Over the years, his work went through multiple transformations, but the area where he truly was in his elements was mythology and nature. Discover more in this extensive biography.
Born in a town near Normandy in 1594, Nicolas Poussin had a normal childhood. He was inclined toward drawing right from an early age and often used to get reprimanded by his teachers for the random doodles he made in his non-drawing books. Nicolas took to painting seriously only after being encouraged to do so by Quentin Varin, a renowned French Baroque painter. However, Nicolas’ parents weren’t very appreciative of his drawing skills. This forced Nicolas to leave his house in 1612 and head to Paris when he was just 18.
In Paris, Nicolas studied different topics, which included visual perspective and anatomy, while assisting more renowned painters of that time, such as Ferdinand Elle and Georges Lallemand. The art trade was blooming during the period and there were several painting jobs commissioned to adorn palaces and homes of the wealthy. However, Poussin didn’t like this studio setup wherein multiple painters were directed to create identical paintings. Later, in Paris, he got introduced to the Italian Renaissance style of painting, which thereafter became his artistic language.
His career started to gather pace during the 1620s. In 1622, Poussin got his first assignment and in 1623 he was commissioned to create a painting for the Notre-Dame. His initial works got him recognition within the painting circles and also work from Giambattista Marino, the court poet, to create a series of paintings.
In 1624, Poussin landed in Rome and lived there until his demise in 1665. During his stay in Italy, Poussin visited cathedrals and convents to get to know Italian artistry and paintings in more detail. He also learned to paint nudes during this period and came up with The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus for the Vatican. Around this point, Poussin met Cassiano dal Pozzo who helped him get more commissioned work – all of that put together helped Poussin establish himself as a force to reckon with in the Italian painting circles.
Later, Poussin met Claude Lorrain, an Italianised Frenchman, with whom Poussin embarked on multiple expeditions to the countryside where they sketched the Roman landscape. Claude was already quite adept at landscape painting, and it’s believed that he introduced Poussin to the in-depth beauty of nature. Poussin also had close associations with Giovani Battista Marino, the baroque poet; Pietro Testa, the draftsman; and Matteo Zaccolini, the polymath, painter, writer, and mathematician.
Poussin married Anne-Marie Dughet in 1630. Two years later, he bought a small house for himself and his wife. It was also the time during which he was at his productive best. During this period, Poussin focused more on landscape paintings. However, the popularity and traction that he received were more for his Biblical works and mythological narratives. Having said that, Poussin dabbling into landscapes certainly played a role in the genre’s development later.
Later Life & Death
In 1640, Poussin moved to Paris where he worked as King Louis XIII’s painter. His primary tasks as the King’s painter were decorating the royal residence, painting altarpieces, improving on existing designs, etc. For assistance, he had a massive team. Despite all that he had, he missed the autonomy of working alone and also the King's pesky requirements were not going down well with him. In 1642, Poussin eventually left France and returned to Italy.
Upon his return, he found that most of his past clients had died. Though Poussin was able to sustain financially, aging was showing its effects. Poussin was, however, still working and had quite a list of clients on hand. By 1650, Poussin’s health started to decline. Even then he was able to come up with four paintings every year. Once his hand tremors became severe, he restricted himself to landscape paintings only. After his wife’s death in 1664, Poussin's health deteriorated rapidly, eventually breathing his last in 1665.
Nicolas' paintings weren’t very obvious. He wanted his spectators to engage with his work and reflect on them. Also, his paintings were quite symmetric. Precise geometric organisation and visual allegories were distinct elements of pretty much all of his work. Through his paintings, Nicolas wanted to express his thoughts about humans and their existence. He believed personal self-control and logical thought were the two key things needed for humans to lead a contented life.
His later works employed darker palettes and more unconfined compositional formations, representing the association between the human mind and nature. His paintings of landscapes were quite expressive – through which he communicated untamed/conflicted human emotions. Nicolas never underestimated his audience and he knew they were cerebral enough to get his paintings' hidden messages.
Dance to the Music of Time (1634)
Commissioned by Giulio Rospigliosi, who was not Pope Clement IX at that point yet, Dance to the Music of Time reflected Rospigliosi’s interest in dance and music. The painting is one of Poussin’s renowned allegorical works. The work signifies the theme of time passage and life cycles. The four figures depict the human fortune wheel: poverty, labour, pleasure, and riches. The differences in the figures are portrayed through their positioning and clothing.
The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1637)
This influential and striking painting is available in two different versions. The first version depicts mass panic by taking cues from Roman mythology wherein Romulus ordered his soldiers to seize young women in the town. This story was quite prevalent during the Renaissance period and was put to canvas by different artists, such as Jacques Stella and Pietro da Cortona. This piece by Poussin went on to become a study material for several other painters. The second version focused on the scene’s setting and architecture in the background to direct the attention of the audience to the simple buildings of those times.
The Judgement of Solomon (1649)
Solomon, Israel’s third king and the offspring of Bathsheba and David, was known for his wisdom – particularly his famous judgement on a child custody dispute. This painting tries to recreate that scene. In his paintings of King Solomon's court, Poussin composed the columns, pavement baselines, and door frames to look like a pyramid. King Solomon and his ever-so-slightly elevated hands add to the painting’s compositional balance and thematic balance, alluding to objective justice. Besides the Biblical narrative, Poussin referenced Roman and Greek antiquity in this painting which shows in the clothes, shields, helmets, columns and also the throne’s frieze.
In 1648, Poussin was approached to create a portrait for the French Academy foundation. Poussin liked the idea, but he wasn’t a big fan of his Roman contemporaries. He, therefore, chose to do his own portrait. The first version came about in 1649; however, the second painting drew the maximum interest from historians. In the second version, Poussin can be seen wearing a dark gown and a stole thrown on his shoulders. The posture is upright; the expression is intense; and his head is facing towards the audience in a way that almost his entire face is in full view.
The Nicolas Poussin Legacy
Poussin's inclination toward mythology and nature and little interest in contemporary events meant he had a strong influence on Neo-classicists, which included Jean-August-Dominique Ingres and Jacques-Louis David. Many artists, in fact, studied Poussin’s paintings attentively with the aim to learn blending figures in classic allegories. During the 20th century, Poussin’s works were featured in several exhibitions alongside works of other greats.