Nicolas Poussin was born in June 1594 in or near the town of Les Andelys in Normandy, the son of a nobleman whose fortunes had been ruined in the wars of religion. His early education included a grounding in Latin and letters, but he soon showed an inclination for art which was fostered by the itinerant painter Quentin Varin, who visited Les Andelys in 1611–1612 and became Poussin's first master.
Encouraged by Varin, Poussin departed for Paris in 1612, where he studied anatomy, perspective, and architecture and worked under a variety of masters. Soon after, he was introduced to engravings after Raphael and Giulio Romano.
According to Bellori, one of the artist's early biographers, these fired him with such enthusiasm that he could already be described as 'of the school of Raphael' at this early stage of his career. Poussin's veneration for the masters of the Italian Renaissance also led him to make two unsuccessful attempts to reach Rome in the years before 1622.
During his apprenticeship in Paris, the artist executed a number of major commissions, none of which survive. In 1622 he completed six large tempera paintings for the Jesuits, reputedly in only six days. In the same year he was employed to work at the Luxemburg, and in 1623 he received an important commission for a painting of the Death of the Virgin for a chapel in Notre-Dame.
The paintings for the Jesuits brought Poussin to the attention of the Italian poet Giovanni Battista Marino, who had been resident in Paris since 1615. Marino became Poussin's early patron and subsequently commissioned from him a series of drawings based on Ovidian mythology. The so-called Marino drawings, now at Windsor Castle, are the most important surviving works of Poussin's Paris years.
In the spring of 1623 Marino departed for Italy and, sometime in the autumn of that year, Poussin followed him, spending several months in Venice before arriving in Rome in March 1624.
Poussin's early years in Rome were marked by hardship and misfortune. Soon after his arrival, Marino departed for Naples, where he died in 1625, leaving Poussin without a champion in Rome. To earn his livelihood, the young artist executed a large number of biblical and mythological paintings. He studied anatomy, geometry and perspective, and drew from the live model in the studio of two of the leading classical masters of the day, Domenichino and (after 1631) Andrea Sacchi.
He also measured and copied examples of antique sculpture and studied the great works of Italian Renaissance art to be seen in Rome. Chief among these was the celebrated series of bacchanals which Bellini and Titian had painted for Alfonso d'Este early in the preceding century and which were then on view in the Aldobrandini and Ludovisi collections.
According to Félibien, Poussin's principal biographer, the young artist avowed a passion for Titian's colour and landscape during this period – a passion which is likewise reflected in his art of this phase, with its sensuous colour and lighting. It is thought very likely that he painted the full-scale copy of one of the d'Este bacchanals, Bellini's Feast of the Gods, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland.
Around 1627 Poussin became acquainted with the scholar, antiquarian, and collector Cassiano dal Pozzo, who became his chief Italian patron and one of his closest friends. Among Pozzo's early commissions from Poussin was the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, also in the National Gallery of Scotland.
In 1627, the artist received a commission from Cardinal Francesco Barberini for The Death of Germanicus (Minneapolis Institute of Art), one of his first great masterpieces; a year later he was commissioned to paint The Martyrdom of St Erasmus for an altar in St Peter's (Vatican Pinacoteca). This was poorly received and proved to be the artist's only public commission for Rome. Thereafter Poussin specialised in easel paintings for discerning private patrons, first in Italy and then in France, who appreciated the intellectual rigour and refinement of his art.
Poussin spent his early years in Rome in the company of foreign artists, among them Claude Lorrain, who remained a close friend for the rest of his life and – along with Poussin – was to become the greatest master of classical landscape painting in seventeenth-century Italy. Around 1629, the artist suffered a bout of serious illness.
The effects of this may be seen in a remarkably candid self-portrait drawing of this period in the British Museum, which also reveals the fiery temperament and somewhat uncouth manner of the youthful Poussin, who was involved in at least one brawl during his early years in Rome. The art critic Roger de Piles records in The Art of Painting and the Lives of the Painters (1699) that Marino described Poussin as a young man who possessed 'the fury of the devil'.
Poussin was nursed through his illness by the family of Jacques Dughet, a cook from Paris. One year later, he married Dughet's daughter, Anne-Marie, who was 18 years younger than Poussin and died one year before him, in 1664. In a letter that year Poussin suggests that she was caring and dependable – otherwise, nothing is known of his marriage, which remained childless. Dughet's son Gaspard (1615–1675) received instruction from Poussin between 1631 and 1635 and, under the name of Gaspard Poussin, became one of the leading landscape painters of seventeenth-century Rome.
By the beginning of the 1630s, Poussin had established himself as an artist. In 1630–1631 he completed The Plague of the Philistines at Ashdod (the original is in the Louvre – but is seen here in a copy in Wellcome Collection) and The Realm of Flora (Dresden) for the Sicilian nobleman Fabrizio Valguarnera.
By 1632 he had been elected a member of the Academy of St Luke in Rome. In the following year, he signed and dated the large Adoration of the Magi, now at Dresden, which marks a clear change of direction in the artist's career.
Renouncing the Venetian-inspired style of his romantic early phase, Poussin would henceforward seek his inspiration in the noble, classic art of Raphael and the antique.
In this more rational and restrained manner, the artist executed a succession of major works during the 1630s, including the Adoration of the Golden Calf (1634), the series of bacchanals for Cardinal Richelieu of 1635–1636 (including the Triumph of Pan), and Moses Striking the Rock of c.1637 (seen below in a copy in Shipley Art Gallery).
From this period, too, date Poussin's earliest surviving landscape paintings. But the artist's major commission of these years was the series of Seven Sacraments for Cassiano dal Pozzo, executed between c.1636 and 1642. Bought by the Duke of Rutland in 1784, three remain at Belvoir Castle, one (Baptism) is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, one (Ordination) is at the Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, one (Extreme Unction) is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and one (Penance) was destroyed in a fire in 1816.
In 1638–1639 he also painted one of his most ambitious history pictures, The Israelites Gathering the Manna (Louvre), for Paul Fréart de Chantelou, who was to become his most important French patron and his most loyal and trusted friend.
Between 1640 and 1642 Poussin spent an unhappy period in Paris working as First Painter to the King, Louis XIII, executing designs for the Long Gallery of the Louvre, altarpieces, ceiling paintings, and title-page illustrations. As an artist of fierce integrity and creative independence, Poussin found the range and confusion of the king's commands uncongenial to his temperament and eventually secured permission to return to Rome in 1642.
Two years later, Poussin embarked upon one of the major undertakings of his entire career, the set of Seven Sacraments for Chantelou, completed in 1648 and now on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland.
These are among the artist's noblest and most deeply considered works and cost him much effort. 'In contrast to others,' confessed Poussin in a letter to his patron of 1644, 'the older I get the more I feel enflamed with the great desire to do well.'
This desire is nowhere more apparent than in the outstanding series of pictures Poussin produced between 1648 and 1651, the most austere and heroic phase of his art. Among these are two painted self portraits and his great series of classical landscape compositions.
Also of these years are some of the artist's most rarified figure paintings, including The Holy Family on the Steps (Cleveland Museum of Art) and Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well (Louvre) of 1648, and The Judgement of Solomon (Louvre) of the following year. These works are of a harmony and nobility which make it easy to see why the architectural theorist Roland Fréart de Chambray had by 1650 accorded Poussin the title of 'the Raphael of our century' in his treatise A Parallel of the Ancient Architecture with the Modern.
In marked contrast to the excesses of his youth, the mature Poussin led a modest and regulated existence, keeping no servants and disdaining immoderation of any kind. According to Bellori, he divided his day between painting and discoursing with his friends on a variety of learned subjects, all of which he had mastered through his 'fine mind and wide reading'.
He painted slowly, employing no assistants or collaborators and normally admitting no one into his studio while he was working. Unlike many of his greatest contemporaries, Poussin preferred to take complete responsibility for the conception and execution of his pictures.
Although Poussin was increasingly ill during the last years of his career, he continued to paint between three and four pictures a year throughout the 1650s, a significant number of them devoted to the theme of the Holy Family, a subject ideally suited to his contemplative style of this period. He also enjoyed his highest reputation and greatest financial success during these years, and in 1655 was named again First Painter to the King.
During the last ten years of his life, Poussin was haunted by the fear of death and makes frequent mention of it in his letters. In 1657 he wrote plaintively to Chantelou: 'a swan sings more sweetly when it is near to death'.
Though his output diminished with age, his imagination deepened, with the result that his late canvases are among the most personal and poetical of his entire career. This is especially true of a group of mythological landscapes which includes The Infant Bacchus Entrusted to the Nymphs of Nysa of 1657 (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University) and Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) of the following year.
The chief occupation of the end of his life was the set of landscapes depicting The Four Seasons, executed for the duc de Richelieu in 1660–1664 and now in the Louvre. An unfinished Apollo and Daphne, also in the Louvre, was given to Cardinal Massimi by the artist when he realised he could not complete it.
Poussin died on 19th November 1665 and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, Rome, in accordance with his own wishes 'without any pomp'.
Equally modest were the contents of his studio at his death. These consisted of 19 books and manuscripts on painting plus three pictures by the artist – nothing to indicate the stature and achievements of a man who, only three years earlier, Fréart de Chambray had acclaimed in An Idea of the Perfection of Painting (1662) as 'the most accomplished and the most perfect painter of all the moderns'.
Poussin's surviving works consist of around 220 paintings and 400 drawings. The majority of these treat themes from the bible, mythology, or ancient history, and reflect the artist's belief that the noblest art should concern itself with the most elevated themes.
Already within his own lifetime, this facet of Poussin's achievement had earned the admiration of the French Academicians, who recognised in him the father of French painting. In this form, the 'learned' and 'philosophical' Poussin would likewise be venerated by the Neoclassical painters of the late eighteenth century. More recent generations, however, have come to regard him as one of the supreme masters of formal design in western art.
Richard Verdi, former Professor of Fine Art and Director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham
This article is adapted from Richard Verdi's book Cézanne and Poussin: The Classical Vision of Landscape, originally published by National Galleries of Scotland Publishing, Edinburgh in 1990, with permission from the author and publisher