Nicolas Poussin was the greatest French painter of his generation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he would have done away with Caravaggio’s bizarre and naturalistic painting style because his works and personality are described as the complete opposite of Italian Baroque.
He made a name for himself by displaying his spontaneity and radical approach to painting. And the birth of this approach could be attributed to his recluse and temperamental attitudes. More importantly, he revolutionized classical French Baroque style.
His works are often characterized by the use of tempera in painting stoic and philosophical landscapes and portraits.
It is also said that although Poussin was somewhat fiendish he was a very quiet and private person. In fact, he preferred receiving private commissions in most years of his professional career in order to keep his freedom of artistic expression. With private commissions, he was allowed to have control over his craft and creative processes.
Nicolas Poussin spent a significant number of years in Rome, working as an artist for art collectors. However, Cardinal Richelieu requested him to return to France to work as the King’s court artist for a short period of time. This is where he produced several religious-themed history paintings and mythological works, most of which are designed with large-sized outdoor sceneries.
Poussin and his works have been a source of inspiration to 20th century artists such as Paul Cezanne, Jacques Louis David, and Jean-Auguste Dominique. The most influential ones include The Four Seasons series (1660-1664), Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons (1635), Tancred and Erminia (1630’s), The Continence of Scipio (1640), and the Death of Germanicus (1628).
Nicolas Poussin was born around June 1594 in the small town of Les Andelys – Normandy, France. His family is thought to have suffered from bankruptcy when the patriarch, Jean Poussin, had to shoulder the expenses he’d need to be able to serve the Tavanes troop. Jean was essentially a nobleman but became impoverished when he resigned from the Tavanes regiment.
Jean’s bankruptcy had prompted him to move to north of France. In Les Andelys, he’d meet Marie de Laisement and the two got married thereafter. Nicolas Poussin came into the picture shortly after the marriage and he was raised in a hilly region. While growing up, he would have been inspired by the magnificence of nature; hills, the Seine River and the breathtaking pastoral landscapes. It is a no-brainer that these images have captured the interest of the young Poussin to immortalize them through painting.
Despite the bankruptcy of his father, he was still able to attend formal schooling to learn Latin and languages. He was an outstanding student besides being a kid with so much potential in painting. He began practicing his art by sketching, which local painter Quentin Varin discovered. Subsequently, Varin invited him to join his workshop and had stayed there until he left town for Paris when he was only eighteen.
In Paris, Poussin discovered several workshops of his interest. He was once a student of Ferdinand Elle, a Flemish artist, and then jumped over the fence of Georges Lallemand’s studio. These masters have had little impact on the mature years of Poussin but it is a good thing that they helped him establish a solid technique in drawing and oil painting.
During his early adulthood days, French art was in the verge of transformation. It was the time when the apprenticeship system was weakened by the lack of formal school training for painters. The academy of Simon Vouet wasn’t established at the time yet so Poussin had little choice but to turn to one master to the other. Thus, he did not have a consistent master and training under which he could have developed his solid style and approach.
At the start, Poussin experienced two failed attempts to move to Rome. One reason was because he got employed by Giambattista Marino as his illustrator. Poussin was responsible for drawing the images inspired by his patron’s poem Adone. This became a series of illustrations, particularly when he was tasked to complete an edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The Metamorphoses stint prompted him to stay at the household of Marie de Medici at Lyon, where Marino also stayed for he was the court poet to Medici’s. Poussin stayed there until 1624; he used the earnings he got via the commissions he received from Marino and de Medici. His work stint with Marino helped him develop a taste for eroticism that can be observed in his early works.
In 1624, Nicolas Poussin reached Rome. He decided to stay at the household of Simon Vouet and through his constant contact with Marino he had come to know a group of scholars and patrons. He befriended the Italian intellectual Cassiano dal Pozzo, who was working for the wealthy Barberini family at the time. Cassiano then became Poussin’s patron and later on, he began receiving commissions by the Baberini’s and their elite circles.
In 1626, with a significant number of clients under his belt, he became financially stable. He was contracted for executing multiple masterpieces, including the Death of Germanicus (1628) and the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus (1629).
Towards the latter part of 1620’s, Poussin fell ill that he had to slow down with work. He was confined in the household of his good friend, Jacques Dughet, where he also met his bride-to-be Anna Maria. They got married in 1630. He became even more influential among his social circles. One of the main benefits of his association with them was the opportunity to see and study the reliefs of Roman antiquity in their collections.
While in Rome, Poussin developed his great interest in ancient Roman and Greek civilization. He studied the ruins, monuments and other historical artifacts available in the city. And these things became his inspiration for formulating his own subject matter, theme and style. The works of Titian, Guido Reni and Domenichino captured his interest, too. It was perfect timing because at the time, Roman Baroque was still in its infancy; therefore, Poussin would have enough time to help other artists establish the essentials for classical Baroque style.
From 1624 to late 1630’s, Nicolas Poussin had been working on private commissions mainly. He had little touch on religious subject matter because there is little room for him to express his artistic interpretation and representation of the subject under the rules of a public commission. One of the rare instances that he accepted one was by the request of Cardinal Barberini, for whom he painted the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus that would be placed at the St. Peter’s Basilica. After this one, never did he receive a public commission from the Pope again.
In 1639, King Louis XIII summoned him to return to France to be his court artist. The monarch discovered his work through Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, when he executed the Bacchanals series for the said cardinal. Upon first inspection of the series, King Louis XIII immediately thought to himself that Poussin was the perfect painter for his court.
The king then had awarded the “First Painter in Ordinary” title to Poussin around 1639. His first assignment was to restore the Grand Galerie arts in Louvre. However, his works in France have been considered as the least successful ones because it is believed that Poussin did not like being at the command of the king at all. The artist preferred working on and by his own without having to direct and monitor assistants in a studio.
Even in the beginning of his career stint in Rome, he made it clear to himself that he did not want to pursue public commissions. But out of respect for the King of France, he went back to his homeland to fulfill such a duty. However, unfortunately, his heart wasn’t into it completely albeit the quality in his works was still noticeable. He had a few assistants that worked with him but in the end his attempt to please his art patron and the people almost drove him mad.
In 1642, Nicolas Poussin made an excuse to allow him to go back to Italy to fetch his wife. This was his deceitful tactic because he didn’t want to return to France anymore once he’d arrived in Rome. Fortunately, Cardinal Richelieu died on December of 1642 so the King lost his control over Poussin’s royal commissions. Richelieu’s death meant absolution of Poussin’s responsibilities in the king’s court.
Nicolas Poussin was in Rome once again from 1642 up until his death. There he continued producing up to four paintings yearly despite his old age. He found his renewed vigor ever since he gained that creative freedom in doing his craft. He got to choose his own rates, subjects, themes and most importantly, he had control over his art.
Around the time, Poussin would send paintings to his patrons with a little note attached to it. This note contains his explanation why he used such an approach or manner to execute the painting. He would also thoughtfully give them some tips on where to hang it in their house or the types of frame that would fit it best.
In 1665, his wife failed to outlive him. Anna Marie’s death affected his health so much that he became paralyzed partially. The old Poussin didn’t have to take the agony that long as he died on November 19 of that same year. His friends and patrons in Rome were deeply saddened by his death that all of them were present in his funeral. His remains were then buried in the Church of San Lorenzo in Lucina.