “center hall gallery with four of our greatest masterpieces,” Jon said in an email. They most recently lent the work to the Louvre’s 2015 exhibition “Poussin and God.” He continued, “The Met already had the largest group of Poussins in North America, and our picture truly adds to and enhances its collection of the artist.”
“Poussin is this titan of European art, even though he’s not necessarily, for some people, a household name,” said David Pullins, an associate curator in the Met’s department of European painting. “One of the reasons that he’s so important is that he’s crucial in the color-versus-line debate that will dominate European art making and art theory for centuries.”
This work is particularly unusual within Poussin’s oeuvre, as it is one of only two accepted works by the artist of oil on copper (as opposed to oil on canvas). Measuring just over 24 inches by 19 inches, and just one millimeter thick, Agony in the Garden was made shortly after the French painter arrived in Rome in 1624. There, he studied Italian Renaissance painting and new archaeological discoveries of Greco-Roman antiquities.
At the time, Poussin was largely unknown, since he had only just started to make the connections needed to secure a major following. He needed something to call attention to himself, so he bought a large sheet of copper, which at the time would have been an expensive material for a young artist. Typically, copper would have been used to make an etching, and because one could run prints using the copper as a plate, that would help an artist recoup the cost shelled out for a sheet of it.
“This 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,” Pullins said. “It’s a glitzy object from the start, calling attention to itself. It would have been kind of thing that a collector would have kept like a smaller cabinet space that was really meant for close looking, and so naturally, it rewards that kind of close looking.”
On the verso of the painting is a Latin inscription, “SALVATORIS IN HORTO GETSEMA / NI A NICOLAO POVSSIN COLORIBVS / EXPRESSA,” that is consistent with how the work would have been inventoried upon entering the collection Carlo Antonio dal Pozzo, the brother of Cassiano dal Pozzo, who would eventually become Poussin’s greatest patron in Rome.
Agony in the Garden depicts the New Testament scene in which Jesus, after the Last Supper, goes with Saints Peter, James, and John to the garden of Gethsemane. His apostles promptly fall asleep, as shown in the foreground, while Jesus prays to God the Father, asking if he might be spared from his coming death and later for strength in what is to come. In response, a flood of angels descends to Earth bringing forth the cross that Jesus will carry and then be crucified to the following day. To this composition Poussin adds a blocky stone architectural structure that has yet to be identified but could possibly refer to the founding of the Church upon Jesus’s death. The scene is mostly done in a reddish ochre palette that is accented with pops of color in the clothes of the figures.
“What’s wonderful in this work is that you still see Poussin working out his own thoughts on the color-versus-line debate,” Pullin said. “There’s still a real legacy of Venetian painting in the light and handling in certain parts, but then there are these heavy sculptural, classical references with the figures in the foreground and the architecture and the background. He’s still sorting it out.”
Landau called Poussin a “divine artist,” adding, “The emotional and artistic underpinnings of religious paintings are what counts. When done with brilliance, religious paintings can affect us all.”
The Landaus began collecting in the 1970s, starting out with American modernists, including Arthur Dove, Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, and Marsden Hartley. In the ’80s, they expanded their interests to pre-Impressionist French artists like Courbet, Corot, Delacroix, and Millet, and in the ’90s, they finally came to Old Master paintings and Renaissance sculpture.
Around this time, the Landaus befriended George Goldner, a curator at the Met. Over the course of the years, Goldner “asked me one day if I was interested in seeing the most beautiful painting for sale in New York City,” Jon recalled. Together they went to the famed Wildenstein & Co. gallery in New York, where they laid eyes on Poussin’s The Agony in the Garden. “We thought it one of the most beautiful paintings we had ever seen and soon made arrangements to acquire it,” Jon added.
Though the Landaus at one point owned two works by Poussin, they eventually parted ways with the other work and have since doubled down on their commitment to purchasing Renaissance sculpture. Poussin’s Agony in the Garden, a work of Baroque art, “became an outlier in the collection,” Jon said.
As with most top collectors, the Landaus have had an ongoing relationship with the Met for decades, having lent pieces from their collection to the museum over the years, served on committees, and promised another work, Théodore Rousseau’s Hamlet in the Auvergne (1830), in 2020. “The Metropolitan has been our most important teacher of all,” Jon said. “Countless staff members have reached out to us in every way to increase our knowledge and experience of great art.”
Among them is Keith Christiansen, the former chairmen of the Met’s department of European painting, in whose honor the Landaus donated the work. “Keith Christiansen, taught us more than anyone else about art,” Jon said. “We consider the Met to be our second home and the greatest artistic institution in the country.”
Pullins added, “As a curator, you don’t really expect to get a knock on the door with adding a Poussin—it’s a pretty big deal.”