Painted in 1977, Study for 'Cephalus and Aurora' by Poussin shows Leon Kossoff revisiting a masterpiece housed in the National Gallery of his native London. The original by Poussin takes a classical myth, that of Aurora trying to seduce Cephalus and being spurned and resisted by a man who was faithful to his wife. In Study for 'Cephalus and Aurora' by Poussin, the composition of the original can be seen through the hazy filter of Kossoff's distinctive impasto, the thickly and vigorously-worked surface that appears to have accumulated almost organically on the picture surface. Poussin's original has become a strange and sensual object, its glistening oils and articulated surface hinting at the picture's entering the realm of touch as well as sight.
The Old Masters are a theme to which Kossoff has returned again and again, celebrating his predecessors by recreating their works through his own unique visual idiom. In lending these older works their new incarnation, Kossoff is taking part in a very active form almost of hero-worship, paying tribute to artists such as Titian, Rembrandt and here, Poussin, who have managed to combine composition with painterliness in such a way as to innovate without forsaking a certain traditional grounding. While Kossoff had long spent time in the National Gallery, drawing from the works there and taking inspiration from them, it was only in the 1980s that this area of his oeuvre truly gained momentum, making Study for 'Cephalus and Aurora' by Poussin a rare early example of a reprise in oils of an Old Master. In a sense, it was only natural that Kossoff, an artist who has so strikingly captured so many scenes of London life, London geography and London architecture should also have devoted himself to painting works inspired by the pictures in London's great art gallery.
In the Twentieth Century, against the background of the avant-garde and of conceptual art, this reverence for the artists of pre-modern times was increasingly rare, and yet it was one of the characteristics that would fascinate R.B. Kitaj amongst the friends and artists he came to know upon moving to London. Kitaj was fascinated by the long process of digestion by which Kossoff, Auerbach and Freud had absorbed the Old Masters, especially the pictures in the National Gallery. Similarly obsessed with the past though not steeped in it in the same way, Kitaj noted this characteristic, and it became one of the foundations for his notion of a 'School of London', a group of artists each in their own way absorbing their own prompts, stimuli and impetuses and those of so many trailblazing artists before them in order to find a painterly means of conveying a sense of human experience.