The Judgement of Solomon (hanging in Louvre Museum, Paris) is another painting where Poussin found, I believe, a precise balance between color and composition. While the influence of Venice makes itself evident in the rich red, orange, and blue of the robes, it’s the rigorous geometrical organization, unusually austere when compared to the often overabundant Italians of High Renaissance and later periods, that underlies and informs this piece. Both color and composition provide layers of meaning, and combined they produce a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
The composition is transparent and geometrically obvious: two groups frame a central scene consisting of two women, all overlooked by the king. There are five action areas, and the entire configuration encourages the mind’s eye to trace a pentagonal star. The crowded framing groups mirror each other – sometimes approximately, as in the case of the woman with the white turban and the guard with the naked sword – sometimes almost perfectly, as in the case of the silhouettes near the columns. This compositional effect creates a sense of closure, in a way echoing the judicial process. The king’s hands restate the mirroring effect, indicating that it is he who overlooks the process from start to finish.
Similarly telling is Solomon’s face: divided by a shadow into two profiles, it reveals the twofold consequence of the verdict – sad for one, happy for another. Furthermore, it might hint at the king’s inner doubts concerning this notorious judgment. The faces of the plaintiffs continue the visual theme of light and shadow, essentially transcending it into one of justice and injustice, respectively. The fact that the roles are reversed – the shaded woman is the just, the illuminated is unjust – serves to prove how precarious the whole notion of justice is. Can anyone be sure what would have happened if it were not for the king’s ingenuity?
As in other Poussin’s works, architecture plays the role of a metaphysical counterbalance. The two big black columns and the rectangular niches, when inspected closely, impart a sense of the vanity of the entire scene (alluding, in a way, to the kings famous “vanity of vanities” saying) – and quietly neutralize the dramatic proceedings.
The painting acts as a moral and intellectual catalyst – which, according to biographers and critics, was Poussin’s intent. The image’s clarity encourages quick visual processing – and further contemplation on the content, on the original narrative ideas. Poussin makes himself a servant of the text, avoiding idealization or mannerism many Renaissance artists utilized – yet he authoritatively generates a veritable sense of drama. He is a virtuoso of a different sort: one of precise balance, of grace and clarity of compositional conception – qualities that became the hallmarks of classicism.