Nicolas Poussin Biography
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Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Nicolas Poussin was born
June 15, 1594 in Les-Andelys, Normandy. The son of an impoverished family,
Poussin received some early professional training at home. In 1612, Poussin
left for Paris, where he entered the workshop of the mannerist painter J.
Lallemald. The training was reinforced by independent study of, mainly,
Italian art in the Royal Collections. By the end of the 1610s Poussin
became an authoritative master, the evidence of this are his commissions for
the decoration of the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, and the big altarpiece
Assumption of the Virgin. Unfortunately from the works of the first
Paris period (1612-23) only drawings based on Ovid’s Metamorphosis
In 1623, the artist came
to Italy, first to Venice, where he enriched his French training with the
sensuous splendor of Venetian painting. And in 1624, he came to Rome, where
he stayed all his life, except for his trip to Paris in 1640-42. Poussin’s
new friends in Rome were mainly classical scholars, who played the main role
in turning Poussin into a philosopher, erudite and intellectual. The 1620s
in Italy were years of intensive learning for Poussin, and active creative
work. Within four years he achieved a young painter’s highest aim, he was
commissioned to paint an altarpiece for a chapel in St. Peter’s Cathedral
Martyrdom of St. Erasmus (1628-29). At that period he acquired the
dynamic style already dominant in Europe, the style that we now know as
Baroque. It was at this time that he produced the most baroque of all his
pictures, the altarpiece The Virgin of the Pillar Appearing to St. James
the Greater, which was ordered for a church in the Spanish Netherlands.
Eventually this work reached not the town of Valenciennes but the
collection of Cardinal Richelieu and finally came to Louis XIII and to the
Louvre. Poussin was evidently frustrated and disappointed by his lack of
success in the intensely competitive field of baroque altarpiece painting.
He never attempted this style again.
After a short crisis he
chose the more restrained and intellectual direction of development, which
appealed to the learned tastes of his Roman friends. In 1629, Poussin
married his landlord’s daughter. The first Roman period (1624-30) on the
whole is characterized by mythological themes, with sweet love, poetical
inspiration, carefree happiness in harmony with nature.
In the next decade
history became the main subject of Poussin’s work. The artist is attracted
by situations, in which the moral qualities of people reveal themselves. In
pictures of the 1630s the compositions are complex and compound with many
characters, they remind of the classical tragedy on stage. Poussin used a
special box and wax figures: first he built his compositions, then started
to draw preliminary sketches, and only then painted. The best-known works
of the period are – The Rescue of Pyrrhus and The Noble Deed of
Scipio. Very popular in his time were the so-called bacchanal series,
commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu. One of them, which survived, is
Triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite. Those paintings were supposed to
decorate the cardinal’s palace, and this fact indicates that the interest to
Poussin in France grew. In the second half of the 1630s the young artists
in Paris chose to follow Poussin’s style in historical genre. The King’s
officials wanted to return the artist to France. Poussin did not hurry back.
He came to France only in 1840, after they had passed him the King’s
threat. In Paris Poussin was immediately appointed the person in charge of
all art works in the King’s palaces. This caused violent jealousy on the
part of other court artists; Vouet headed the opposition. For about two
years Poussin painted altarpieces, canvases for Richelieu and supervised the
decorative works in the Big Gallery in Louvre. Surrounded by hatred and
jealousy, Poussin did not finish the work and fled to Rome. His artistic
and moral ideals stood in conflict with those of the monarch.
In the late Roman period (1642-65) Poussin continued to work mainly in historical genre. The most important work of that period is the series Seasons (1660-64). 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 November 19, 1665 and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, his wife having predeceased him. Chateaubriand in 1820 donated the monument to Poussin.
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