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Nicolas Poussin

(1594—1665) French painter

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(b Les Andelys, Normandy, June 1594; d Rome, 19 Nov. 1665).

French painter and draughtsman, active mainly in Rome. Although he spent almost all his career in Italy, he is regarded not only as the greatest French painter of the 17th century, but also as the mainspring of the classical tradition in French painting. His early interest in art was given direction when Quentin Varin (c.1570–1634), a mediocre late Mannerist painter, visited his home town, Les Andelys, in 1611–12 to carry out a church commission. Soon afterwards Poussin moved to Paris, where he probably spent most of his time until his departure for Rome in 1623, although these years are poorly documented and he may have travelled around France a good deal. The few surviving works from this period include a series of mythological drawings (1622–3, Royal Lib., Windsor Castle) commissioned by the Italian poet Giovanni Battista Marino, who at this time lived in Paris. Encouraged by Marino, Poussin set out for Rome (he had already made two unsuccessful attempts to get there) and arrived in March 1624. Apart from an interlude in Paris in 1640–2, he lived in Rome for the rest of his life and his art was largely shaped by the cultural traditions of his adopted city.

Poussin initially endured hardship in Rome, but Marino's influence gained him an introduction to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, for whom he painted the Death of Germanicus (1626–8, Minneapolis Inst. of Arts), generally regarded as his first masterpiece. The cardinal's secretary, Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588–1657), became Poussin's most important patron in Rome. He was not particularly wealthy, but he had a huge collection of prints and drawings relating to his passion for antiquity, and Poussin absorbed a great deal from this ‘paper museum’, as Pozzo called it. In the ancient world he found guiding moral principles as well as stylistic models—Reynolds described him as having ‘a mind thrown back two thousand years and, as it were, naturalized in antiquity’. In such an intellectual climate, his style began to shed an earlier tendency towards Mannerist elongation, becoming more classical, but for a time he was also influenced by the dynamic Baroque style that was then emerging. This is seen most clearly in the only picture he painted for a public setting in Rome, the altarpiece of the Martyrdom of St Erasmus, commissioned by Cardinal Barberini for St Peter's (1628–9, Vatican Mus.). His most personal work of this period is the Inspiration of the Poet (c.1628, Louvre, Paris), classical in design but Venetian in its rich colouring.

In about 1629 Poussin became seriously ill (Passeri says he was stricken by venereal disease) and was nursed back to health by the family of Jacques Dughet, a French cook working in Rome, whose daughter he married in 1630. The illness coincided with a change of direction in his work. He abandoned the competition for public commissions (his altarpiece for St Peter's had been coolly received) and henceforth concentrated on pictures of fairly modest size for private collectors whose interests were similar to his own (several of them were indeed his friends). In the early 1630s he specialized in literary subjects from Ovid and Tasso, treated with a lyrical warmth (Rinaldo and Armida, c.1630, Dulwich Picture Gal., London), and he also painted some full-blooded bacchanalian scenes. From the mid-1630s, however, he put more stress on clarity of design, and Raphael replaced Titian as his chief inspiration among Renaissance painters. In addition to his pagan subjects, he painted religious themes, and he seems to have been able to reconcile Christian beliefs with certain philosophical ideas of the ancient world, particularly the Stoical ideal that virtuous equanimity sustains a wise person in any misfortune. He lived a quiet, simple life, in spite of his growing success, and although he had been something of a hothead in his youth, he came to believe that ‘peace and tranquillity of mind are possessions without equal.’


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