Nicolas Poussin (15 June 1594 – 19 November 1665) was a French painter in the classical style. His work predominantly features clarity, logic, and order, and favors line over color. His work serves as an alternative to the dominant Baroque style of the 17th century. Until the 20th century he remained the major inspiration for such classically oriented artists as Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Paul Cézanne.
He spent most of his working life in Rome, except for a short period when Cardinal Richelieu ordered him back to France to serve as First Painter to the King.
Please note that Poussin’s paintings are containing nudity and if that offends you don’t read the article!
Movements: Baroque, Classicism
Nicolas Poussin’s early biographer was his friend Giovanni Pietro Bellori, who relates that Poussin was born near Les Andelys in Normandy and that he received an education that included some Latin, which would stand him in good stead. Early sketches attracted the notice of Quentin Varin, a local painter, whose pupil Poussin became, until he ran away to Paris at the age of eighteen. There he entered the studios of the Flemish painter Ferdinand Elle and then of Georges Lallemand, both minor masters now remembered for having tutored Poussin. He found French art in a stage of transition: the old apprenticeship system was disturbed, and the academic training destined to supplant it was not yet established by Simon Vouet; but having met Courtois the mathematician, Poussin was fired by the study of his collection of engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi after Italian masters.
After two abortive attempts to reach Rome, he fell in with Giambattista Marino, the court poet to Marie de Medici, at Lyon. Marino employed him on illustrations to his poem Adone (untraced) and on a series of illustrations for a projected edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, took him into his household, and in 1624 enabled Poussin (who had been detained by commissions in Lyon and Paris) to rejoin him at Rome. It has been suggested that it was this early friendship with Marino, and the commissioning of illustrations of his poetry (which drew on Ovidian themes), that founded, or at least reinforced, the prominent eroticism in Poussin’s early work.
Throughout his life Poussin stood apart from the popular tendency toward the decorative in French art of his time. In Poussin’s works a survival of the impulses of the Renaissance is coupled with conscious reference to the art of classical antiquity as the standard of excellence. His goal was clarity of expression achieved by disegno or ‘nobility of design’ in preference to colore or color. Perhaps his concern with disegno can best be seen in the line engraved copies of his works; among the many who reproduced his paintings, some of the most successful are Audran, Claudine Stella, Picart and Pesne.
Themes of tragedy and death are prevalent in Poussin’s work. Et in Arcadia ego, a subject he painted twice (second version is seen at right), exemplifies his cerebral approach. In this composition, idealized shepherds examine a tomb inscribed with the title phrase, which is usually interpreted as a memento mori: “Even in Arcadia I exist”, as if spoken by personified Death. Poussin intended his figures to “display the most distilled and most typical attitude and emotion for the role they were playing”, but he was concerned with emotion “in a generalized and not specific way … Thus in both compositions of Et in Arcadia Ego (Chatsworth and Louvre) the theme is the realization of death in life. The specific models hardly matter. We are not intended to have sympathy with them and instead we are forced by the artist to think on the theme.”
Poussin is an important figure in the development of landscape painting. In his early paintings the landscape usually forms a graceful background for a group of figures; later he progressed to the painting of landscape for its own sake, although the figure is never entirely absent. Examples are Landscape with St. John on Patmos (1640), (Art Institute of Chicago) and Landscape with a Roman Road (1648), (Dulwich Picture Gallery).
The finest collection of Poussin’s paintings is at the Louvre in Paris. Other significant collections are in the National Gallery in London; the National Gallery of Scotland; the Dulwich Picture Gallery; the Musée Condé, Chantilly; the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; and the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Initially, Poussin’s genius was recognized only by small circles of collectors. (In the two decades following his death, a particularly large collection of his works was amassed by Louis XIV.) At the same time, it was recognized that he had contributed a new theme of “classical severity” to French art.
Benjamin West, an American painter of the 18th century who worked in Britain, based his canvas of the death of General Wolfe at Quebec on Poussin’s example. As a result, the image is one in which each character gazes with appropriate seriousness on Wolfe’s death after securing British domination of North America.
Jacques-Louis David resurrected a style already known as “Poussinesque” during the French Revolution in part because the leaders of the Revolution looked to replace the frivolity and oppression of the court with Republican severity and civic-mindedness, most obvious in David’s dramatic canvas of Brutus receiving the bodies of his sons, sacrificed to his own principles, and the famous death of Marat.
Throughout the 19th century, Poussin, available to the ordinary person’s gaze because the Revolution had opened the collections of the Louvre, was inspirational for thoughtful and self-reflexive artists who pondered their own work methods, notably Cézanne, who strove to “recreate Poussin after nature”, and the Post-Impressionists. In addition to formal considerations, also appealing was the eroticism of some of Poussin’s classicizing subjects.
In the twentieth century art critics have suggested that the “analytic Cubist” experiments of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were founded upon Poussin’s example. In 1963 Picasso based a series of paintings on Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women. The work of Jean Hugo was also influenced by Poussin.
The most famous 20th-century scholar of Poussin was the Englishman Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, who in 1979 was disgraced by revelations of his complicity with Soviet intelligence.
Today, Poussin’s paintings at the Louvre reside in a gallery dedicated to him.
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