Summary of Nicolas Poussin
A Frenchman who spent almost his entire working life in Rome, Nicolas Poussin is considered the founder of the French classical tradition. He specialized in scenes from the Bible, ancient history, and mythology and his canvases are revered for their narrative intensity and their rational and ordered approach to composition. Poussin is admired for his strong use of color and his inclination to prioritize the cerebral over the emotional. He was able to demonstrate that art could be an intellectual pursuit and through his layering of meaning he produced paintings of extraordinary dramatic depth and allegorical complexity. Towards the latter part of his career, Poussin's art submitted to a further transformation as he diversified to depict landscapes and a series of pantheistic allegories that were expressed through the harmonious forces of nature. Though his reputation was downgraded in the first half of the 18th century, Poussin enjoyed something of a rebirth in the second half of that century when the Neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David and his followers championed Poussin's style above all other Classicists. Poussin's reputation has remained buoyant ever since.
- By the early 1630s, Poussin had rejected the expressive Mannerist style in favor of a more controlled approach to composition. Taking his lead from Classicism and Raphael over Venice and Titian, Poussin demonstrated his aspiration to use painting to communicate concepts and ideals through the fusion of different mythological and classical themes. He wanted his paintings to engage the spectator by making extra demands of their powers of reflection.
- Poussin developed and practiced a highly symmetric approach. His precise geometrical organization, coupled with visual allegories, borrowed from the Hellenic philosophy of Stoicism. Poussin wanted to convey universal ideas about human experience and existence. He believed that we are all subject to forces outside our control and the only way to a contented existence was through logical thought and personal self-control.
- In his later paintings Poussin turned to a darker palette and freer compositional formations to represent the relationship between the natural environment and the mind. He painted expressive landscapes as a way of communicating conflicted or untamed human emotions. Poussin hoped that this would bring about a higher cerebral connection with his spectator.
Important Art by Nicolas Poussin
Dance to the Music of Time
Dance to the Music of Time was commissioned by the future Pope Clement IX, Giulio Rospigliosi, Poussin's most important patron during his early years in Rome. Rospigliosi was also a gifted opera lyricist and the painting has been read as reflecting the patron's interest in music (and dance). At the same time, this painting is seen as one of Poussin's most famous allegorical works. It represents the theme of the passing of time and the cycles of life; the four figures representing the wheel of human fortune: Poverty, Labor, Riches, and Pleasure. Labor leads one out of poverty onto riches which lead to pleasure. To become spoiled by the excesses of pleasure, however, only leads one back to poverty.
The figures' differences are represented through their clothing and positioning (Poverty being the male figure in black with his back fully turned towards the spectator). The elderly, bearded man on the right-hand side is recognizable as Father Time, though, possibly to please Rospigliosi, Poussin has swapped his traditional scythe for Orpheus's lyre. To reinforce the themes of the painting, Poussin places one small putto with an hour glass at Time's feet, while mirroring him on the left of the picture plane, another putto is shown blowing bubbles (a pictorial symbol of the fragility of man according to ancient mythology). Above in the heavens, meanwhile, we see Apollo riding his chariot (a symbol of the rising sun) indicating the passing of days. Bacchus, the God of wine and intoxication, finally, represented as both a young and old man in the herm on the left, faces Pleasure (possibly by way of a warning).
Through Poussin's fusion of different mythological and representative figures, this painting demands that the spectator call on his/her intellect to decode its meaning. Indeed, though he represented myths in many of his narrative works, Dance to the Music of Time shows Poussin's aspiration to use narrative painting to also communicate concepts and ideals.
Oil on canvas - Wallace Collection, London
The Abduction of the Sabine Women
In this striking, and influential, painting (of which there are two versions) Poussin drew on Roman mythology to depict a scene of mass panic in which a man (Romulus) gives the order for the young women in this town square to be seized by Roman soldiers. This story was very popular during the Renaissance and was painted by many painters, including Pietro da Cortona and the Frenchman Jacques Stella (an acquaintance of Poussin's). Over the years, several painters used Poussin's work as a study piece. Degas for instance would copy the version of the painting hanging in the Louvre, noting (in 1853) that "it is only after proving yourself a good copyist that you should reasonably be permitted to draw a radish from nature."
In this, the second version, Poussin focusses on the architecture and setting in order to contrast the disorder of the crowd with the apparent simplicity of the buildings. Though at first the painting may look overcrowded, once the spectator follows each individual confrontation, it becomes clear that Poussin meticulously planned the position of each person. Moreover, the perspective of the buildings draws our eye further into the painting, as if to suggest that these atrocities may be happening across town. The sumptuous colors of the robes offer a ghoulish contrast against the aggressions of the Roman soldiers.
Oil on canvas - Louvre Museum, Paris
Et In Arcadia Ego
Rospigliosi also commissioned this piece, also known as The Arcadian Shepherds, which is quite possibly Poussin's most famous masterpiece. Four shepherds stand around a tomb in this pastoral scene. The concept of an Arcadia comes from the idealised location named by the poet Virgil; it is supposed to denote a beautiful country paradise. However, Poussin contrasts this blissful idyll with the presence of a tomb. The crouching figure traces the words "Et in Arcadia Ego" meaning, "Even in Arcadia; I am there" suggesting that death knows no bounds; even in the most heavenly of settings. The shepherd on the right, who looks away and out of the frame, appears shocked and nervous, as if he is struggling to come to terms with his own mortality.
Like Dance to the Music of Time, Poussin uses his painting to communicate universal ideas about human experience through visual allegories. Here, we see Poussin's interest in the Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism, founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The philosophy promotes the idea that life is so unpredictable that we cannot control external events. Our time on this earth is fleeting and it is logic and self-control, rather than destructive emotions, that brings contentment and happiness. Stoicism doesn't then concern itself with theoretical musings and circular debates, but rather with overcoming destructive fears and anxieties, and ultimately to have the wisdow to act only on what can actually be acted upon.
Oil on canvas - Louvre Museum, Paris
The Judgement of Solomon
Solomon, the third King of Israel, was the son of David and Bathsheba, and was renowned for his wisdom. According to the Old Testament, Solomon has been called to rule on the claims made by two prostitutes (living in the same house) who had given birth at the same time. One of the infants has died (its body is held in the arms of the woman on the right) and the women are contesting the parentage of the living child (held up by the ankle, behind the woman on the left, by a sword wielding soldier). Solomon decrees that the surviving child should be cut in two (each woman taking a half). Upon hearing the judgement, the child's true mother forsakes her maternal claims on the child in order to spare the child's life. This gesture - or maternal cry - reveals the identity of the rightful parent to the wise King Solomon and the child is restored to its just mother.
Symmetric unity is a characteristic of many of Poussin's paintings. We see that here in the way the columns, the door frames, and the base lines of the pavement form a pyramidal composition. The untidy baying factions on either side of the King even form a congruent mirror effect. Meanwhile, King Solomon, in effect the painting's geometric axis, and with his slightly elevated hands, contributes both to the compositional balance and to the thematic element of the painting which alludes to the balance of objective justice. Indeed, Poussin's precise compositional organization creates a sense of closure in the same way Solomon's stoic intelligence has brought judicial closure. In addition to the Biblical narrative, Poussin references Greek and Roman antiquity which is redolent in the clothes, helmets, shields, columns and the frieze that adorns the throne. (There are many preparatory drawings to this painting to be found in various French museums.)
Oil on canvas - Louvre Museum, Paris
Poussin was approached by his friend and patron Paul Fréart de Chantelou to make a portrait for the foundation of the French Academy in 1648. Poussin agreed but, given his general feelings of distain towards his Roman contemporaries, he chose to produce a self-portrait. He produced a first version in 1649 modelled on a friend's tomb (a memento mori) but it is the second that has drawn most interest from historians. Poussin presents himself in a dark gown with a stole thrown over his shoulders. His posture is upright, and his head is turned towards us in almost full-face view. His expression is intense, and the setting is the artist's own studio.
The image is lent a somewhat intangible quality by an arrangement of three framed canvases that provide the painting with a quadratic structure (that structure is merely reinforced by the doorframe in the background). The canvas nearest us is unpainted except for an inscription that reads: "Portrayal of Nicolas Poussin of Les Andalys, done at Rome during the Jubilee Year of 1650, aged 56 years."
To our left, a second canvas shows a woman in front of a landscape. She is wearing a diadem (crown) with what looks like an eye at its centre. Its meaning remains ambiguous, but it has been interpreted as an allegory: painting deserved to be "crowned" the highest of all the arts, and/or as a symbol of Amicitia - a treatise of friendship shared amongst Roman statesmen. A further detail of note is the ring Poussin wears on the little finger of his right hand which rests on a closed portfolio. The stone is cut in a four-sided pyramid: a symbol of the Stoic stability and strength of character. It is, however, Poussin's sadness and emotional vulnerability once he has stepped out from behind the cover (or "shield") of his canvases that leaves the lasting impression of the artist himself.
Oil on canvas - Louvre Museum, Paris
Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun
Poussin, who produced Blind Orion at the request of Michel Passart, a collector of art and connoisseur of landscape painting, painted several impressive "late" landscapes. Some of his earlier landscapes, such as Landscape with Saint Jean at Patmos (1640), appear tranquil and orderly. The color scheme in the earlier style too is made up of light blues and rich contrasting colors, with the result that the paintings feel composed and still. In his later paintings, however, Poussin used darker colors and eddying cloud forms to represent more volatile weather conditions. His intention was to show the relationship between the natural environment and the mind and to use nature as a way to communicate difficult or untamed human emotions.
This painting, a spectacular example of Poussin's later landscapes, represents the narrative of the blind giant Orion, as told by the Greek writer Lucian (125-180 ACE). Art historian Mary Sprinson de Jesús comments that in this painting Poussin "appears to have surrendered control and lapsed momentarily in his love of order and geometry, permitting his imagination to lead him." We can see this from the richness of the landscape, in which clouds, trees and hills overwhelm the canvas. The sun named in the title begins to peak over the hill, but from where exactly is unclear. Unlike many of his earlier landscapes, the figures are not foregrounded and do not command our attention in the same way; rather, as Orion seems to be about to move from right to left, the spectator looks towards where he might be headed, rather than focus on his giant form. It is nature therefore that overwhelms the figures and represents through painting a new kind of psychic possibility.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Biography of Nicolas Poussin
Childhood and Education
Nicolas Poussin was born near the town in Les Andelys in Normandy in 1594. He was the child of a noble family who had fallen on hard times. He was schooled in many subjects, including Latin and letters, but showed a talent for drawing (he was apparently scolded by his teachers for doodling in his books). The French Baroque painter Quentin Varin came across his work whilst passing through Poussin's town and encouraged him to go into painting professionally. His parents, however, did not agree which led the young Poussin to run away to Paris in 1612 aged just 18.
On his arrival in Paris he studied many topics, including anatomy and visual perspective, whilst working with more established painters Georges Lalleman and Ferdinand Elle. The trade in art was flourishing at that time, and figures like the Queen of France Marie de' Medici, provided many commissions in order to decorate her palace, while wealthy land owners sought original religious works to decorate their homes. However, Poussin was still very much on the periphery and did not like the studio system which demanded that several individuals worked on the same work. It was in Paris that he was first introduced to Italian Renaissance art, a style that would determine his own artistic destiny.
In the 1620s, his career had started to pick up. In 1622, he received his first commission for the Jesuits, and the following year he was asked to produce a painting to hang in Notre-Dame. The paintings for the Jesuits garnered Poussin some notice in artistic circles, and through them he was employed by the court poet Giambattista Marino to make a series of drawings. This influential commission led to others and when Marino travelled to Rome in 1623, he asked the young painter to join him.
Poussin arrived in Rome in 1624, and would remain (not withstanding a short excursion to Paris) there until his death in 1665. However, his friend and patron Marino died soon after his arrival which left Poussin in financial difficulties. He was also afflicted with syphilis from which he would never fully recover. Despite these early setbacks, Poussin studied at the Italian artist's Domenichino academy, learning to paint nudes and visiting cathedrals and convents in order to study the work of the Italian masters. His first masterpiece, The Death of Germanicus followed soon after in 1627. He also received his only commission from the Vatican to paint The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus. Around that time he met Cassiano dal Pozzo who would go on to become one of his most influential patrons and a great personal friend. Dal Pozzo helped Poussin win other commissions and to consolidate his position as an important painter in Rome. Dal Pozzo also introduced Poussin to literature, philosophy, and art history. This instilled in him a love of learning and ideas that would come to inform his increasingly complex body of work.
Poussin also made the acquaintance of another Italianized Frenchman, Claude Lorrain (sometimes better known simply as Claude). The men were close neighbors and were in fact both patronized by the neo-stoicist (a combination of Christianity and Classical stoicism) Cardinal Camillo Massimo. Poussin and Claude would embark together on drawing expeditions to the Campagna countryside where they would sketch (and/or paint in Claude's case) the heroic Roman landscape. Claude had already made his reputation as a master of landscape painting and it is generally agreed that Claude, who worked with a greater feel for spontaneity than his more cerebral countryman, helped open Poussin's eyes to the heavenly beauty of nature. Poussin was also closely acquainted with the Baroque poet Giovanni Battista Marino, the printmaker and draftsman Pietro Testa (with whom he shared his interest in ancient history) and the polymath (writer, painter, mathematician and priest) Matteo Zaccolini who was considered a specialist in perspective.
In 1630, Poussin married Anne-Marie Dughet. By 1632 he had earned enough to purchase a small house for them on the Via Paolina. It was a great period of productivity for the painter, despite the fact that he always worked alone and had never established his own studio. During the same period, he ventured into landscape painting, a genre that did not have the same heritage or gravitas as the Biblical and mythological narratives on which he had built his reputation. Indeed, Poussin's digression into landscapes would prove pivotal for the development of the genre. His inspiration came from trips to the Roman countryside though he would still treat it as a backdrop for established literary stories. He completed many of his most famous works - such as Abduction of the Sabine Women (1633-34) and Dance to the Music of Time (1636) - during this period. Poussin's new fame led him to shun public life, however, and he preferred to work on commissions from private collectors rather than state and/or church projects.
News of Poussin's growing reputation carried throughout the continent and he received commissions from several members of Parisian high society. For instance, he was commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu to paint two separate paintings, The Triumph of Pan and The Triumph of Bacchus (to be hung in his house rather than in a church). In 1639 he received an invitation to move to Paris to work for King Louis XIII though he was reluctant to be uprooted from Rome. It was only on the King's command that Poussin left Italy for France, arriving in December 1640. Named First Painter to the King, his main tasks were to decorate the royal residence, to execute designs for The Long Gallery of the Louvre and to paint altarpieces for the King and members of his court. Working with a large team of assistants, Poussin became frustrated at his lack of autonomy and the peculiar mixture of the King's demands. Poussin eventually managed to arrange a return to Italy in 1642. Indeed the death of Richelieu in December of that year, and the death of the King himself only four months later, meant that Poussin was absolved of any future obligation to return to the French court.
On his return to Rome, Poussin found that many of his former clients had died, though he was sustained financially by a growing number of French patrons. As Poussin grew older, he became more reclusive and was known to be rather cantankerous, and intolerant of other painters. He did however champion the work of Frenchman Charles Le Brun, a painter with whom he worked for three years. Indeed, Le Brun exerted considerable influence over Poussin's worldview though the men's developing theory of art was to prove somewhat controversial. Le Brun, speaking on his friend's behalf, entered into a dispute with critic Roger de Piles over Poussin's new attitude towards color: what Le Brun called the "Poussinist" approach. In this approach, color would become more subdued - secondary to the subject itself in other words - and one could find precedents in the work of those painters who followed the themes of antiquity (such as Raphael). De Piles championed rather the work of the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens who himself had learnt from the more expressive compositional and color rules of Titian and Correggio. Though the Rubenists were thought to have won this debate, Poussin's counter position was to resound on future aesthetic deliberations in French painting.
By 1650, Poussin's health had started to decline. It is estimated that he still painted four paintings a year but he was beginning to suffer hand tremors. In the years leading up to his death, Poussin restricted his output to landscapes, including Landscapes with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651) and the series The Four Seasons completed between 1660-1664. In this ambitious series, Poussin used figures from the Old Testament in each canvas to represent individual seasons. In these works especially, Poussin used his wide-reading and search for complex representation in order to produce works that were rich in cultural and emotional significance, while still showing the inherent harmony of nature.
After the death of his wife in 1664, Poussin's health rapidly deteriorated and he died in 1665 at the age of 71. In his final will and testament he specified that he did not want an elaborate funeral, reflective of his life-time interest in Stoicist philosophy. The city of Rome was saddened by his death and there followed a large procession to the church of San Lorenzo in Lucia where the great adopted Frenchman was buried.
The Legacy of Nicolas Poussin
Poussin's tendency to draw on mythology and the force of nature rather than contemporary events meant that his influence was particularly felt by prominent Neoclassicists including Jacques-Louis David and Jean-August-Dominique Ingres. David, for example, attentively studied his paintings with the aim of learning how to best blend figures within classic allegories. For his painting The Oath of the Horatii (1784), David looked to Poussin's The Abduction of the Sabine Women for insights into how to fully embody some of his male characters. Ingres, meanwhile, believed that Poussin was "the first, and only [painter] to capture the nature of Italy" and that when faced with a beautiful landscape "one says, and says correctly, that it is 'Poussinesque'."
Moving into the 20th century, Poussin has featured in comparative exhibitions alongside the likes of Paul Cézanne (who had claimed that Poussin's paintings had given him "a better knowledge of who I am") and Cy Twombly. The Abduction of the Sabine Women was a direct source of inspiration for Pablo Picasso, a painter who was known to have admired Poussin's compositional precision. In 1963, the 82-year-old Picasso painted Rape of the Sabine Woman a self-conscious Cubist reworking (believed to be a comment by him on the Cuban Missile Crisis) of Poussin's masterpiece. More recently still, the American abstract painter Twombly has invoked Poussin through his work. Though his spare abstract paintings do not include figures, or indeed any representational forms, like Poussin, Twombly looked to Greek and Roman mythology, and ancient symbolism, for inspiration. Indeed, Twombly produced his own cycle of four paintings representing the seasons, Quattro Stagioni (1993-94), which can be read as a revision of Poussin's Les Quarte Saisons. Twombly had in fact followed in the footsteps of Markus Lüpertz who, between 1987-90, had produced a series of paintings in Poussin's honor. In her analysis of his painting Poussin-Philosph (1990), for instance, Carolina Andrada Páez argued that through "his interpretation of Poussin, Lüpertz [discovered] a pictorial freedom bound up with the mythological" and that Lüpertz's postmodern "interpretation" of Poussin was "associated with [Poussin's] sense of philosophical investigation" and this had become "a contemporary theme" for future Lüpertz works.