Nicolas Poussin, the greatest French artist of the 17th century, is considered
one of the founders of the European classicism, the movement in art, based on
antique and Renaissance heritage.
born in Les-Andelys, Normandy, in 1594. The son of an impoverished family, Poussin
received some early professional training at home. In 1612 Poussin left for Paris,
where he entered the workshop of the mannerist painter J. Lallemald. The training
was reinforced by independent study of mainly Italian art in the Royal Collections.
By the end of 1610s Poussin became authoritative master, the evidence of this
are his commissions for decoration for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, and the
big altarpiece Assumption of Virgin. Unfortunately from the works of the
first Paris period (1612-23) only drawings on Ovidís Metamorphoses survived.
In 1623 the
artist came to Italy, first to Venice, where he enriched his French training with
the sensuous splendor of Venetian painting. And in 1624 he came to Rome, where
he stayed all his life, except for his trip to Paris in 1640-42. Poussinís new
friends in Rome were mainly classical scholars, who played the main role in turning
Poussin into a philosopher, erudite and intellectual. The 1620s in Italy were
for Poussin the years of intensive learning, and active creative work. Within
four years he achieved a young painterís highest aim, he was commissioned to paint
an altarpiece for a chapel in St. Peterís Cathedral Martyrdom
of St. Erasmus (1628-29). At that period he acquired the dynamic style
already dominant in Europe, the style that we now know as Baroque. It was at this
time that he produced the most baroque of all his pictures, the altarpiece The
Virgin of the Pillar Appearing to St. James the Greater, which was ordered
for a church in the Spanish Netherlands. Eventually this work reached not the
town of Valenciennes but the collection of Cardinal Richelieu and finally came
to Louis XIII and to the Louvre. Poussin was evidently frustrated and disappointed
by his lack of success in the intensely competitive field of baroque altarpiece
painting. He never attempted this style again.
After a short
crisis he chose the more restrained and intellectual direction of development,
which appealed to the learned tastes of his Roman friends. In 1629 Poussin married
his landlordís daughter. The first Roman period (1624-30) on the whole is characterized
by mythological themes, with sweet love, poetical inspiration, carefree happiness
in harmony with nature.
In the next
decade history became the main subject of Poussinís work. The artist is attracted
by the situations, in which moral qualities of people reveal themselves. In pictures
of 1630s the compositions are complex and compound with many characters, they
remind the classical tragedy on stage. Poussin used a special box and wax figures:
first he built his compositions, then started to draw preliminary sketches, and
only then painted. The best-known works of the period are Ė The
Rescue of Pyrrhus (1634), The
Noble Deed of Scipio (1640). The very popular in his time were the so-called
bacchanal series, commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu. One of them, which survived,
is Triumph of
Neptune and Amphitrite (1634). Those paintings were supposed to decorate
the cardinalís palace, and this fact indicates that the interest to Poussin in
France grew. In the second half of 1630s the young artists in Paris chose to follow
Poussinís style in historical genre. The Kingís officials wanted to return the
artist to France. Poussin did not hurry back. He came to France only in 1840,
after they had passed him the Kingís threat. In Paris Poussin was immediately
appointed the person in charge of all art works in Kingís palaces. This caused
the violent jealousy on the part of other court artists; Vouet headed the opposition.
For about two years Poussin painted altarpieces, canvases for Richelieu and supervised
the decorative works in the Big Gallery in Louvre. Surrounded by hatred and jealousy,
Poussin did not finish the work and fled to Rome. His artistic and moral ideals
stood in conflict with those of monarch.
In his late
Roman period (1642-65) Poussin continued to work mainly in historical genre. The
most important work of that period is the series Seasons (1660-64).
influenced the further development of European painting. His authoritative interpretations
of ancient history and Greek and Roman mythology left their mark on European art
down to the 19th century.