A short biography of Nicolas Poussin : key dates
• 1594 : Born near Les Andelys (Normandy, France)
• 1624 : Arrives in Rome, 1st significant order for Saint-Pierre. Above all the painter finds his inspiration in poetic subjects > The Inspiration of the Poet
• 1630-1640 : 1st period in Rome. Following an illness and a wedding, Poussin abandons the large compositions of public orders to concentrate on medium-sized canvases for his group of very prudent collectors > The Empire of Flora, The rape of the Sabine Women, The Manna, 1st set of Seven Sacraments
• 1640-1642 : Back to Paris under pressure from Louis XIII and Richelieu
• 1642 : Returns to Rome (he does not leave the city again)
• 1642-1650 : The most fruitful period of his career, creating the most perfect expressions of French classicism, where he seeks the concentration of effects rather than their richness by limiting vocabulary as much as possible > 2d version of The Arcadian Shepherds, 2d set of Seven Sacraments, Eliezer and Rebecca…
• 1650-1665 : The landscape is taking a dominant place in his last compositions, where nature takes on a new character: no longer orderly and subject to the laws of reason but wild, invading the painting where man occupies an increasingly negligible space > The Four Seasons – synthesis of his late style, Landscape with Diana and Orion
• 1665 : Dies in Rome
Life and works of Nicolas Poussin – Detailed biography
We do not know much about Poussin up until his thirties.
Born near Les Andelys (Normandy, France).
Discovers painting when Quentin Varin comes to Les Andelys to complete a series of altarpieces for the church.
In Paris, most likely working at the studio of Nancy-born Georges Lallemant. A period when, with access to the royal library, he studies the engraved prints of Raphael and Giulio Romano, statuary and antique patterns and the décor of the Second School of Fontainebleau, drawing on stylistic elements.
He tries, and fails, to go to Rome on two occasions, then returns to Paris where he meets Philippe de Champaigne and works with him for the Queen Mother at the Luxembourg Palace. During this time, he meets his first patron, Italian Giambattista Marino, known in France as the “Cavalier Marin”, poet to Marie de Medici, who commissions him to do a suite of drawings illustrating Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
5 first years in Rome
Arrives in Rome, after having spent several months in Venice. After a period of real poverty, he receives several significant orders, including an altarpiece for Saint-Pierre: The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, a large-scale work which is not very well received.
Sometimes painting traditional religious subjects such as The Massacre of the Innocents, above all he finds his inspiration in poetic subjects, acquiring, for example, an original and very classical style in the painting held at the Louvre Museum, The Inspiration of the Poet, and in tragic subjects like Tancred and Erminia.
1630-1640: First period in Rome
Following a serious illness, he marries Anna Maria Dughet, the daughter of a French chef who cared for him, whose brother, Gaspard Dughet, later becomes his pupil. This date represents a turning point: Poussin abandons the search for public orders and their large compositions for Roman churches and palaces to concentrate on medium-sized canvases for a group of very prudent collectors. His clientele changes; from this point on, he seems to depend on a circle of experts, including Commendatore Cassiano dal Pozzo who is collecting documents illustrating life in ancient Rome and calls on artists to draw various accounts of imperial Rome: classical sculpture, ancient architecture. He works at his own pace for this small base of clients, taking time to prepare each of his compositions meticulously.
The years of 1630-1640 correspond to the first real period of Poussin, immersed in an atmosphere of passionate and erudite archaeological studies, during which he paints Rinaldo and Armida, or The Arcadian Shepherds – Et In Arcadia Ego, which is influenced by the poetry of Titian. Poussin’s artistic mastery is really revealed in The Empire of Flora, a complex composition painted 1631.
Around 1633-1634, his reputation reaches Paris and his paintings are sent by Barberini to Cardinal Richelieu. Choosing subjects which allow him to stage large historic scenes, notably from the Old Testament, he balances his compositions more, i.e. in a more rigorous manner: The Adoration of the Magi, The Adoration of the Golden Calf or The Crossing of the Red Sea.
Poussin seeks to translate the emotions of different people through their gestures and facial expressions: the viewer should be able to feel what is felt by each actor and to decipher their role in history (The rape of the Sabine Women, The Israelites Gathering the Manna in the Desert).
Poussin turns towards classic allegory and paints the first series of the Seven Sacraments for Cassiano dal Pozzo, which portrays the liturgy of the first Christians and in which the style of this first period in Rome finds completion.
1640-1642: Return to Paris
Returns to Paris in December, under pressure from Sublet de Noyers and, indirectly, Louis XIII and Richelieu. He is charged with creating two altarpieces, painting two large allegoric canvases for Richelieu and decorating the Grande Galerie of the Louvre Palace, even though he has become used to small canvases. The result does not necessarily convince everyone, but he succeeds in forming a real circle of admirers who are faithful clients and follow him for what remains of his life. Among these is Paul Freart de Chantelou, secretary to Sublet de Noyers, with whom he maintains extensive correspondence, which provides a wealth of information on his existence, his ideas and his way of working throughout the coming years.
Falling victim to intrigues on the part of Parisian painters, including Simon Vouet, he decides to return to Rome in September 1642.
Return to Rome: Classical period
Poussin departs for Rome under the pretence of going to find his wife. He does not leave the Eternal City again.
The period that follows is the most fruitful of his career, resulting in the most perfect expressions of French classicism.
In terms of religious themes, he now prefers the New Testament and the fundamental subjects of the Gospels – the Holy Family, the crucifixion, the burial – and works with variations surrounding the victory of will on the passions of stoic Roman historians.
He seeks the concentration of effects rather than their richness by limiting vocabulary as much as possible. This evolution is obvious in the second version of The Arcadian Shepherds, which is calculated, contemplative and philosophical whilst the first version was much more spontaneous, lively and poetic.
The same applies to the second series of the Seven Sacraments, which was completed for Chantelou between 1644 et 1648 and is considerably more solemn than the first (the Eucharist) is a good example as one of the most serious works by Poussin).
We see the influence of Descartes in the mathematical construction of the space in the painting, for example in The Holy Family on the Steps dating from 1648, where the whole space is organised in geometric terms.
Towards 1645, the painter begins to take an interest in landscapes, preserving the mathematical order of The Holy Family on the Steps and applying it to nature, with the whole thing being artfully organised thanks to buildings that geographically organise the space.
With Moses saved from the Water, painted in 1651, Poussin succeeds in translating the commotion of the women discovering the child through the contrast of the drapery. Here we find the application of his theory of modes: the painting deals with human actions and has to present them in harmony with reason, in a logical and orderly manner, addressing the spirit, not the eye, with each subject demanding its own specific treatment.
Landscapes give new impetus to his creations. He creates a new genre, the “ideal landscape”, recomposed in the studio, where we find the idea of an intimate liaison between nature and man, put in its place at the centre of a majestic setting – a derivative of his neo-stoicism.
At the end of the 1640s, the landscape becomes the indifferent location of the ephemeral destiny of man (The Funeral of Phocion), rigorously constructed upon an intellectual mode, in opposition with the misfortunes of human destinies.
Final years of his life
Landscape remains his favoured mode of expression, but his style changes once again. Having more or less become a recluse, working more to satisfy his need to paint than to please others, his final works reflect internal soul-searching.
Serenity and simplicity are found in his figured scenes, eliminating almost all picturesque detail. The calmness is accentuated to the extreme; the expression of faces is reduced to a minimum. The composition is stripped back, constructed using horizontals and verticals only. The featured people are reduced to simple geometric forms.
He also comes back to mythological accounts, but from a different perspective: he wishes to express a truth, evoking the major eternal forces. The Landscape with Diana and Orion is an allegory on the origin of clouds. In these paintings, nature takes on a new character: it is no longer orderly and subject to the laws of reason but wild, invading the painting where man occupies an increasingly negligible space.
The Four Seasons (painted between 1660 and 1664 for the Duke of Richelieu) constitute the synthesis of his late style: in a setting emphasising the beauty of nature, the theme of the succession of the season merges with that of hours, periods of human life; the biblical narrative combines with classical mythology in a synthesis between Christianity and paganism.
Apollo in Love with Daphne, painted in 1664 and incomplete upon his death, summarises the strange traits of his final period: the wildness and grandeur of the inanimate, calm and emotionless nature of the human actors, which come directly from the mind of the artist. The misfortunes of god are once again opposed with the eternal grandeur of nature, which works alone to provide the formal structure of the painting.
Dies in Rome, leaving just over 200 paintings (known of at present), a quarter of which are kept in France, primarily at the Louvre Museum, and some 450 drawings, which are mainly to be found at the Louvre Museum and at Windsor Castle.
Main source (see bibliography):
Anthony Blunt, Art et Architecture en France, 1500-1700, Editions Macula, 2000