According to the biographers André Félibien and Giovanni Pietro Bellori, Nicolas Poussin was born in the country to a father from a noble family and a mother who was the daughter of a magistrate. A studious boy, he is thought to have attended the Jesuit college in Rouen. It was not long before his interest in art became apparent. He met the painter Quentin Varin in Les Andelys in 1611 or 1612, who encouraged his artistic vocation. Poussin ran away to Paris against his family’s wishes at the age of 18.
Information about his sojourn in Paris (1612–1623) is scanty, but it seems that he worked in the studios of the painters Ferdinand Elle and Georges Lallemant. He also stayed for a short time with Noël Jouvenet in Rouen. He had the fortune to meet Alexandre Courtois, valet to Marie de’ Medici and later valet and keeper of the collections to Anne of Austria. Through Courtois, Poussin had access not only to prints of the great works of the Renaissance but also, in all probability, to the royal collections. While in Paris, Poussin attended lessons in anatomy and perspective and probably went to Fontainebleau, where he studied its collection of French and Italian paintings. He seems to have lived a carefree life in Paris. He admitted to owing his landlord, the merchant goldsmith Jean Guillemin, 120 livres, a debt he never settled.
Like many painters at that time, he dreamed only of going to Rome. He set off in 1617 or 1618, got as far as Florence, and then returned to Paris for reasons that are not understood. He tried for a second time c. 1622 but had to interrupt his journey in Lyons, perhaps on account of an unpaid debt. That same year, he worked for the Jesuits in Paris. He painted six canvases in tempera for the Jesuit college in Paris in 1622 and an altarpiece depicting The Death of the Virgin for Notre Dame Cathedral. Marie de’ Medici asked him, in about 1623, to participate in the decoration of the Palais de Luxembourg under the direction of Nicolas Duchesne and in collaboration with Philippe de Champaigne. At this time, the Italian poet Giovanni Battista Marino commissioned him to make 15 drawings to illustrate Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Marino took Poussin under his protection, lodging him as well as giving him commissions. It was probably thanks to Marino’s patronage that Poussin was able to leave once again for Rome, where he arrived in 1624 after a stay in Venice.
Unfortunately, Marino died in 1625 and, deprived of his patron, Poussin at first had difficulty establishing himself in Rome, not only because of the rivalry of the Italian artists but also because of the swarms of other artists from all over Europe. Fortunately, Marino had recommended him to Marcello Sacchetti, the papal treasurer, who introduced him to Cardinal Francesco Barberini. He was the nephew of the art-loving Pope Urban VIII, who was always ready to embark on new building projects. Poussin was now able to continue his studies in greater depth, particularly at the Accademia di S Luca, directed at that period by Simon Vouet. Despite all these advantages, Poussin found great difficulty in obtaining commissions, and his problems were exacerbated by an illness that may have been syphilis and from which he was never entirely to recover. The hand trembling that began in 1642 and greatly increased towards the end of his life is likely to have been related to the illness.
The support of Cassiano dal Pozzo, a true friend to Poussin during these difficult years; Francesco Barberini; and also Gianlorenzo Bernini helped him obtain two major commissions - The Death of Germanicus (1627–1628), painted for Barberini, and The Martyrdom of St Erasmus (1628–1629), for the chapel of St Erasmus in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. These finally, in 1628, brought him to the attention of a larger public. They led to several more commissions, each very different from the other. They included the first series of the Seven Sacraments for Cassiano dal Pozzo, the second version of Arcadian Shepherds (or Et in Arcadia Ego, Louvre) for Cardinal Rospigliosi, Empire of Flora for the international swindler Fabrizio Valguarnera, and the series of bacchanals for Cardinal Richelieu. This marked the beginning of a period of stability. He married Anne-Marie Dughet on 1 September 1630. She was the daughter of the French cook Jacques Dughet, who had taken him in and cared for him during his professional struggles and illness. Poussin taught Anne’s brother, Gaspard Dughet, to paint, and Dughet imitated his style. Poussin now began to paint smaller paintings, not for official commissions but for the private collections of art lovers such as Cassiano dal Pozzo. He was inducted into the Accademia di S Luca by 1632, and he became so successful that he was all but forced to return to France to paint for the king. Cardinal Richelieu and then Paul Fréart of Chantelou, maître d’hôtel to the king of France, both commissioned works that brought him to the notice of Louis XIII.
In 1640, established in rooms in the Tuileries, he was first painter to the king in rivalry with Vouet.
As court painter (1640–1642), Poussin found himself obliged to work in areas in which he did not feel comfortable. He was required to paint works for Fontainebleau and St-Germain-en-Laye as well as to supervise the work of the other court painters. He also undertook the decoration of the Great Gallery at the Louvre and found himself overseeing a veritable army of painters, stucco carvers, and sculptors there and at the Palais Cardinal (now Palais Royal). He repainted a number of altarpieces, including the Institution of the Eucharist for the chapel at the château of St-Germain-en-Laye and the Miracle of St Francis Xavier for the high altar of the church of the novitiate of the Jesuits. He painted one section of the ceiling of the Palais Cardinal with an allegorical scene depicting Time Rescuing Truth from the Assaults of Envy and Discord. At the same time he was supposed to supply designs for tapestries, book frontispieces, decorations to go over fireplaces and doors, and other ‘bagatelles’, which he found tiresome.
The unremitting work, the time spent on tasks that he did not enjoy, and the criticism of jealous painters like Vouet led him to leave Paris in 1642. Pleading bad health and wanting to see his wife in Rome, he promised to return. The death of Richelieu in 1642 and of Louis XIII the following year allowed him to break his promise. Nevertheless, the time spent in France was beneficial to the artist, since it made him known to several collectors, including Chantelou and the banker Pointel, who kept him busy with work for the last 23 years of his life. It was a period of tranquillity and hard work and one in which – despite his physical problems, the tremor in his hands, personal sorrows, and the deaths of Cassiano dal Pozzo (1657) and his wife (1664) – he was to produce his finest masterpieces.
Although he worked very slowly, from his return to Rome in 1643 until the year of his death in 1665, Poussin completed many major commissions. Between 1644 and 1648, he painted a second series of the Seven Sacraments for Chantelou. He painted numerous religious works including The Finding of Moses (1647), The Annunciation, The Holy Family, and Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Responding to the urgings of his two most loyal patrons, Chantelou and Pointel, he produced two self-portraits (1649–1650), the only ones he was to paint. This was the period when he was chiefly interested in landscape, the pretext being a variety of historical, mythological, or religious themes as, for example, in The Funeral of Phocion, the landscape with Diogenes, or that in which Hagar and the angel are depicted. Later, the landscapes begin to appear in their own right, as in The Storm and Fair Weather. The series of the Four Seasons of 1660–1664, Poussin’s last works, depict biblical scenes.
Poussin’s artistic training as a young man seems to have had so little influence on his work that he can almost be regarded as self-taught. By contrast, his intimate knowledge of the Bible and of authors such as Plutarch, Ovid, and Virgil permeated his work from the very start. He first discovered Raphael through the engravings of Marcantonio Raimondi. He studied the work of Francesco Primaticcio at Fontainebleau and admired Titian while in Venice. Once in Rome, he developed an enthusiasm for antique art, studied Raphael’s Stanze at the Vatican Palace, and continued to educate himself.
At the date when he arrived in Rome, 1624, although the Mannerist tradition had not entirely disappeared, artists were developing along two different paths. One was best illustrated by Caravaggio, a realist whose style is typified by sharply contrasting areas of light and shade. The other, focused around Annibale Carracci and more restrained in style, brought together the linear approach of central Italian art with a Venetian use of colour. Poussin was horrified by Caravaggio’s work, describing the artist as ‘a demon born to kill painting’. The work of the Carracci brothers did not have much impact on him, and although he shared with them their admiration for Raphael, he considered their work to be facile in execution. He seems to have been more impressed by Domenichino and, according to tradition, went to S Gregorio Magno to copy Domenichino’s Flagellation of St Andrew while a crowd of other painters instead studied Guido Reni’s St Andrew Led to Martyrdom on a nearby wall.
For Poussin, ‘no line should come from an artist’s hand that has not already been formed in his mind’. This dictum can be seen as one of the elements that might define French Classical painting in the 17th century and particularly the work of Poussin. Like the sculptors of antiquity, he wished to impose strict rules on his art, and Leon Battista Alberti’s treatises on painting and sculpture were to assist him greatly in this endeavour. For Poussin, the idea of beauty did not exist in nature and it was not possible to create beauty simply by observing or reproducing an object because, ‘The idea of beauty does not enter matter unless it is properly prepared. This preparation depends on three things: order, manner and kind or true form.’ Despite the severity of this rule, reminiscent of the principles of classical tragedy, Poussin’s art is never monotonous or uniform.
Poussin painted mythological, religious, and allegorical subjects throughout his career, with certain themes executed more than once. Some of his canvases, such as The Death of Germanicus (1628) or The Judgement of Solomon (1649), are composed within the confines of architectural elements, the figures being presented as in an antique frieze. This is also true of the majority of the paintings making up the two series of the Seven Sacraments, works of great dramatic intensity and not without emotion. At other times, Poussin expressed pain or sorrow more strongly in works full of passion and impetuous movement, such as The Massacre of the Innocents (1624–1632), one of the most violent of all his works. Here the artist expresses the horror of the murder of a child and the despair of a mother. The Plague of Ashdod depicts another dramatic episode similarly composed within a landscape carefully structured around architectural elements, where the events unfold before us in a perfect composition. Poussin is able to present the various episodes of a story in a single painting without any awkwardness thanks to the rhythm created by the colours and the use of light. In compositions with only a small number of figures placed in a landscape, balanced and made highly structured by the presence of architectural elements, the effect is monumental. This can be seen, for example, in the two versions of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, the first painted c. 1643 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) and the other in 1657 (National Gallery, Dublin). In both paintings the intense emotion and the seriousness of the scene are emphasised by the sobriety of the balance between landscape, architecture, and figures, the few strident colours underlining the anguish of the drama. This sense of monumentality can already be found at an earlier date, and in a far more peaceful setting, in Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds (c. 1638, Louvre). The iconographic interpretation of this work has been debated by many scholars, including Erwin Panofsky in his Essays on Iconology.
Compositions such as those discussed above can be seen not only as defining the Classical style of the 17th century but also as forerunners of the Neo-Classicism of the 19th century. But Poussin did not confine himself entirely to work of this kind. He could also paint lively compositions full of sensuality and even voluptuousness, such as Empire of Flora (c. 1631) with its diaphanous colours and, particularly, Acis and Galatea, where the electric tonalities of blues, oranges, and reds are reminiscent of Venetian painting. Despite the antique frieze-like composition, his Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan of c. 1633 is joyful and dynamic, the rhythmical movements of the interlaced dancers supported by vibrant blues and yellows. The Triumph of Venus is one of Poussin’s most seductive works, where he seems to delight in the quality of the flesh and the nuances of light and shade falling on his nude figures.
Poussin’s landscapes, which developed especially after 1643, reveal the artist’s sensitivity. His earliest landscapes, Landscape with St John on Patmos and Landscape with St Matthew and the Angel, date very probably from 1640, before his departure for Paris. They are highly ordered, ornamented with ruins or other buildings in the antique style and bathed in an all-embracing light that gives them their unity. Although it is always a setting for biblical, mythological, or allegorical events, the landscape becomes increasingly important in Poussin’s paintings. The figures of the drama become ever smaller, sometimes merging into the landscape to the extent that they become one with it, as in Hercules and Cacus. Sometimes the landscape and the subject match, both being dramatic, as in Stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651), a subject giving the artist an excuse for painting nature at its wildest, with storms, wind, and rain, where the small figures and their tragedy have become almost insignificant. In other works, the landscape may be orderly, sunny, and peaceful while dramatic events are taking place that apparently pass unnoticed, as in The Funeral of Phocion and Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion. It is in such landscapes as these that it is possible to see the connections between Poussin and Claude Lorrain. The two French artists were in Rome at the same time and knew each other, painting similar subjects such as Hagar and the Angel. Their techniques were different, however, and while Claude sometimes worked from nature, Poussin preferred to work from memory, relying only on a few sketched notes. These rapid pen and wash sketches are nearly indistinguishable from those of Claude, particularly in their way of drawing foliage.
From his early career, Poussin made drawings in two different styles. The first is sculptural, the contours of the forms being defined with a wash that gives an effect of relief, light, and shade, as can be seen in the very fine View of the Aventine bathed in a vibrant light. The other manner is graphic, where the pen line emphasises the figures and landscapes with a nervous line made all the more erratic as the artist became increasingly affected by the tremor in his hand. Often, Poussin combined the two styles in his drawings, for the most part in preparatory studies for paintings. His last works were to be the Four Seasons of 1660–1664. Although they contain biblical scenes symbolic of the ages of man and the hours of the day, the landscapes dominate. Even in those compositions closest to nature, Poussin was always obedient to the rules that he had imposed on himself, but, thanks to his qualities as a colourist and his innate sensitivity, he never fell into the sterility of academic art. The French author André Gide suggested that Poussin’s instinct was stronger than his ideas, writing, ‘The amazing thing here is that Poussin was enough of a painter, enough of a great painter to prevent the container from sinking beneath the excessive weight of the content; to enable thought to triumph over matter at the same time as glorifying it. With him, thought was instantly transformed into image, was born already formed, and here intention, emotion, form and craft all came together and brought about the work of art.’
Poussin had no immediate followers but was influential in establishing classical principles in the French Royal Academy (founded 1648) and continued to be a reference point for painters as various as Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Jean--François Millet, Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Balthus, Markus Lüpertz, Miguel Angel Campano, and François Imhoff. Cézanne once said, ‘Every time I come from looking at Poussin, I know better who I am.’