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Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

( Originally Published 1955 )

The father of French painting and, after Raphaei, probably the greatest painter in the classical tradition. Although he spent almost all his life outside of France (in Italy), he produced an art characteristically French. He was the dominant force in French painting of his century and has exerted tremendous influence on French painters ever since. Painting as an art had been re-established in modern France by Vouet, Poussin's predecessor, and Paris had been a crucial school in the development of late Gothic painting (c.1400), but the supremacy of French painting in recent centuries goes back directly to Poussin. Poussin was an intellectual painter; his subjects were literary, his forms deliberate. "My nature constrains me to seek and to love well-ordered things, and to flee confusion, which is as much my antithesis and my enemy as light is to dark," he wrote to his friend Chantelou. He felt no compunction in drawing on the works of others, provided the borrowed element was transformed to fit its new employment. He quoted alike from classical mythology, the Holy Writ and the paintings of the ancients and the moderns. His was the Grand Manner, stemming from the dignity and decorum of Raphael's Roman period, but made more ample and usually more spatial by his own devices. The Grand Manner entails subjects which are elevated, not merely didactic. Beauty is Measure; color in ample areas, space traversable, forms in Greek proportion, detail generalized, sequences rhythmical and structure geometrically stable. This is exemplified in the Rape of the Sabines (Metropolitan).

Poussin was born in Normandy of a middle-class family. He studied locally with a certain Varin until eighteen. He then went to Paris where he worked with minor painters and studied the Royal collection and a collection of Italian engravings. The Bacchus and Erigone (Stockholm) is possibly of this period since it shows the hard elongated forms of the School of Fontainebleau. Despite several attempts, it was not until 1624 that Poussin got to Rome, the interim being spent in numerous commissions in French chateaux. He became a friend of Philippe de Champaigne and finally of G.B. Marino, an Italian poet who expedited his trip to Rome and introduced him to Cardinal Barberini. Although poor at first, Poussin became a favorite of the Barberini circle and especially of Cassiano del Pozzo, a wealthy collector who commissioned him to draw antique monuments.

The chronology of Poussin's paintings is difficult to determine. Although there was a general development, he was accustomed to vary his composition and style according to the subject, so that contemporary paintings of different types of subjects sometimes seem disparate in date. During his early years in Rome his style leans strongly on the Renaissance masters Raphael and Titian and on his contemporary Domenichino. For instance, the Death of Germanicus (Rome), painted about 1630 for Cardinal Barberini, is based spatially on Raphael. The Triumph of David ( Dulwich Gallery) seems to draw upon Domenichino's severe architectural forms. To Titian, Poussin owed not only forms and motifs, but indeed the elegiac mood of classicism that pervades so much of his work. Before 1635 many paintings, such as Echo and Narcissus (Louvre), employ Titian's impressionistic light, color and foliage.

In 1640, after considerable royal urging, Poussin went to Paris and supplanted Vouet as first painter to the king. He was given much honor, a large salary and many decorative projects. The fact that he was by nature a careful composer of moderate-size canvases, combined with the intrigues of the established artists, made the stay an unhappy one. Within two years he was back in Rome where he had wisely left his wife and properties. There followed his great years, revered like Bernini throughout Europe, painting on commission for the leading figures of Italy and France. It was then that he executed the most powerful of his stoical and religious subjects, such as the second Sacrament series. His great landscapes also date from late in life when there was a visible interrelation between his art and that of Claude Lorrain. Fine examples are the series of the Four Seasons (Louvre) painted for Richelieu about 1664.

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