Poussin, Nicolas (1594–1665)

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POUSSIN, NICOLAS (15941665), French painter. Poussin is one of the artists most beloved by art historians because his slow but steadily developing talent, combined with his passion for historical accuracy and his reflections concerning the nature and practice of the art of painting that have been extracted from his letters and the comments of others produced profound and beautiful works that rapidly became models for those who followed. Giovanni Pietro Bellori (c. 16151696), the esteemed Roman biographer of seventeenth-century Italian painters who thought so highly of Poussin that he (exceptionally) included a study of his life among the Italians, noted that ". . . his words were very serious, and were listened to attentively; he often talked about art, and with such great knowledge that not only painters, but everyone with a cultivated spirit came to learn from his lips the highest meanings of painting. . . ."

Poussin was convinced that he wanted to study painting when Quentin Varin visited his native Les Andelys in 1612. He trained with Georges Lallemant in Paris, and during the early 1620s began his first journey to Romea trip that was aborted due to ill health after Poussin reached Florence. He made a second and successful attempt via Venice in the spring of 1624 in the company of the poet Giambattista Marino, who was returning to Italy after a visit to the French capital. Upon their arrival in Rome, Marino introduced Poussin to Cardinal Francesco Barberini and his circle. Poussin soon received a commission from one of the cardinal's most distinguished retainers, the antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo, to make drawings after the antique for his celebrated Museo Cartaceo ("Paper Museum"). Cassiano could not have found a better candidate for the task, for investigation of this type of ancient detail would remain important to Poussin throughout his career. Except for a return to Paris for two years (16401642), forced upon him by Louis XIII of France and his prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu, Poussin, like his countryman Claude Lorrain, remained in the Eternal City for the rest of his life.

Poussin established his reputation in Rome with his splendid Death of Germanicus painted for Barberini in 1627 and delivered in January of 1628 (Minneapolis Institute of Arts), in which the figures are arranged in a frieze-like pattern across the canvas around the draped bed of the dying hero in a spartan, but palatial, interior. By their gestures and expressions it is clear that each of the protagonists is either overwhelmed with grief, overcome with shock, or angrily proclaiming his forthcoming revenge. The historically researched costumes saturated with blues, reds, and yellows reflect the artist's early attachment to Venetian coloring. The enormous success of this canvas led to the distinction of Poussin's receipt of a papal commission for St. Peter's, for which he painted his magnificent Martyrdom of St. Erasmus of 1629 (Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome). After losing the commission to decorate a chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, the French church in Rome, Poussin abandoned his ambitions to paint grand decorations and turned instead to smaller cabinet pictures, which he continued to produce for a limited number of amateurs in Rome and abroad for the rest of his career.


During the 1630s, influenced by an interest in Stoicism, Poussin became increasingly attached to an ascetic way of life and a rigorously disciplined, central Italian approach to art and art theory. These tendencies reveal themselves in his work, where, eschewing the attraction of north Italianate colore evident in varying degrees in his earlier Italian works, he turned to a more sober and refined form of classicism that became increasingly distilled and cerebral throughout his maturity. This can be seen at its best in his series of bacchanals commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu (London and Kansas City, Mo.), a series of Seven Sacraments commissioned by Cassiano (Washington, D.C., and Belvoir Castle, Leicester), and in the static and imposing Miracle of St. Francis Xavier of 1641 commissioned by François Sublet de Noyers, Surintendant des batiments du roi, for the main altar of the new novitiate of the Jesuits in Paris (Musée du Louvre).

In order to construct his progressively classical compositions in the 1640s, Poussin relied heavily on his skills as a draftsman. As the renowned Poussin scholar Anthony Blunt has noted, Poussin's drawing developed consistently, gaining in expressive power what it lost in elegance and culminating in an elliptical manner appropriate to the poetic and philosophic tone of his later works. Poussin's Moses and the Daughters of Jethro of c. 1647 (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University), the final design in a series of studies executed over more than a decade for a lost painting, provides a perfect example of how his exacting and protracted process generated compositions that accentuated the salient didactic elements of a theme with a masterful economy of means. Here, in another frieze-like design, is a counterbalance between the columnar females on the left and the men in the disarray of battle on the right, underscored by the solid architecture on the left and the violent sky and terrain on the right. The careful juxtaposition of wash and blank portions of the sheet to construct their volumes reveals the results of the artist's continued use of props on a miniature stage of his own construction for the study of physical expression, as well as light and shade. The gestures of the figures not only link the two groups and allow the viewer to read the action across the sheet, they also heighten the integrity of the scene by moving into the third dimension as each of these motions is echoed visually in the planes of the undulating landscape beyond.

Subjects like Poussin's Infant Bacchus Entrusted to the Nymphs of Nysa and the Death of Echo and Narcissus of 1657 (Fogg Art Museum), commissioned by his close friend, the painter Jacques Stellaa conflation of stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses, Philostratus' Imagines, and later studies of these texts in a dense allegory that contrasts fertility and sterilitysuggest his study of antique literature. Poussin's late landscapes, such as Autumn from the series Four Seasons of c. 1662 (Musée du Louvre) demonstrate his significant contribution to the classical mode of this genre. Although he clearly benefited from the study of the elements of landscape in the Roman countryside with Claude and others earlier in his career, the disciplined structure of Poussin's stoic vision of nature is markedly different from the sumptuous, pastoral, and idyllic classicism of his fellow expatriate.

The significance of Poussin's processes and achievements are such that it is possible to argue that he became the most influential French painter in history. His name is, indeed, synonymous with French classicism. His art and theories formed the doctrinal foundation of the new Académie, which he declined the offer to direct, and artists from Charles Le Brun and Jacques-Louis David in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, and Pablo Picasso in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been compelled to confront his works and thoughts in order to produce a response of their own.

See also Art: Art Theory, Criticism, and Historiography ; Classicism ; Claude Lorrain (Gellée) ; David, Jacques-Louis ; Le Brun, Charles ; Painting ; Rome, Art in .


Blunt, Anthony. The Drawings of Poussin. New Haven and London, 1979.

. Nicolas Poussin. 2 vols. Bollingen series: 35. Washington, D.C., 1967.

. The Paintings of Nicolas Poussin: A Critical Catalogue. 2 vols. London, 1966.

Bonfait, Olivier, and Jean-Claude Boyer. Intorno a Poussin: Ideale classico e epopea barocca tra Parigi e Roma. Exh. cat. Rome, 2000.

Chastel, André, ed. Nicolas Poussin. 2 vols. Paris, 1960.

Chomer, Gilles, et al. Autour de Poussin. Exh. cat. Paris, 1994.

Cropper, Elizabeth, and Charles Dempsey. Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting. Princeton, 1996.

Fumaroli, Marc. L'inspiration du poète de Poussin: Essai sur l'allégorie du Parnasse. Exh. cat. Paris, 1989.

Lagerlöf, Margaretha Rossholm. Ideal Landscape: Annibale Carracci, Nicolas Poussin, and Claude Lorrain. New Haven and London, 1990.

Mahon, Denis. "Poussiniana: Afterthoughts Arising from the Exhibition." Gazette des beaux-arts 1962 (special issue): 1138.

Mérot, Alain. Nicolas Poussin. New York, 1990.

Rosenberg, Pierre, and Louis-Antoine Prat. Nicolas Poussin, 15941665. Paris, 1994.

. Nicolas Poussin, 15941665: Catalogue raisonné des dessins. Milan, 1994.

Thuillier, Jacques. Nicolas Poussin. Paris, 1994.

. Poussin before Rome. Exh. cat. London, 1995.

Verdi, Richard. Cézanne and Poussin: The Classical Vision of Landscape. Exh. cat. London, 1990.

Wright, Christopher. Poussin Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné. London, 1984.

Alvin L. Clark, Jr.

Nicolas Poussin

views updated May 17 2018

Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), one of the greatest French painters, rationally synthesized the diverse tendencies of French and Italian art. His work is a salient example of lucid control by the mind over the senses.

The art of Nicolas Poussin is a visual record of progression from the chaos of youth to self-awareness, from self-control to intellectualism, and from wisdom to harmony. In the 19th century Paul Cézanne conferred the ultimate tribute: "Every time I come away from Poussin I know better who I am."

Poussin was born in the hamlet of Villers near Les Andelys, Normandy, in June 1594. His father, who had certain claims to ancient but minor nobility, came from Soissons; he was a military man turned farmer. His mother was the widow of a lawyer, and Nicolas was destined for the law. The boy, who knew Latin from childhood, received a sound education until he was 18. His proclivity for art provoked the disapproval of his parents, and in 1612 the presence of Quentin Varin, a minor mannerist painter, in the neighborhood occasioned Poussin's flight from home.

After a brief sojourn with the painter Noël Jouvenet in Rouen, Poussin went to Paris, where the patronage of a young nobleman from Poitou enabled him to frequent the studios of the portraitist Ferdinand Elle and the mannerist painter Georges Lallemand. About 1614 his noble friend took Poussin home to his château in Poitou, but his patron's mother did not like the alliance, and the artist departed on foot, reaching Paris exhausted and ill from malnutrition. After a year's rest with his family at Les Andelys, Poussin returned to Paris to begin a productive career.

Except for a trip to Florence about 1620-1621 and another to Lyons shortly thereafter, Poussin spent the years between about 1616 and 1624 establishing his position in Paris. He studied architecture, perspective, and anatomy; the mannerist frescoes of Francesco Primaticcio at Fontainebleau; antique sculpture; and the High Renaissance paintings of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Titian and the engravings of Giulio Romano. He frequented intellectual and artistic circles and met the Italian poet Giambattista Marino, for whom he executed a series known as the Massimi drawings. Poussin received commissions from the Jesuit Collège de Clermont in Paris and Notre Dame in Paris. When he left for Rome in 1624, he was a mature artist. On the way he stopped in Venice, where the works of Titian and Paolo Veronese profoundly influenced him.

Works, 1624-1630

Between 1624 and 1630 Poussin's life was characterized by professional vicissitudes and artistic experimentation. He vacillated, though always brilliantly, between his Paris style, based upon the study of Giulio Romano and antique sarcophagi (Victory of Moses, 1624-1626), the current Roman baroque style of Pietro da Cortona (Madonna del Pilar), the Venetian High Renaissance style of Veronese (Marriage of St. Catherine) and Titian (The Inspiration of the Poet), and the realistic style of Caravaggio (Massacre of the Innocents). The conspicuous success of this period was the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus (1628-1629) for an altar in St. Peter's.

In spite of the patronage of the Barberini family, the confusion resulting from Poussin seeking his own style among the multiple possibilities afforded him in Rome and the fierce competition of Italian, Flemish, and French artists resulted in another illness. After being nursed back to health in the house of the French pastry cook Jacques Dughet, he married the daughter Anne Marie in 1630. Poussin decided to abandon the field of official commissions, and from then on he devoted himself exclusively to the execution of small cabinet pictures, fastidious in workmanship, for a private and cultivated clientele.

Works, 1630-1640

In the 1630s friendship with Cassiano dal Pozzo, amateur of the antique, led Poussin into a milieu of modest but genuine scholars. At this time his concern was poetical, focused upon the dramatic themes of Tasso (Rinaldo and Armida) and the melancholy of Ovid (Arcadian Shepherds). Between 1633 and 1637 his subject matter shifted to the pageantry of the Old Testament (Adoration of the Magi), mythology (Bacchanals for Cardinal Richelieu, and ancient history (Rape of the Sabines, two versions). During this time the coloristic fluidity of Titian, which had characterized Poussin's previous period, gave way to a statuesque plasticity of figure style, recalling Raphael's Mass of Bolsena. Compositions were oriented parallel to the picture plane and delineated by a controlled, linear perspective.

Between 1637 and 1640 this rational tendency increased. Poussin used various pictorial methods of painting to elicit a specific response in the educated observer, trained to understand his expressive purpose in any given work. These were the ancient Greek and Roman modes. His earlier works had been mainly in the Hypolydian mode for joyful subjects of divine glory and paradise and the lonic mode for festive, bacchanalian subject matter. Now they became more austere, in the Dorian mode for stable, grave, and severe themes (The Israelites Collecting Manna); or martial, in the Phrygian mode for intense and violent themes. Poussin's fondness for the modes was motivated, according to his letter of Nov. 24, 1647, to P. F. de Chantelou, by a desire for didactic clarity in communication. For the sake of readability his compositions, from the late 1630s, were cautiously planned, the figures sculpturally modeled, the tones restricted to primary colors insistently repeated, and the psychological content underlined by emphatic, sometimes histrionic gesture and facial expression.

Return to Paris, 1640-1642

Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu had been urging Poussin's return to Paris since 1638, and in 1640 he did so. He was given the title of first painter to the king, a yearly pension, and lodging in a pavilion of the Tuileries Palace. His princely reception provoked the resentment of the artistic coterie. The official circle expected him to create a French "style" and be able to direct teams of artists and artisans. But Poussin was used to a contemplative atmosphere and to concentrating on a single, meticulously executed work, and the constant demand for adaptability and glib fluency in the creation of altarpieces, decorative ceilings, and designs for books, tapestries, and furniture was exhausting. Of his many Paris works the best products of that unhappy sojourn were the decorative schemes for the ceilings of the Orangerie in the Luxembourg Palace and for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre.

Mature Period, 1643-1653

In September 1642 Poussin returned to Rome, ostensibly to fetch his wife; Richelieu and Louis XIII died soon after Poussin reached Rome, enabling him to remain in his adopted country permanently. He passed the rest of his life modestly and placidly in his house in the Via Paolina, refusing countless honors, including the directorship of the Academy of St. Luke. The most important fruit of his Paris visit was a patronage truly worthy of his talents. Intellectual conservatives of the French upper bourgeoisie, like Chantelou, called forth, through their commissions, the best of the artist's talents, the embodiment of the French classical ideal.

Between 1643 and 1653 Poussin came to grips with the fundamental premise of his creative being, the triumph of human will over the passions, manifest in his works in the domination of intellect over emotion. The Holy Family on the Steps (1648), for example, reveals his rational procedure for achieving biblical truth. The observer is infallibly guided, through the selective simplicity and lucid formality of the essential compositional elements, to the climax of the representation, the enthronement of a nobly modest family on monumental stairs, and to the denouement, the movement of the Holy Family toward the observer.

In executing his works Poussin proceeded in the following manner. After a thorough reading of the primary sources, he made a preliminary sketch; he then constructed a small model stage upon which he could move, like chessmen, actual miniature figures made of wax. After making further drawings and altering the positions of the figures as he progressed, he made larger models. From these he painted the final scene, referring occasionally to living models to avoid sterility. Thus, by steady, almost pedestrian degrees the potentially dramatic theme was simplified to a lofty understatement. Such laborious procedures, dangerously susceptible to stereotyping by imitators, were adopted until 1690 for teaching purposes by Charles Le Brun in the Paris academic program; they also explain the objection, among even cultivated critics, to Poussin's not infrequent statuesque sterility and coloristic coldness in the works of his mature period.

Late Period, 1653-1665

In Poussin's late period he moved beyond the somewhat self-conscious and mechanical means just described. The triumph of human will over the passions, or intellect over emotion, became an ultimate statement of the reign of universal harmony over the seeming chaos of nature and human life. This final conviction is most telling in such works as Apollo and Daphne (1664), sometimes called his spiritual testament to the world, and Summer and Autumn, two of the cycle of the four seasons (1660-1664). Figures are set in wildly animated landscapes of fertility or desolation, forms are reduced to nearly cubistic abstraction, and action is drastically simplified. Poussin died in Rome on Nov. 19, 1665.

Further Reading

A great deal has been written about Poussin. By far the most reliable works in English are Anthony Blunt, The Paintings of Nicolas Poussin: A Critical Catalogue (1966) and Nicolas Poussin (2 vols., 1967), and Walter Friedlaender, Nicolas Poussin: A New Approach (1966).

Additional Sources

Blunt, Anthony, Nicolas Poussin, London: Pallas Athene, 1995. Nicolas Poussin, New York: Abbeville Press, 1990. □

Poussin, Nicolas

views updated May 17 2018

Poussin, Nicolas (1594–1665) French painter who worked mainly in Rome. At first inspired by mannerism, he later concentrated on antique art, specializing in mythological subjects. In the late 1630s, he turned to more elaborate Old Testament and historical themes. Among his notable works are The Eucharist (1644–48) and The Seven Sacraments (1648).

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk; http://www.metmuseum.org; http://www.getty.edu

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