Nicolas Poussin

Poussin, Nicolas (nēkôläˈ) [key], 1594–1665, French painter, b. Les Andelys. Poussin was considered the greatest of living painters by his contemporaries. Although he spent most of his life in Italy, his painting became the standard for French classical art.

Poussin studied painting in the mannerist style in France until 1624, when he traveled to Rome via Venice. His early work in Rome (1624–33) manifests diversified tendencies. He executed many drawings of antique monuments for the great patron of the arts Cassiano del Pozzo. He experimented also with the baroque style of Pietro da Cortona and Lanfranco in works such as the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus (1629; Vatican). The paintings of Titian and Veronese influenced his choice of mythological and elegiac subjects.

Poussin's growing preoccupation with the works of antiquity and of Raphael resulted in a new clarity of composition in such paintings as the Adoration of the Magi (1633; Dresden) and The Golden Calf (c.1635; National Gall., London). His figures began to exhibit greater linear precision and sculptural solidity. Poussin became especially concerned with the didactic and philosophical possibilities of painting. He formulated the doctrines that became the basis of French classical and academic art, whereby a work was intended to arouse rational and intellectual, rather than visual, response in the viewer. His approach to and successful justification of this intellectualization profoundly influenced painting far into the 19th cent.

In 1640, Poussin was called to Paris by Louis XIII to displace Vouet as first painter to the king. Both the intrigues of Vouet and the task of administering the large-scale decoration of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre were distasteful to Poussin. A cold austerity characterizes his few works that remain from this period, e.g., Truth Rescuing Time (Louvre). By 1643, Poussin had returned to Rome. He then produced works that are considered the purest embodiments of French classicism. A comparison of his early and late versions of Shepherds of Arcadia (c.1629, Chatsworth Coll., England; and c.1650, Louvre) shows the fundamental change in his outlook. The poetic, dynamic emphasis of the early work was abandoned for the contemplative aspects of the subject in the later work. In his two series of the Seven Sacraments (1640s), he concentrated upon the symbolic meaning of each sacrament, stressing monumental solemnity and dignity.

During the late 1640s Poussin turned to landscape painting. In such works as the Death of Phocion (1648) he constructed a classical landscape, ordered with mathematical precision through the use of architecture. A renewed interest in mythology led him to favor esoteric themes, as in the Landscape with Orion (1658; Metropolitan Mus.). In his late work he developed a freer conception of nature, while his figures were considerably reduced in size and importance. Of his last works, the paintings in the series known as the Four Seasons (1660–64; Louvre) are most notable.

See his drawings ed. by W. F. Friedlander (4 vol., 1939–63); his paintings ed. by A. Blunt (1966); studies by C. Wright (1985) and Y. Zolotov (1985).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: European Art, 1600 to the Present: Biographies