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Nicolas Poussin - Biography and Legacy

French Painter

Movements and Styles: The Baroque, Naturalism

Born: June 1594 - Les Andelys, Normandy

Died: 19 November 1665 - Rome, Papal States

Nicolas Poussin Timeline

"I fear the malignity of our times. Virtue, conscience and religion are banished among men. Nothing but vice, trickery and self-interest reign. All is lost. I have lost hope in the existence of Good. Everything is filled with evil."

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Biography of Nicolas Poussin

Early life

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.

Middle years

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.

Self-portrait drawing by Poussin (c. 1630)
Self-portrait drawing by Poussin (c. 1630)

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.

Later years

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.

Most Important Art

Zoom imageNicolas Poussin Famous Art

Dance to the Music of Time (1634)

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.
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Content compiled and written by Katie Da Cunha Lewin

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Katie Da Cunha Lewin
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 10 Dec 2018. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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