Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin was the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style, although he spent most of his working life in Rome. His work is characterized by clarity, logic, and order, and favors line over color. Until the 20th century he remained a major inspiration for such classically oriented artists as Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Paul Cézanne. He worked in Rome for a circle of leading collectors there and elsewhere, except for a short period when Cardinal Richelieu ordered him back to France to serve as First Painter to the King. Most of his works are history paintings of religious or mythological subjects that very often have a large landscape element.

Poussin was born in Normandy and he received an education that included some Latin. Early sketches attracted the notice of Quentin Varin, a local painter, whose pupil Poussin became, until he ran away to Paris at the age of eighteen. There he entered the studios of the Flemish painter Ferdinand Elle and then of Georges Lallemand, both minor masters. He found French art in a stage of transition: the old apprenticeship system was disturbed, and the academic training destined to supplant it was not yet established by Simon Vouet. After two abortive attempts to reach Rome, he fell in with Giambattista Marino, the court poet to Marie de Medici, at Lyon. Marino employed him on illustrations, and in 1624 enabled Poussin to rejoin him at Rome.

Poussin was thirty when he arrived in Rome in 1624. At first he lodged with Simon Vouet. Through Marino, he had been introduced to Marcello Sacchetti who in turn introduced him to another of his early patrons, Cardinal Francesco Barberini. Two major commissions at this period resulted in Poussin's early masterwork, the Barberini Death of Germanicus (1628), and the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus (1629, Vatican Pinacoteca). He fell ill at this time and was was nursed by Compatriot Jacques Dughet’s daughter, Anna Maria, who Poussin married in 1630. During the late 1620s and 1630s, he had the opportunity to experiment and formulate his own stance in painting with reference to others. He studied the Antique but at the same time, the Roman Baroque was emerging : Cortona was producing his early Baroque paintings for the Sacchetti family; Bernini, having established his reputation in sculpture and an ingenious architectural imagination was emerging in works by Borromini. At the time the papacy was Rome’s foremost patron of the arts. Poussin’s Martyrdom of St. Erasmus for St. Peter’s was Poussin’s only papal commission, secured for him by Cardinal Barberini, the papal nephew, and Poussin was not asked again to contribute major altarpieces or paint large scale decorations for a pope. His subsequent career depended on private patronage.

Louis XIII conferred on him the title of First Painter in Ordinary. In two years at Paris he produced several pictures for the royal chapels, eight cartoons for the Gobelins tapestry manufactory, the series of the Labors of Hercules for the Louvre, the Triumph of Truth for Cardinal Richelieu (Louvre), and much minor work. In 1642, disgusted by the intrigues of Simon Vouet, Fouquières and the architect Jacques Lemercier, Poussin withdrew to Rome. Year by year he continued to produce an enormous variety of works, many of which are included in the list given by Félibien. He suffered from declining health after 1650, and was troubled by a worsening tremor in his hand, evidence of which is apparent in his late drawings. He died in Rome on 19 November 1665 and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina.

Throughout his life Poussin stood apart from the popular tendency toward the decorative in French art of his time. In Poussin's works a survival of the impulses of the Renaissance is coupled with conscious reference to the art of classical antiquity as the standard of excellence. His goal was clarity of expression achieved by disegno or ‘nobility of design’ in preference to colore or color. Initially, Poussin's genius was recognized only by small circles of collectors. At the same time, it was recognized that he had contributed a new theme of "classical severity" to French art. His style was imitated by many of his contemporaries. Poussin's example remained a strong influence on the academic tradition in European painting until the late 19th century.

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