Landscape with Saint Paul the Hermit1637 - 1638. Oil on canvas, 155 x 234 cm.
Nicolas Poussin has a curious relation to the Buen Retiro Palace. Úbea considers him the determinant artist among all those who took part in its decorative project. That could explain why he was the only one to participate in the two most important sets of works commissioned in Italy: the landscapes, and the history of ancient Rome. At the very least, he painted the present work for the first set, and two more for the second: Meleager’s Hunt (P2320) and Dance in Honor of Priapus (Sao Paulo, Museu de Arte). However, until very recently it was impossible to prove that the latter two were painted for the Buen Retiro Palace, and there has even been frequent doubt about their attribution, especially because the commission called for a format that Poussin had never employed (Úbeda 2005b, p. 183). Moreover, the royal inventories and the first catalogs from the Museo del Prado attributed the anchorite to Dughet, whose works are undeniably similar in appearance. Louis Clément De Ris’s identification of its true author in 1859 fell on deaf ears, although it was confirmed by Émile Magne in 1914. Leading scholars of Poussin’s work, such as Grautoff (1914, p. 268) and Anthony Blunt (1950, p. 70) caused a certain degree of confusion by denying it. The latter even included this painting in the catalog of a certain Silver Birch Master, although he had no difficulty admitting his error and definitively confirming its correct attribution after directly studying the work nine years later. Blunt (1966, p. 71) also slightly advanced the chronology he had proposed in 1959 (1637-38) to 1636-37, as he considered the present work earlier than Finding of Moses (Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv. 7271). After that, Whitfield (1979, pp. 15-16) and all later critics have accepted this new attributive proposal.
Moreover, as has already been pointed out by Blunt (1959, pp. 389-90) and Roethlisberger (1961, note 10 p. 160), and recently confirmed by Posada Kubissa (2009, note 19 p. 203), this is not Saint Jerome. While he has customarily been considered the subject, none of his customary attributes appear here. Instead, it is Saint Paul the Hermit, whose presence is documented in the palace inventory of 1701 (Testamentaría 1701, p. 288, no. 146). Perhaps because Paul was the first known hermit saint, his presence at the Buen Retiro Palace was very abundant, with depictions by such outstanding painters as Andrea Sacchi, José de Ribera and Velázquez. Persecuted by Emperor Decius in the mid third century, Saint Paul decided to temporarily flee to the desert rather than renounce his faith. He remained there until his death, when he was accompanied by Saint Anthony, who prepared his tomb with the aid of two lions. When the present painting was restored by Rafael Alonso in 1999, the x-ray image revealed that the tree behind the saint was added by the artist himself after the painting was finished.
The formidable campaign of arts acquisitions carried out by the Count-Duke of Olivares in the 1640s to decorate the vast spaces at Madrid’s Buen Retiro Palace included a very notable number of landscapes. Of these works -almost two hundred in all- we cannot determine how many were purchased in Flanders or Spain, nor which ones came from private collections or other Royal Seats, but thanks to the works at the Museo del Prado and documents found to date, we can establish with certainty that the Buen Retiro Palace was furnished with numerous landscapes painted for the occasion by artists active in Rome.
A series of at least twenty-five landscapes with anchorites and a dozen Italianate landscapes -large format works by different artists- were commissioned. Of the pieces that have survived, most are at the Museo del Prado.
Commissioned in Rome between 1633 and 1641, these landscape paintings from the Buen Retiro constituted an early anthology of this new painting from nature characterized by a new awareness of the effects of light and the atmosphere of the Roman countryside that would eventually spread through most of Europe, representing one of many aspects of classicism (Text drawn from Posada Kubissa, T.: Pintura holandesa en el Museo Nacional del Prado. Catálogo razonado, 2009, pp. 230-232; Capitelli, G. in Úbeda de los Cobos, A.: El Palacio del Rey Planeta. Felipe IV y el Buen Retiro, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2005, p. 241).