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Nicolas Poussin

Painter, history painter and draughtsman

1594 in Villers-en-Vexin
1665 in Rome

20 Works by Nicolas Poussin

3 Works based on Nicolas Poussin


Here a description of the importance and personality of the greatest French painter of the seventeenth century is of necessity limited to just a few details. It is first of all astonishing that aside from the years of his first training in Paris (1611-1624) and a second stay there (1640-1642), Poussin spent his life in Rome. A reference to his peasant origins in Normandy helps to explain the stability and steadfastness that he repeatedly demonstrated throughout his life. For his early years, one has to mention above all his acquaintance with Marino, the Italian poet at the Paris court. It was to him that Poussin owed his first encounter with classical literature, the commission to illustrate Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', and then his first patrons in Rome. Poussin's wide-ranging abilities are evident in the variety of stimuli he absorbed and developed into a personal style. He achieved this by transcending Mannerist formulae, through intensive study of the Venetian palette of the sixteenth century - Titian, Veronese - and a lasting fondness for the Bolognese painters working in Rome, above all Domenichino. Referring again and again to the model of Raphael and his school, Poussin's art was increasingly shaped by spiritual notions. It transformed bodies into ideal figures, physical action into gesture, surroundings into constructed spaces. As for subject matter, Poussin turned more and more to subjects from ancient history and Christianity, in the latter interpreting the liturgy as visualised theology. One thinks of his two series on the Seven Sacraments. In much the same sense, beginning around 1650 Poussin treated the theme of landscape as a spiritual concept, seeing nature and mythology as one. Poussin's collectors and patrons were primarily Italian and French private figures: scholars, high officials and bankers like Cassiano del Pozzo, for example, or Fréart de Chantelou, who thought of his paintings not as objects for display but as expressions of a moral stance to which they felt obligated. This private nature of his work is reflected in the generally medium-sized format of his paintings. Accordingly, Poussin did not maintain a large workshop in Rome, but only engaged associates and friends, notably his brother-in-law Gaspard Dughet. Poussin's draughtsmanly oeuvre is largely characterised by the fact that he composed his paintings in a manner unusual for his time. That is to say, he changed the typical working order from design and detail study to cartoon and finished picture to the extent that after the initial design he worked with three-dimensional figures and a box stage with adjustable lighting, and translated the resulting arrangement directly into painting. With the exception of landscapes, the majority of Poussin's drawings are overall designs of a scenic nature, often repeatedly paraphrasing a theme. Poussin worked mainly with washed pen drawing or exclusively with a brush, so that the resulting effects of light and shadow do not describe the surface, but lay out the entire structure, accentuating above all sequences of movement perceived as gestural. This immediate, reflective way of dealing with visual perception is what accounts for the conceptual nature, the abstract quality, of these sheets. For the complete cataloguing and interpretation of Poussin's drawings we are now indebted to W. Friedlaender, A. Blunt and K. Badt. Even though his art in general became a pattern for subsequent generations and thus in transmission underwent a separation between theoretical, ideal, creative style and authentic work, there are still any number of problematic cases and attributions.

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