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Nicolas Poussin (June 1594 – 19 November 1665) was the leading French painter of the classical French Baroque style. He spent virtually all of his working life in Rome, where he specialized in history paintings—depicting scenes from the Bible, ancient history, and mythology—that are notable for their narrative clarity and dramatic force. His work is characterized by clarity, logic, and order, and favors line over colour. Until the 20th century he remained a major inspiration for such classically-oriented artists as Jacques Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Paul Cezanne.

Nicolas Poussin’s early biographer was his friend Giovanni Pietro Bellori, who relates that Poussin was born near Les Andelys in Normandy and that he received an education that included some Latin, which would stand him in good stead. Another early friend and biographer, André Félibien, reported that “He was busy without cease filling his sketchbooks with an infinite number of different figures which only his imagination could produce.” This talent was encouraged by the itinerant painter Quentin Varin, who visited Les Andelys in 1611–12 and became Poussin’s first teacher. His parents apparently opposed a painting career for him, and In or around 1612, at the age of eighteen, he ran away to Paris.

About 1612 Poussin departed for Paris, where he worked for three months in the studio of the Flemish painter Ferdinand Elle, who painted almost exclusively portraits, a genre that was of little interest to Poussin. He moved next to the studio of Georges Lallemand, but Lallemand’s inattention to precise drawing and the articulation of his figures apparently displeased Poussin. Moreover, Poussin did not fit well into the studio system, in which several painters worked on the same painting. Thereafter he preferred to work very slowly and alone. Little is known of his life in Paris at this time.

The most important event of his first residence in Paris was his discovery of the royal art collections, thanks to his friendship with Alexandre Courtois, the valet de chambre of Marie de Medicis. There he saw for the first time engravings of the works of Giulio Romano and especially of Raphael, whose work had an enormous influence on his future style.

He first tried to travel to Rome in 1617 or 1618, but made it only as far as Florence, where, as his biographer Bellori reported, “as a result of some sort of accident, he returned to France.” On his return, he began making paintings for Paris churches and convents. In 1622 made another attempt to go to Rome, but went only as far as Lyon before returning. In the summer of the same year, he received his first important commission: the Order of Jesuits requested a series of six large paintings to honor the canonization of their founder, Saint Francis Xavier. The originality and energy of these paintings (since lost) brought him a series of important commissions

In the spring of 1624 Poussin arrived in Rome, where—except for a stay in Paris during 1640–42—he was to remain for the rest of his life. The new Pope, Urban VIII, elected in 1623, was determined to maintain the position of Rome as the artistic capital of Europe, and artists from around the world gathered there. Poussin could visit the churches and convents to study the works of Raphael and other Renaissance painters, as well as the more recent works of Carracci, Guido Reni and Caravaggio (whose work Poussin detested, saying that Caravaggio was born to destroy painting).

The early years of Poussin in Rome were difficult. His patron Marino departed Rome for Naples in May 1624, shortly after Poussin arrived, and died there in 1625. His other major sponsor, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, was named a papal legate to Spain and also departed soon afterwards, taking Cassiano dal Pozzo with him. Poussin became ill with syphilis, but refused to go to the hospital, where the care was extremely poor, and he was unable to paint for months. He survived by selling the paintings he had for a few ecus. Thanks to the assistance of a chef, Jacques Dughet, whose family took him in and cared for him, he largely recovered by 1629, and on September 1 1630 he married Anne-Marie Dughet, the daughter of Dughet. Her brother, Gaspard Dughet, eventually became one of the foremost landscape painters of 17th-century Rome and took the surname Poussin from his more-illustrious brother-in-law.

Cardinal Barberini and Cassiano dal Pozzo returned to Rome in 1626, and by their patronage Poussin received two major commissions. In 1627, Poussin painted The Death of Germanicus (Minneapolis Institute of Arts) for Cardinal Barberini. The painting’s erudite use of ancient textual and visual sources (the Histories of Tacitus and the Meleager sarcophagus), stoic restraint and pictorial clarity established Poussin’s reputation as a major artist.

One year later, Pozzo assisted him in securing his second major commission for The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, an altarpiece for St. Peter’s. Poussin’s altarpiece did not meet with critical acclaim, however, and it effectively helped to end his career as a public painter in Rome.

Poussin’s early private patrons included the Chanoine Gian Maria Roscioli, who bought The Young Pyrrhus Saved and several other important works; Cardinal Rospigliosi, for whom he painted the second version of The Shepherds of Arcadia; and Cardinal Luigi Omodei, who received the Triumphs of Flora (c. 1630–32, Louvre). He painted the Massacre of the Innocents for the Banker Vincenzo Giustiniani; the jewel thief and art swindler, Fabrizio Valguarnera, bought Plague of Ashdod and commissioned The Empire of Flora. He also received his first French commissions from the Marechal de Crequi, the French envoy to Italy, later, from Cardinal de Richelieu for a series of Bacchanales.

Beginning in the late 1630s, Poussin executed an important work for the king of Spain, Philip IV, and for Pozzo the Seven Sacraments, a set of paintings representing rites of the early Christian church. In 1638 he painted The Israelites Gathering the Manna for Paul Fréart de Chantelou, who subsequently became his closest friend and greatest patron. This work is the most ambitious history painting of Poussin’s entire career and, by the artist’s own admission, was designed to be “read” by the viewer, with every figure, episode, and action intended to contribute to the drama.

Early in 1639 Poussin was invited to Paris to work for King Louis XIII. Initially reluctant to be uprooted from Rome, he was repeatedly pressured by Richelieu to heed the king’s command and eventually arrived in the French capital in December 1640. The next 18 months or so were among the unhappiest of the artist’s career. Named First Painter to the King upon his arrival in Paris. Poussin was entrusted with the decoration of the royal residences, executing designs for the Long Gallery of the Louvre, painting altarpieces for the king and members of his court, and even designing book illustrations. Much of this work was carried out with a team of assistants—a method of working that Poussin found deeply inimical to his creative integrity and independence. Frustrated by the range and diversity of the king’s commands, Poussin eventually secured permission to return to Rome in 1642, ostensibly to fetch his wife. The death of Richelieu in December of that year and of the king himself four months later absolved Poussin of ever returning to the French court, leaving the artist to spend the rest of his years in Rome.

His growing number of French patrons included the Abbé Louis Fouquet, brother of Nicolas Fouquet, the celebrated superintendent of finances of the young Louis XIV. In 1655 Fouquet obtained for Poussin official recognition of his earlier title as First Painter of the King, along with payment for his past French commissions.

In 1648 Poussin embarked upon a series of landscape paintings that was destined to become a cornerstone of the Classical landscape tradition. The majority of those incorporate themes from ancient history and mythology, though some are without an identifiable literary subject. In all of them an intensely idealized view of landscape is combined with architecture, contrasting the “irregular” forms of the natural world with the geometrically perfected shapes of human devising.

Another important French patron of Poussin in this period was Paul Fréart de Chantelou, who came to Rome in 1643 and stayed there for several months. He commissioned from Poussin some of his most important works, including the second series of the Seven Sacraments, painted between 1644 and 1648, and his Landscape with Diogenes. In 1649 he painted the Vision of St Paul for the comic poet Paul Scarron, and in 1651 the Holy Family for the duc de Créquy. Landscapes had been a secondary feature of his early work; in his later work nature and the landscape was frequently the central element of the painting.

He lived an austere and comfortable life, working slowly and apparently without assistants. The painter Charles Le Brun joined him in Rome for three years, and Poussin’s work had a major influence on Le Brun’s style. In 1647, his patrons Chantelou and Pointel requested portraits of Poussin. He responded by making two self-portraits, completed together in 1649.

Poussin continued to paint three or four pictures a year in the 1650s, despite being increasingly ill. Many of these works depict the Holy Family, a purely contemplative theme ideally suited to the serenity of his art during that phase. Yet he also executed more dramatic history paintings, certain of which are overtly inspired by the work of Raphael. By that stage of his career the artist’s work was so much in demand that he could choose his own subjects and set his own prices—unlike many of his greatest contemporaries. Despite that success, he employed no assistants or collaborators and reputedly never permitted anyone entry into his studio when he was working.

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. Nonetheless, in his final eight years he painted some of the most ambitious and celebrated of his works, including The Nurture of Bacchus, Orion Blinded Searching for the Sun, Landscape with Hercules and Cacus, the four paintings of The Seasons and Apollo in love with Daphné.

Poussin stopped painting landscapes in 1651, when he executed two pictures of violent storms that herald the mood of his very last works in that form. Resuming landscape painting in 1657, he no longer depicted the rationally ordered, Classical scenes of his earlier years but dwelt instead on the cycles and processes of the natural world and their omnipotence over humankind. These reflect the artist’s prevailingly stoical attitude toward life and his philosophical resignation in the face of death. The supreme achievement in this vein is Four Seasons (Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring), painted 1660–64, a set in which the cycles of human life are combined with those of the natural world in keeping with the pantheistic theme of his late landscapes.

His wife Anne-Marie died in 1664, and thereafter his own health sank rapidly. On 21 September he dictated his will, and he died in Rome on 19 November 1665 and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina.

Poussin’s work marks a major turning point in the history of art, for, although it is steeped in the art of the past, it looks forward to that of the future. Already at his death, Poussin was venerated among French painters and theorists for having revived the tradition of the ancients and of the great masters of the Renaissance. This aspect of his art would be crucially important for Neoclassical painters such as David at the end of the 18th century. The diversity of his admirers and the longevity of his reputation can perhaps be best explained by the paradoxical nature of Poussin’s creative genius: he was, in essence, a romantic who became a classic.

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