Nicolas Poussin

French Artist; (1594-1665)

Nicolas Poussin, a French artist born June 1594 – died 19 November 1665. Poussin was the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style, although he spent most of his working life in Rome. Most of his works were on religious and mythological subjects painted for a small group of Italian and French collectors. He returned to Paris for a brief period to serve as First Painter to the King under Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, but soon returned to Rome and resumed his more traditional themes. In his later years he gave growing prominence to the landscape in his paintings. His work is characterized by clarity, logic, and order, and favours line over colour. Until the 20th century he remained a major inspiration for such classically-oriented artists as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Paul Cezanne.

Around 1612 he traveled to Paris, where he studied under minor masters and completed his earliest surviving works. His enthusiasm for the Italian works he saw in the royal collections in Paris motivated him to travel to Rome in 1624, where he studied the works of Renaissance and Baroque painters—especially Raphael, who had a powerful influence on his style. He befriended a number of artists who shared his classicizing tendencies, and met important patrons, such as Cardinal Francesco Barberini and the antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo. The commissions Poussin received for modestly scaled paintings of religious, mythological, and historical subjects allowed him to develop his individual style in works such as The Death of Germanicus, The Massacre of the Innocents, and the first of his two series of the Seven Sacraments.

He was persuaded to return to France in 1640 to be First Painter to the King but, dissatisfied with the overwhelming workload and the court intrigues, returned permanently to Rome after a little more than a year. Among the important works from his later years are Orion Blinded Searching for the Sun, Landscape with Hercules and Cacus, and The Seasons.

Poussin is an important figure in the development of landscape painting. In his early paintings the landscape usually forms a graceful background for a group of figures, but later the landscape played a larger and larger role and dominated the figures, illustrating stories, usually tragic, taken from the Bible, mythology, ancient history or literature. His landscapes were very carefully composed, with the vertical trees and classical columns carefully balanced by the horizontal bodies of water and flat building stones, all organized to lead the eye to the often tiny figures. Contrary to the standard studio practice of his time, Poussin did not make detailed figure drawings as preparation for painting, and he seems not to have used assistants in the execution of his paintings.

The 19th century brought a resurgence of enthusiasm for Poussin. French writers were seeking to create a national art movement and Poussin became one of their heroes: the founding father of the French School; he appears in plays, stories and novels as well as physiognomic studies.

The record price for this artist at auction is $2,376,398 USD for The Baptism of Christ, oil on cypress panel 12” x 9” sold at Sotheby’s London, December 4, 2019 – Lot 16.


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