• POUSSIN, Nicolas


  • Nicolas Poussin was born in Normandy and after some training went to Paris about 1612. At some time between 1612 and 1624 he worked with the Flemish portrait painter Elle. Little is known about him before 1621 when he was employed with Philippe de Champaigne on decorations in the Luzembourg Palace. His style was probaly based on the second School of Fontainebleau, modified by the Antique and Italian Renaissance works in the French Royal Coll..

    In 1624 he went to Rome and in his early struggling years there worked in the studio of Domenichino, whose lucid composition and cool colour affected him strongly. In 1628 he obtained a commission for an altarpiece for St Peter's, the Martydom of St Erasmus (now in the Vatican), a work painted in competition with Le Valentin and not wholly successful since it involved a compromise between Baroque elegance and Poussin's less dramatic style.

    About 1629-30 he had a serious illness. This marks a change in his style, for he now stopped trying to compete with the increasingly popular opulent Baroque and turned to smaller works and to patrons from the upper middle class. He made many experiments in these early Roman years, one being his short interest in Venetian art which led, for instance, in the Louvre Inspiration of the Poet, to a combination of classical form and Venetian colour of supreme beauty. He turned from religious to classical subjects, to mythologies, and to Tasso. But this elegiac phase was short-lived, and by 1633 he was working on compositions filled with figures grouped in dramatic poses chosen to make the narrative plain; the influence of Venetian colour gave place to a more rigid use of local colour, and Raphael and the Antique are paramount. Poussin used the device of a miniature stage with small draped wax models to try out effects of gesture, grouping and lighting.

    In 1640 he was persuaded to return to Paris to work for the King and Cardinal Richelieu. This brought him into uneasy competition with most of the artists working for the Crown, of whose work he was outspokenly critical, and in particular with Vouet, but the artistic climate of Paris and the conditions of his employment were highly uncongenial and in 1642, after just over eighteen months, he made an excuse to return to Rome, which he never again left. In 1642 he finished the first set of Seven Sacraments, of which the Baptism is now in Washington (NG) and the remainder in Belvoir Castle (Duke of Rutland's Coll.) except for Confession (destroyed). His trip to France enabled him to make new contacts among bourgeois patrons, such as Chantelou, for whom he worked in Rome and who was his host in Paris (as he later was to Bernini) and for whom the second set of the Seven Sacraments (Edinburgh NG, on loan from the Duje of Sutherland) was painted between about 1644 and 1648. These patrons were highly educated, intellectual men of strict piety, and the classical themes he now chose were the heroic and stoical ones of Roman moral victory and sacrifice paralleling the dramas of Corneille, or dramatic biblical themes where the action turns on the psychological impact of the moment. The late works are essays in solid geometry, with facial expressions eliminated and immobile figures. By comparison with his early works they are frigid and cerebral, but they are the logical exposition of his theories: a picture must contain the maximum of moral content expressed in a composition which shall convey its intellectual content; the pattern must be pleasing in itself and not conflict with the two-dimensional quality of the picture plane; the colour must offer no sensuous charm to lessen the unity of vision. Nowhere is this severe attitude expressed with more finality than in his landscapes, which exemplify his utter dissimilarity to Claude (and yet are supremely beautiful). This doctrine of the subordination of colour led to the quarrel between the Poussinists and the Rubenistes.

    There are works in Berlin, Birmingham, Boston (Mus., Fogg), Brighton, Cambridge (Fitzwm), Chantilly, Chicago, Cleveland Ohio, Copenhagen, Detroit, Dresden, Edinburgh (NG), Glasgow, Fort Worth (a fine Venus and Adonis), Hartford Conn. (Wadsworth), Kansas City, Liverpool, London (NG, Dulwich, Wallace Coll.), Madrid, Malibu Cal. (Getty has a Finding of Moses), Minneapolis, Montreal, Munich, New York (Met. Mus.), Ottawa, Paris (Louvre), Philadelphia, Providence RI, Rouen, St Petersburg, Sarasota Fla (Ringlin), Stockholm, Toledo Ohio, Toronto, Vaduz (Liechenstein Coll.), the Vatican), Vienna and Washington (NG).

  • Source: The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (Penguin Reference Books)

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