Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), one of the greatest French painters, rationally synthesized the diverse tendencies of French and Italian art. His work is a salient example of lucid control by the mind over the senses.
The art of Nicolas Poussin is a visual record of progression from the chaos of youth to self-awareness, from self-control to intellectualism, and from wisdom to harmony. In the 19th century Paul Cézanne conferred the ultimate tribute: "Every time I come away from Poussin I know better who I am."
Poussin was born in the hamlet of Villers near Les Andelys, Normandy, in June 1594. His father, who had certain claims to ancient but minor nobility, came from Soissons; he was a military man turned farmer. His mother was the widow of a lawyer, and Nicolas was destined for the law. The boy, who knew Latin from childhood, received a sound education until he was 18. His proclivity for art provoked the disapproval of his parents, and in 1612 the presence of Quentin Varin, a minor mannerist painter, in the neighborhood occasioned Poussin's flight from home.
After a brief sojourn with the painter Noël Jouvenet in Rouen, Poussin went to Paris, where the patronage of a young nobleman from Poitou enabled him to frequent the studios of the portraitist Ferdinand Elle and the mannerist painter Georges Lallemand. About 1614 his noble friend took Poussin home to his château in Poitou, but his patron's mother did not like the alliance, and the artist departed on foot, reaching Paris exhausted and ill from malnutrition. After a year's rest with his family at Les Andelys, Poussin returned to Paris to begin a productive career.
Except for a trip to Florence about 1620-1621 and another to Lyons shortly thereafter, Poussin spent the years between about 1616 and 1624 establishing his position in Paris. He studied architecture, perspective, and anatomy; the mannerist frescoes of Francesco Primaticcio at Fontainebleau; antique sculpture; and the High Renaissance paintings of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Titian and the engravings of Giulio Romano. He frequented intellectual and artistic circles and met the Italian poet Giambattista Marino, for whom he executed a series known as the Massimi drawings. Poussin received commissions from the Jesuit Collège de Clermont in Paris and Notre Dame in Paris. When he left for Rome in 1624, he was a mature artist. On the way he stopped in Venice, where the works of Titian and Paolo Veronese profoundly influenced him.
Between 1624 and 1630 Poussin's life was characterized by professional vicissitudes and artistic experimentation. He vacillated, though always brilliantly, between his Paris style, based upon the study of Giulio Romano and antique sarcophagi (Victory of Moses, 1624-1626), the current Roman baroque style of Pietro da Cortona (Madonna del Pilar), the Venetian High Renaissance style of Veronese (Marriage of St. Catherine) and Titian (The Inspiration of the Poet), and the realistic style of Caravaggio (Massacre of the Innocents). The conspicuous success of this period was the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus (1628-1629) for an altar in St. Peter's.
In spite of the patronage of the Barberini family, the confusion resulting from Poussin seeking his own style among the multiple possibilities afforded him in Rome and the fierce competition of Italian, Flemish, and French artists resulted in another illness. After being nursed back to health in the house of the French pastry cook Jacques Dughet, he married the daughter Anne Marie in 1630. Poussin decided to abandon the field of official commissions, and from then on he devoted himself exclusively to the execution of small cabinet pictures, fastidious in workmanship, for a private and cultivated clientele.
In the 1630s friendship with Cassiano dal Pozzo, amateur of the antique, led Poussin into a milieu of modest but genuine scholars. At this time his concern was poetical, focused upon the dramatic themes of Tasso (Rinaldo and Armida) and the melancholy of Ovid (Arcadian Shepherds). Between 1633 and 1637 his subject matter shifted to the pageantry of the Old Testament (Adoration of the Magi), mythology (Bacchanals for Cardinal Richelieu, and ancient history (Rape of the Sabines, two versions). During this time the coloristic fluidity of Titian, which had characterized Poussin's previous period, gave way to a statuesque plasticity of figure style, recalling Raphael's Mass of Bolsena. Compositions were oriented parallel to the picture plane and delineated by a controlled, linear perspective.
Between 1637 and 1640 this rational tendency increased. Poussin used various pictorial methods of painting to elicit a specific response in the educated observer, trained to understand his expressive purpose in any given work. These were the ancient Greek and Roman modes. His earlier works had been mainly in the Hypolydian mode for joyful subjects of divine glory and paradise and the lonic mode for festive, bacchanalian subject matter. Now they became more austere, in the Dorian mode for stable, grave, and severe themes (The Israelites Collecting Manna); or martial, in the Phrygian mode for intense and violent themes. Poussin's fondness for the modes was motivated, according to his letter of Nov. 24, 1647, to P. F. de Chantelou, by a desire for didactic clarity in communication. For the sake of readability his compositions, from the late 1630s, were cautiously planned, the figures sculpturally modeled, the tones restricted to primary colors insistently repeated, and the psychological content underlined by emphatic, sometimes histrionic gesture and facial expression.
Return to Paris, 1640-1642
Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu had been urging Poussin's return to Paris since 1638, and in 1640 he did so. He was given the title of first painter to the king, a yearly pension, and lodging in a pavilion of the Tuileries Palace. His princely reception provoked the resentment of the artistic coterie. The official circle expected him to create a French "style" and be able to direct teams of artists and artisans. But Poussin was used to a contemplative atmosphere and to concentrating on a single, meticulously executed work, and the constant demand for adaptability and glib fluency in the creation of altarpieces, decorative ceilings, and designs for books, tapestries, and furniture was exhausting. Of his many Paris works the best products of that unhappy sojourn were the decorative schemes for the ceilings of the Orangerie in the Luxembourg Palace and for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre.
Mature Period, 1643-1653
In September 1642 Poussin returned to Rome, ostensibly to fetch his wife; Richelieu and Louis XIII died soon after Poussin reached Rome, enabling him to remain in his adopted country permanently. He passed the rest of his life modestly and placidly in his house in the Via Paolina, refusing countless honors, including the directorship of the Academy of St. Luke. The most important fruit of his Paris visit was a patronage truly worthy of his talents. Intellectual conservatives of the French upper bourgeoisie, like Chantelou, called forth, through their commissions, the best of the artist's talents, the embodiment of the French classical ideal.
Between 1643 and 1653 Poussin came to grips with the fundamental premise of his creative being, the triumph of human will over the passions, manifest in his works in the domination of intellect over emotion. The Holy Family on the Steps (1648), for example, reveals his rational procedure for achieving biblical truth. The observer is infallibly guided, through the selective simplicity and lucid formality of the essential compositional elements, to the climax of the representation, the enthronement of a nobly modest family on monumental stairs, and to the denouement, the movement of the Holy Family toward the observer.
In executing his works Poussin proceeded in the following manner. After a thorough reading of the primary sources, he made a preliminary sketch; he then constructed a small model stage upon which he could move, like chessmen, actual miniature figures made of wax. After making further drawings and altering the positions of the figures as he progressed, he made larger models. From these he painted the final scene, referring occasionally to living models to avoid sterility. Thus, by steady, almost pedestrian degrees the potentially dramatic theme was simplified to a lofty understatement. Such laborious procedures, dangerously susceptible to stereotyping by imitators, were adopted until 1690 for teaching purposes by Charles Le Brun in the Paris academic program; they also explain the objection, among even cultivated critics, to Poussin's not infrequent statuesque sterility and coloristic coldness in the works of his mature period.
Late Period, 1653-1665
In Poussin's late period he moved beyond the somewhat self-conscious and mechanical means just described. The triumph of human will over the passions, or intellect over emotion, became an ultimate statement of the reign of universal harmony over the seeming chaos of nature and human life. This final conviction is most telling in such works as Apollo and Daphne (1664), sometimes called his spiritual testament to the world, and Summer and Autumn, two of the cycle of the four seasons (1660-1664). Figures are set in wildly animated landscapes of fertility or desolation, forms are reduced to nearly cubistic abstraction, and action is drastically simplified. Poussin died in Rome on Nov. 19, 1665.
Further Reading on Nicolas Poussin
A great deal has been written about Poussin. By far the most reliable works in English are Anthony Blunt, The Paintings of Nicolas Poussin: A Critical Catalogue (1966) and Nicolas Poussin (2 vols., 1967), and Walter Friedlaender, Nicolas Poussin: A New Approach (1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Blunt, Anthony, Nicolas Poussin, London: Pallas Athene, 1995. Nicolas Poussin, New York: Abbeville Press, 1990.