Nicolas Poussin

French Baroque Painter

1594 - 1665

Nicolas Poussin was a French painter in the classical style. His work predominantly features clarity, logic, and order, and favors line over color. Until the 20th century he remained the dominant inspiration for such classically oriented artists as Jacques-Louis David and Paul Cézanne.

He spent most of his working life in Rome except for a short period when Cardinal Richelieu ordered him back to France as First Painter to the King.

Nicolas Poussin's early biographer was his friend Giovanni Pietro Bellori, who relates that Poussin was born near Les Andelys in Normandy and that he received an education that included some Latin, which would stand him in good stead. Early sketches attracted the notice of Quentin Varin, a local painter, whose pupil Poussin became, until he ran away to Paris at the age of eighteen. There he entered the studios of the Flemish painter Ferdinand Elle and then of Georges Lallemand, both minor masters now remembered for having tutored Poussin. He found French art in a stage of transition: the old apprenticeship system was disturbed, and the academic training destined to supplant it was not yet established by Simon Vouet; but having met Courtois the mathematician, Poussin was fired by the study of his collection of engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi after Italian masters.

After two abortive attempts to reach Rome, he fell in with Giambattista Marino, the court poet to Marie de Medici, at Lyon. Marino employed him on illustrations to his poem Adone (untraced) and on a series of illustrations for a projected edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses, took him into his household, and in 1624 enabled Poussin (who had been detained by commissions in Lyon and Paris) to rejoin him at Rome.

In Rome, his patron having died, Poussin, who lodged at first with Simon Vouet, fell into great distress, with the departure for Spain of his early patron Cardinal Francesco Barberini and the Cardinal's secretary, the antiquary Cassiano dal Pozzo, later a great friend and patron. The return of Barberini from Spain in 1626 stabilized and renewed the patronage of the Barberini and their circle. Two major commissions at this period resulted in Poussin's early masterwork the Barberini Death of Germanicus, partly inspired by the reliefs of the Meleager sarcophagus, and the commission for Saint Peter's that amounted to a public debut, the Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus (1630), with echoes of Pietro da Cortona. Falling ill at this time, he was received into the house of his compatriot Gaspard Dughet and nursed by his daughter Anna Maria to whom, in 1630, Poussin was married.

He lodged with the sculptor Francois Duquesnoy, of an equally classicizing artistic temperament, befriended Domenichino and joined an informal academy of artists and patrons opposed to the current Baroque style that formed around Joachim von Sandrart.

Among his first patrons, aside from Cardinal Francesco were: Cardinal Omodei, for whom he produced, in 1627, the Triumphs of Flora (Louvre); Cardinal de Richelieu, who commissioned a Bacchanal (Louvre); Vincenzo Giustiniani, for whom was executed the Massacre of the Innocents, of which there is a first sketch in the British Museum; Cassiano dal Pozzo, who became the owner of the first series of the Seven Sacraments (Belvoir Castle); and Paul Freart de Chantelou, with whom in 1640 Poussin, at the call of Sublet de Noyers, returned to France.

Massacre of the Innocents

Louis XIII conferred on him the title of First Painter in Ordinary. In two years at Paris he produced several pictures for the royal chapels (the Last Supper, painted for Versailles, now in the Louvre), eight cartoons for the Gobelins tapestry manufactory, the series of the Labors of Hercules for the Louvre, the Triumph of Truth for Cardinal Richelieu (Louvre), and much minor work.

The Last Supper

In 1643, disgusted by the intrigues of Simon Vouet, Fouquieres and the architect Jacques Lemercier, Poussin withdrew to Rome. There, in 1648, he finished for de Chantelou the second series of the Seven Sacraments (Bridgewater Gallery), and also his noble Landscape with Diogenes (Louvre). This painting shows the philosopher discarding his last worldly possession, his cup, after watching a man drink water by cupping his hands. In 1649 he painted the Vision of Saint Paul (Louvre) for the comic poet Paul Scarron, and in 1651 the Holy Family (Louvre) for the duc de Crequy. Year by year he continued to produce an enormous variety of works, many of which are included in the list given by Felibien.

He suffered from declining health after 1650, and was troubled by a worsening tremor in his hand, evidence of which is apparent in his late drawings. He died in Rome on November 19, 1665 and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, his wife having predeceased him. Chateaubriand in 1820 donated the monument to Poussin.

Poussin left no children, but he adopted as his son Gaspard Dughet (Gasparo Duche), his wife's brother, who became a painter and took the name of Poussin.

Early Paintings (until 1630)

Apollo and Daphne: 1625

Two pictures that are very much more Venetian in their inspiration are the Munich Apollo and Daphne and the Louvre Triumph of Flora, whose subjects are taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Throughout his career Poussin liked to dwell on themes of transformation, especially those found in stories from classical antiquity. Apollo pursues Daphne, and to escape his clutches she is transformed into a laurel tree. The theme has a poetic melancholy, and this melancholy is also present to a certain extent in the much more cheerful Flora.

The mythological story of Apollo and Daphne:

The nymph Daphne, the daughter of the river god Peneus, was the first and most celebrated of Apollo's loves, and was popular with artists in all ages. According to Ovid, Cupid, in a spiteful mood, was the cause. He struck Apollo with a golden arrow, the sort that kindles love, Daphne with a leaden one that puts love to flight. The god pursued the unwilling girl, and, when she had no more strength to flee, she prayed to her father to save her. Whereupon branches sprouted from her arms, roots grew from her feet, and she was changed into a laurel tree.

The theme symbolizes the victory of Chastity over Love.

Bacchanal of Putti: 1626

There are two Bacchanals by Poussin in the Rome museum that are not actually pendants, as they are of different measurements and on supports of different materials. They are dated to 1626, on the basis of the interest that Poussin had at this time for the Bacchanals of Titian (the painter's enthusiasm is recorded by both Sandrart and Bellori).

The execution of these two paintings fits perfectly with Poussin's interests and production during his first Roman years in Rome. Along with his colleagues Sandrart, Duquesnoy, Pietro da Cortona, Claude Lorrain and others, Poussin studied and drew from the Bacchanals of Titian at the Palazzo Aldobrandini and the Villa Ludovisi. Poussin actually copied certain details directly from Titian's famous Bacchanal of the Andrians, for example the "putto mingens" at the left of the larger picture. Other motifs echo the style of Poussin's fellow Frenchman Duquesnoy, with whom the painter shared Roman living quarters in 1626.

Rinaldo and Armida: ca 1625

The theme is taken from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata ("Jerusalem Delivered"). Armida is the enchantress who holds Rinaldo under her spell in a magical palace that is an illusion. Without him, affairs are going badly for the crusaders. The pastoral idyll, Armida's hate for the crusaders turned to love for one Crusader, and the call of duty that leaves Armida abandoned, all appealed to Baroque and Rococo artists. George Frideric Handel composed an opera using a libretto written by Giacomo Rossi, based on episodes of Gerusalemme liberata.

The Triumph of David: 1627-30

Nicolas Poussin worked in Rome almost all his life. There he developed an erudite and intellectual art of refined forms, an example being the Triumph of David.

The Death of Germanicus: 1627

The first important commission Poussin received was from Cardinal Francesco Barberini at the end of 1626, for the Death of Germanicus. The picture, now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, was completed early in 1628 and immediately became famous. The subject was inspired by the 'Annals' of Tacitus. This was the first of the deathbed scenes that Poussin was to favor throughout his life. The figures are arranged in a frieze-like composition which was almost certainly derived from the arrangement of figures on classical sarcophagi. Already, too, there is a preoccupation with classical antiquity and its intensely moral approach to life. In his pictures Poussin was to become obsessed by morality, and with man facing the supreme trial: how to face death with equanimity.

The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus: 1628

As soon as the Germanicus was completed, an even more important commission was received, this time for the Basilica of Saint Peter's. It was for a large altarpiece depicting the Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus. The picture was not a success and, with the exception of the Virgin with Saint James (Louvre, Paris) which was probably painted for a church in Valenciennes, Poussin painted only one larger altarpiece for a prominent position. The Erasmus is nevertheless important in several ways: it shows Poussin's temporary preoccupation with the Caravaggesque idiom and also his weaknesses as a composer of large altarpieces, demonstrating that he was temperamentally unsuited to the painting of a single picture on a grand scale. Almost all the greatest pictures of his maturity form part of a pair or a series: the first set of Sacraments, the Seasons, and the Crossing of the Red Sea paired with the Adoration of the Golden Calf.

Saint Cecilia: 1627-28

Saint Cecilia is a Christian saint and virgin martyr believed to have lived in the 2nd or 3rd century. She is the patron saint of music, her attribute being the organ (often the portative type).

Bacchic Scene: ca 1627

Poussin's scenes, created in his early years in Rome, require of the viewer an extensive acquaintance with ancient mythology. At Cupid's command, the goat-legged shepherd-god Pan has knelt and taken Venus, the goddess of love, on his shoulders. A little winged putto is giving a hand, and the group is accompanied by a sturdy faun bearing a basket of fruit on his shoulder. The lively ensemble has been set in an Arcadian landscape.

Bacchanal: the Andrians (1628-30)

In the Bacchanal: the Andrians in the Louvre, the mood is even lighter than in the Munich Apollo and Daphne or the Louvre Triumph of Flora, although the colors retain a Venetian richness. In these pictures, Poussin was trying to express his personal vision of the lushness and extravagance of antiquity, tinged with a certain sadness. In some cases he succeeded, although in a number of others his use of a dark ground has caused excessive darkening and the pictures have sometimes lost their brilliance.

The Andrians were the inhabitants of the Aegean island of Andros, famous for its wine, and therefore a centre of the worship of Bacchus in antiquity. Legend told that the god visited the island annually when a fountain of water turned into wine.

Lamentation over the Body of Christ: 1628-29

This painting is one of the most effective of the early works by Poussin. The treatment of the subject is both passionate and austere and anticipates the painting of the same subject now in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin painted almost thirty years later.

Echo and Narcissus: 1628-30

Narcissus and Echo: a story of a handsome youth and the nymph who loved him but whose love was not returned. In Ovid's sad rendering of the myth Echo was condemned by the goddess Juno to repeat only the last words that were spoken to her; Narcissus, as a punishment for spurning Echo, was made to fall in love with his own reflection, and pined away gazing at himself in a pool. At his death he was changed into flower that bears his name, and Echo in sorrow wasted away until nothing but her voiced remained.

In this representation Narcissus lies dead beside the water while Echo in the background grieves over him.

Midas and Bacchus: 1629-30

In Greek legend Midas was a king of Phrygia who was granted a wish by Bacchus in return for a good deed he had done to Silenus, a follower of the god. Midas wished that everything he touched be turned to gold, but soon realized his mistake when all food became inedible. Bacchus ordered him to wash in the River Pactolus in Lydia. Hence the popular aetiology of the gold-bearing properties of the river, thought to have been the source of wealth of the kings of Lydia, of whom Croesus was the last.

Midas is depicted penitently before Bacchus, a drunken Silenus sleeping nearby. Another version of the subject by Poussin (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) depicts Midas washing in the river, while the river god reclines on his urn.

The Plague at Ashdod: 1630

By 1630, Poussin was moving towards the uncompromising statements about the moral condition of humanity that were to characterize his work. In that year he painted the Plague of Ashdod (Louvre, Paris), which sets the style and mood of his work for the next five years. The figures are interlocked in an extremely complex composition which appears somewhat disorganized; in depicting the Old Testament theme, in which the spectator is spared none of the horror; Poussin was trying to achieve accuracy. The following year he painted the Empire of Flora (Dresden, Gemaldegalerie), a more cheerful subject but with a similarly interlocking frieze of figures. It is round these two pictures, datable through documents, that the rest of Poussin's pictures supposedly painted around 1630 have to be grouped.

Acis and Galatea: ca 1630

Galatea is a Nereid, or sea-nymph, of Sicilian origin. Ovid tells how she loved a handsome youth Acis and was herself loved by Polyphemus, a monstrous one-eyed giant, one of the race of Cyclops. The giant set on a promontory overlooking the sea and played a love song to Galatea on his pipes. Afterwards, wandering disconsolately among the rocks, he discovered her lying in the arms of Acis. The couple fled and Polyphemus in a rage flung a great boulder which killed Acis.

The Inspiration of the Poet: ca 1630

Poussin spent almost all his career in Rome painting in isolation. He endeavored to create a clear visual language that would appeal to the spectator's mind and affect him rationally rather than through the emotions His oeuvre is one of the supreme expressions of classicism in French art. The subject of the Inspiration of the Poet remains under discussion: it is possible that the young man on the right, being inspired by Apollo, is Virgil, and the figure standing on the left Calliope, muse of epic poetry. In both figures there are distinct references to antique sculpture, as so often in Poussin's work, and the golden light shows the influence of the great Venetian painters of the sixteenth century.

The appearance of the muse Calliope has led to the suggestion that the picture was painted in honor of a recently dead poet.

Selene and Endymion: ca 1630

Selene in Greek mythology was the goddess of moon (Lat. Luna), whom the Romans identified with Diana. The Romans worshipped her as a triple deity, Luna (the sky), Diana (the earth), and Hecate (the underworld). According to myth she was the daughter of Jupiter and Latona (Leto), and the twin sister of Apollo.

Endymion, the beautiful youth who fell into an eternal sleep, has captured the imagination of poets and artists as a symbol of timelessness of beauty that is a 'joy forever.' Endymion, sent to sleep for ever by the command of Jupiter, in return for being granted perpetual youth, was visited nightly by the goddess. Poussin's painting shows Endymion awake, kneeling to welcome the arrival of the moon goddess, while her brother the sun-god is just beginning his journey across the heavens in his golden chariot.

Paintings Between 1631-1634

The Empire of Flora: 1631

By 1630, Poussin was moving towards the uncompromising statements about the moral condition of humanity that were to characterize his work. In that year he painted the Plague of Ashdod (Louvre, Paris), which sets the style and mood of his work for the next five years. The following year he painted the Empire of Flora, a more cheerful subject but with a similarly interlocking frieze of figures. It is round these two pictures, datable through documents, that the rest of Poussin's pictures supposedly painted around 1630 have to be grouped.

This is one of the earliest paintings executed by Poussin in Rome. It was commissioned by the Sicilian nobleman Fabrizio Valguarnera.

The Triumph of Flora: 1631

Two pictures that are very much more Venetian in their inspiration are the Munich Apollo and Daphne and the Louvre Triumph of Flora, whose subjects are taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Throughout his career Poussin liked to dwell on themes of transformation, especially those found in stories from classical antiquity. Apollo pursues Daphne, and to escape his clutches she is transformed into a laurel tree. The theme has a poetic melancholy, and this melancholy is also present to a certain extent in the much more cheerful Flora.

Flora is the ancient Italian goddess of flowers. Her triumphal procession is led by Venus, Flora rides on a chariot drawn by putti.

Tancred and Erminia: ca 1631

Poussin showed a preference to dealing with subjects such as the sentimental and melancholic scenes from Tasso's "Gerusalemme Liberata", for example the strange encounter Tancred and Erminia in dusky twilight. The scene is played out between two attentive horses - one bay the other white.

Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan: 1631-33

In the early 1630's, Poussin was working on a major series of Bacchanals for Cardinal Richelieu which were designed to adorn his chateau near Orleans. The earliest of Poussin's bacchanals (not one intended for Richelieu) is the Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan in the National Gallery, London. The colors are conspicuously light, with pink and pale blue predominating.

The painting was inspired by the Bacchanal of Titian in the Villa Aldobrandini in Rome.

The Nurture of Bacchus: 1630-35

This painting is also called The Childhood of Bacchus or The Small Bacchanal.

Adoration of the Magi: 1633

This is a famous and much copied painting of Poussin. It is signed and dated on the tumbled down column lower right: Accad: rom. NICOLAVS PVSIN faciebat Romae. 1633.

The Triumph of Neptune: 1634

The lightness of tone is seen in the Triumph of Neptune in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a picture almost certainly painted for Richelieu and probably rather earlier than the three large Bacchanals for the château. The composition of the Triumph of Neptune is derived from Raphael's fresco in the Villa Farnese, but the result is unfortunately a little pedantic; when looking too closely at other art, Poussin forgot to relax and somehow stopped letting his own special intensity dominate. The result is light-hearted and decorative, and its subject has been interpreted in many different ways.

The mythological story :

Amphitrite fled from Neptune's wooing, but he sent dolphins after her which succeeded in persuading her to return to become his bride. She rides beside his chariot on a dolphin's back, an arch of drapery billows over her head, a common feature of sea-goddesses from antiquity. They are surrounded by a retinue of Tritons (the name for mermen in general) and Nereids (sea-nymphs, the daughters of Nereus, the 'old man of the sea' in Greek mythology).

The painting was probably painted for Cardinal Richelieu. It has been subject to widely differing interpretations.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf: ca 1634

How Nicolas Poussin the son of a Norman farmer became Nicolas Poussin 'painter-philosopher' in Rome, with 'a mind...as it were naturalized in antiquity', is one of the great triumphs of pertinacity over circumstance. Few artists of his importance have had such inadequate training, or found their true vocation so late. His interest in art was aroused by a minor itinerant painter working in a local church in Les Andelys. In the same year, 1611/12, Poussin left home for Paris. After years of hardship, and two unsuccessful attempts to reach Rome, he attracted favorable attention in 1622 with six paintings for the Jesuits. In 1624 he finally settled in Rome, firmly intent on emulating Raphael and ancient sculpture.

Poussin's early period in Italy was barely easier than his years in Paris. As well as Raphael, engravings, statuary and a famous ancient wall-painting then in a princely collection, he studied Domenichino and Guido Reni and discovered Titian, whose Bacchus and Ariadne among other mythological scenes had just been brought to Rome from Ferrara. Not until he was about 35 did Poussin find his own voice, and patrons to heed it. From about 1630, with the exception of an unhappy interlude in Paris working for the king in 1640-2, he mainly painted smallish canvases for private collectors. Out of his very limitations, he created a new kind of art: the domestic 'history painting' with full-length but small-scale figures, for the edification and delight of the few. Seldom has a painter been more intense, more serious and, in the event, more influential.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf was originally paired with the Crossing of the Red Sea now in Melbourne. Both illustrate episodes from Exodus in the Old Testament; this painting relates to chapter 32. In the wilderness of Sinai the children of Israel, disheartened by Moses' long absence, asked Aaron to make them gods to lead them. Having collected all their gold earrings, Aaron melted them down into the shape of a calf, which they worshipped. In the background on the left Moses and Joshua come down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Hearing singing and seeing 'the calf and the dancing...Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.' The tall bearded figure in white is Aaron still 'making proclamation' of a feast to the false god.

Poussin is said to have made little figures of clay to use as models, and the story is confirmed by the dancers in the foreground. They are a mirror image of a pagan group of nymphs and satyrs carousing in Poussin's earlier Bacchanalian Revel also in the National Gallery. Within a majestic landscape painted in the bold colors Poussin learned from Titian, before a huge golden idol more bull than calf (and many earrings' worth), these Israelite revelers give homage to the potency of Poussin's vision of antiquity. As on a sculpted relief or painted Greek vase, figures are shown in suspended animation, heightened gestures or movements isolated from those of their neighbors, so that the effect of the whole is at one and the same time violent and static.

Paintings Between 1635-1639

Saint John the Baptist Baptizes the People: ca 1635

This subject is rather rare in painting.

Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons: ca 1635

In Greek mythology Phaeton was the son of Helios, the sun-god. (To the Greeks the nature and functions of Apollo and Helios were distinct and separate. Apollo's identification with the sun was a later development, and was particularly associated with his cult in Roman times.) Helios drove his chariot daily across the sky. His golden chariot is a 'quadriga' yoked to a team of four horses abreast.

Ovid tells of the palace of Helios and his retinue - Day, Month, Year, and the Four Seasons and so on. Here Phaeton presented himself and persuaded an unwilling father to allow him for one day to drive his chariot across the skies. The Hours yoked the team of four horses to the golden car, Dawn threw open her doors, and Phaeton was off. Because he had no skill he was soon in trouble, and the climax came when he met the fearful Scorpion of the zodiac. He dropped the reins; the horses bolted and caused the earth itself to catch fire. In the nick of time Jupiter, father of the goods, put a stop to his escapade with a thunderbolt which wrecked the chariot and sent Phaeton hurtling down in flames into the River Eridanus. He was buried by nymphs. Phaetons's reckless attempt to drive his father's chariot made him the symbol of all who aspire to that which lies beyond their capabilities.

On the painting the sun-god, having Apollo's appearance and attributes, sits on a cloudy throne framed in the zodiacal belt, a lyre beside him; Phaeton kneels in front of him.

The Rape of the Sabine Women: 1634-35

Although Poussin spent almost the whole of his working life in Rome, he was the greatest as well as the most influential painter of 17th-century France. His authoritative interpretations of ancient history and Greek and Roman mythology left their mark on European art down to the time of David and Ingres. Here he shows Romulus, ruler of the newly founded city of Rome, giving a prearranged signal with his cloak for the Roman soldiers to carry off the Sabine women to become their wives, thereby establishing themselves permanently in their new home. The Sabine men, who had come unarmed to what they thought would be a religious celebration, are put to flight. The subject enabled Poussin to display to the full his unsurpassed archaeological knowledge and his mastery of dramatic interpretation.

The Rape of the Sabine Women: 1637-38

This is the second version of the subject by Poussin the first being in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The principal figures are similar to those in the first version; however, the architectural background is more developed.

The Triumph of Pan: 1636

The Triumph of Pan was one of several paintings commissioned from Poussin, in 1636 the leading French artist in Rome, by Cardinal Richelieu. They were intended for a room in his château in Poitou which would also house mythological pictures by Mantegna, Perugino and Costa. Poussin must have been advised about the scale not only of the canvases but also of the figures, for although he never saw the Renaissance paintings his personages are much the same size as theirs. He must also have been told that the pictures were to be set above a high dado, divided by gilt caryatids, gold fleur-de-lys against a blue ground, and marine battles, all under a gilt ceiling.

The Cabinet de la Chambre du Roy in Richelieu's château celebrated the cardinal's 'gift' to Louis XIII of mastery of the seas. The room, with its 'Combat of Wealth and Art', as a contemporary panegyric puts it, and furnished in addition to paintings and paneling with porphyry vases and ancient busts, must have presented a formidable challenge to Poussin. Not only would he be competing with some of the foremost Italian Renaissance artists, his pictures also had to contend with the glittering decor - hence the colors here are among the most brilliant he ever lavished on a painting. Sadly, the room was dismantled long ago and the pictures dispersed, so we can judge the full effect only in our mind's eye.

Poussin carefully allowed for the spectator's point of view. Nimble visitors to the Gallery can sit on the floor to look at this picture in order better to appreciate its spatial construction, and thus its full significance. The revelers occupy a raised stage extending back to where rocks and vine-hung trees screen off the backdrop of sky and distant mountains. Propped up vertically against this earthen stage are a timbrel and two masks - an ancient satyr mask and a modern Italian Columbine. Behind them a Punchinello mask joins a still life drawn from the imagery of ancient bacchanals: thyrsoi - staffs wreathed with ivy and surmounted by pine cones - the crooked stick and pipes of Pan, wine in a metal bowl or crater, and a Greek wine jar showing the god Dionysus, the Roman Bacchus.

The composition is indebted to an engraving after Giulio Romano, a pupil of Raphael, but Poussin also demonstrates his first-hand access to antiquarian lore. The mixture of modern and ancient masks, and the stage-like construction, allude to the origins of theatre in bacchic rites. The main scene represents the 'triumph' or worship of the armless bust of a horned deity mounted on a pillar, his face smeared red with the juice of boiled ivy stems. This is the 'term' of Pan, Arcadian god of shepherds and herdsmen, and Priapus, a phallic god of fertility, protector of gardens, whose cult was imported into Greece from the Near East. Confused with each other, both were associated with Dionysus/Bacchus: Dionysus, god of the grape-vine, who died, descended into Hades then rose again was himself identified with seasonal decay and rebirth. All the participants are members of his entourage (as we find them in Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne): nymphs and their lewd playmates the satyrs; maenads who rend deer limb from limb or strew flowers from the winnowing basket sacred to Dionysus. A world of pagan imaginings is brought to life in all its cruel and seductive charm, without a hint of anachronistic moralizing.

The Nurture of Jupiter: 1635-37

The painting is also known as The Childhood of Jupiter.

The rejection of Venetian coloring, the sharper modeling, and the evolution of a composition based on carefully balanced movements are apparent in a small group of works which must be dated about 1637, of which the exquisite Nurture of Jupiter is typical.

Jupiter was the son of Saturn, the god who devoured his children because it was prophesied that one of them would usurp him. Jupiter's mother fled to Crete where she gave birth to him in a cave. She gave Saturn a large stone wrapped in swaddling clothes which he unsuspectingly swallowed instead. Jupiter was brought up on the slopes of Cretan Mount Ida by nymphs who fed him on wild honey and on milk from the goat Amalthea.

In this representation of the subject the goat suckles Jupiter.

The Infant Jupiter Nurtured by the Goat Amalthea: ca 1638

Jupiter was the son of Saturn, the god who devoured his children because it was prophesied that one of them would usurp him. Jupiter's mother fled to Crete where she gave birth to him in a cave. She gave Saturn a large stone wrapped in swaddling clothes which he unsuspectingly swallowed instead. Jupiter was brought up on the slopes of Cretan Mt Ida by nymphs who fed him on wild honey and on milk from the goat Amalthea.

In the painting of Poussin, a nymph has Jupiter in her arms, holding a jug of milk to his lips, while another gathers honeycombs, and a shepherd milks the goat.

The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem: 1637

In the last part of the 1630's Poussin's art underwent a rapid metamorphosis. One of the best examples of this is the Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. It is dry in handling and agitated in composition, and has that peculiar unattractiveness of surface on which Poussin was to dwell so much in his later years. His denial of the sensual quality of painting was deliberate: this preoccupation with surface texture is found in all his pictures of around 1630. Yet the Vienna picture succeeds by the mood it creates. The subject is one of prime importance for Jewish as well as Christian history - the final and irrevocable loss of the Jews' holiest place - and Poussin has concentrated on the mood of wanton destruction.

Pan and Syrinx: 1637-38

Pan (Lat. Faunus) is the Greek god of woods and fields, flocks and herds. In Renaissance allegory he personifies Lust; he charmed the nymphs with the music of his pipes, and was said to have lain with all the Maenads. His home was Arcadia, which stood not merely for the region of the Peloponnese where he was originally worshipped, but also for the romantic paradise of the pastoral poets and artists like Poussin. This realm is inhabited by nymphs and shepherds, by satyrs, maenads, Silenus, Priapus and the centaurs who, with Pan, formed the retinue of Bacchus. It was from the latter that Pan acquired his goat's legs.

The story of Pan and Syrinx is told by Ovid. Pan was pursuing a nymph of Arcadia named Syrinx when they reached the river Ladon which blocked her escape. To avoid the god's clutches she prayed to be transformed, and Pan unexpectedly found himself holding an armful of tall reeds. The sound of the wind blowing through them so pleased him that he cut some and made a set of pipes which are named after the nymph.

Poussin chooses the moment in which Pan has almost caught the fleeing nymph: but movement becomes posing, time stands still, and Syrinx escapes through her transformation. Despite the terpsichorean harmony of the two, their contrary desires are convincingly written into their figures: the joyous yearning and onwards urge of Pan, and Syrinx's timid wish to preserve herself. The sensual vitality of the shepherd-god and the chaste beauty of the nymph are also clearly characterized by the artist's choice of colors: Pan, a reddish brown, and Syrinx pale in color.

Flying above the pair is Cupid as a winged boy holding a torch and a lead-tipped arrow, which he is about to cast at Syrinx. Ovid tells us that Cupid had various arrow-tips: a golden tip awakened love, while that of lead had the opposite effect.

The dramatic events of the pursuit and the transformation take place within a landscape suffused with light; a light which, with its delicate, atmospheric sfumato, would have been more fitting for an idyll than this dramatic scene. The putti at the bottom of the picture cast themselves aside in fright. The tree trunk on the far right has been painted over Pan's hoof. Evidently Poussin added the tree at a later stage, to produce greater articulation in the picture's spatial structure.

The river-god Ladon checks the two central protagonists, allowing the picture's suspense and dynamism to culminate at its centre. His face, reminiscent of that of the Antique sculpture of Laocoon in his death throes, seems to bear the ineluctable suffering of Antique tragedies, with a depth and emotion that goes beyond all human contingency. From the moment of its discovery in 1506 in Rome, the Hellenistic sculpture of the Trojan priest and his sons entwined by serpents awoke the especial interest of artists, for it showed a restrained formulation of agonizing death that was valid for all time.

Dance to the Music of Time: ca 1638

The painting was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio Rospigliosi who probably devised the subject: Poverty, Labor, Wealth and Pleasure dance an eternal round to the music of Time.

A Dance to the Music of Time: ca 1635

This important compositional study, which dates from the mid-1630's, is the only known preparatory drawing for Poussin's painting called 'A Dance to the Music of Time', in the Wallace Collection, London. The picture was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio Rospigliosi, who later became Pope Clement IX. According to Poussin's earliest biographer, Bellori, it was Rospigliosi who defined the subject (a 'moral poem'), which is an allegory about fortune and the cycle of human life, in which the dancers personify poverty, labor, wealth and pleasure. They follow the music of Father Time, who plays a lyre, while putti toy with an hourglass and blow bubbles (both emblems of life's brevity), and the Janus figure looks to the future and the past. In the sky, Apollo and Aurora emerge from the zodiac to herald the dawn, and the passage of the day and the year.

For Poussin drawing was a practical necessity, rather than a source of delight; this is, however, one of his most appealing studies, in which the sensual figures are defined as slightly abstracted forms, consistently lit from the upper left, as they appear to cavort upon a stage. In the painting the composition becomes more austere and measured. The title now used for it is a creation of the twentieth century, and has become widely known as it was adopted for a famous series of novels by Anthony Powell.

'Et in Arcadia Ego': 1637-39

'Et in Arcadia ego' is a phrase coined by Virgil and used in 17th century Italy expressing, in an elliptical way, the humanistic sentiment: Even in Arcadia I (i.e. Death) am to be found. That is to say, even the escapist, pastoral world of Arcady is no refuge from death. The words feature in paintings from that time inscribed on monumental stonework, especially a tomb, which stands in rural surroundings. The earliest representation of the theme by Guercino (Galleria Corsini, Rome) shows two shepherds coming unexpectedly upon a skull - the typical memento mori - that lies on a piece of fallen masonry bearing the words 'Et in Arcadia ego'.

In the hands of Poussin who made two versions the sense was gradually modified. Shepherds are seen before a tomb deciphering the inscription with an air of melancholy curiosity. The skull is no longer significant or is omitted. The words now seem to imply an epitaph on the person - perhaps a shepherdess - who lies entombed: 'I too once lived in Arcady', an alteration to the meaning that somewhat stretches the grammar of the original Latin.

In this version all sense of surprise has been removed, and instead, the shepherds are arranged in attitudes of contemplation round the tomb in the countryside. The artist has lost all interest in story-telling, and has concentrated on a totally static scene. No pleasure is taken in surface texture, and the whole is hard and cold, with the figures in statuesque poses.

The other, less severe version of the subject by Poussin is at Chatsworth.

Apollo and the Muses (Parnassus): 1630's

Nicolas Poussin was undoubtedly the most important French artist of the seventeenth century, and the major exponent of Baroque classicism. Although he worked in Rome most of his life, his influence not only in Italy but also on French painting was profound. His art was richly informed by prolonged study of the classical past and of the High Renaissance - both of classical sculpture and of Raphael and Titian. He created an extraordinarily controlled, balanced and also various blend from these and other sources, evolving original solutions to traditional problems. The Parnassus is one example.

Venus Presenting Arms to Aeneas: 1639

Venus Presenting Arms to Aeneas (Detail): 1639

The Institution of the Eucharist: 1640

The huge altarpiece was painted for the Sainte-Chapelle in Saint-Germaine-en-Laye.

The Sacrament of Baptism: 1642

This is one of the first set of Sacraments, painted for Cassiano dal Pozzo. The picture was the last of the set to be completed, and is quite unlike the other surviving five.

Almost as soon as he arrived in Rome, Poussin was fortunate enough to come into contact with the scholarly and benevolent Cassiano dal Pozzo, who was to be his patron for the next thirty years until his death in 1657. Their relationship in its early years seems to have consisted mainly of Pozzo collecting a number of Poussin's first works, almost out of charity for the struggling young artist, as the pictures were indeed of modest pretensions. In the later 1630's the catalyst for a development towards an extreme was undoubtedly Cassiano dal Pozzo, who commissioned Poussin to paint his first set of Sacraments.

The dates of execution for this first set are unknown, but they were not completed until 1642, when the final one was sent by Poussin from Paris to Rome. Cassiano owned a Poussin executed in the late 1630's, a 'Baptism of Christ' now in the Getty Museum at Malibu, and it may well have been this carefully calculated composition which spurred Cassiano on to commission Poussin to create the Sacraments, one of the most important single commissions of his career. The seven pictures, though executed over several years, were intended to be seen together, presumably in a relatively small room. Five of them - Marriage, Extreme Unction, Confirmation, Ordination and Eucharist - are now at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, hung in different places in the house; the sixth, Baptism, is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington; and the seventh, Penance, was lost in the fire which destroyed Belvoir in 1816. It is difficult to know whether Poussin worked out his artistic theories after he had solved his problems on canvas, or whether he thought in the abstract and tried to prove his point by painting to a chosen formula. Whatever the explanation, the result was an extremely cerebral approach, epitomized by this first set of Sacraments.

In spite of his great rigidity of theory, and in spite of some very dry pictures in which there seems to be little feeling of any kind, a surprisingly large number of Poussin's best pictures are tense with emotion. This is nowhere better seen than in the first set of Sacraments: it is as if all Poussin's energies and ideas are concentrated in these relatively small canvasses.

The Sacraments, a microcosm of Poussin's art, reveal his working methods. It is known that he kept a small box rather like a miniature theatre, in which he arranged wax models and altered the lighting in order to help him with the layout of his complex compositions. He then made numerous rough drawings, trying out the compositions until the final solution was reached. It is easy to see that all the interior scenes of the Sacraments are arranged like a theatrical tableau, which gives them their curiously static quality and enhances their gravity.

The Sacrament of Ordination: 1636-40

Poussin painted for Cassiano dal Pozzo the series of the Seven Sacraments, which came to England in the eighteenth century, and of which five are still in the collection of the Duke of Rutland. In the Ordination the influence of Raphael is apparent; since the design and the types are taken closely from the tapestry Feed my Sheep. But it is important to notice that Poussin is now turning to the more classical Raphael of 1515 and not to the style of the masters very last years.

Landscape with Saint Matthew and the Angel: ca 1645

In the Campanian landscape Matthew the Evangelist is sitting on a stone amongst the ruins of ancient buildings, harkening to an angel who stands before him. A painting of Saint John on Patmos, of similar design and equal size, in the Art Institute of Chicago was originally a companion-piece to the one in Berlin; they probably formed part of an unfinished series of landscapes with the four Evangelists. The two paintings appear to have parted company at an early stage. Unforeseen circumstances seem to have prevented the completion of the series. Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who presumably commissioned Poussin to paint the pictures (this work is mentioned in an inventory of the Palazzo Barberini of 1692), was forced to flee Rome in 1645, following the death of his uncle, Pope Urban VIII; this would have been reason enough for the painter to leave the series unfinished, in which case the Saint Matthew landscape must have been the only one the Cardinal actually received, and the second picture sold to another buyer. This would suggest that both pictures were painted before or around 1645, this date being borne out by the development of Poussin's style, for he had just returned to Italy after a luckless interlude as Court painter in Paris.

In the Berlin painting Poussin has introduced realistic impressions of nature, deriving ostensibly from the Tiber valley at Aqua Acetosa not far from Rome. But there is no question of an exact reproduction of the topographical features, such as the North European artists in Italy so often tried to achieve. As in all Poussin's works, the composition here is essentially imaginative: the double bend of the river conveys the full depth of the valley, while the soaring tower of a distant ruin is the dominant vertical feature of the landscape, lending emphasis to the quiet dialogue between Evangelist and angel; his own features shaded, Matthew looks up at the divine messenger who stands bathed in a bright light. The remains of the building material, stones cut in cubic and cylindrical forms, not only provide depth and perspective but also lend a note of gravity to this heroic landscape, and are so placed as to achieve the maximum artistic effect.

At the end of the eighteenth century this painting formed part of a legacy to the Colonna di Sciarra family, and its presence in their palazzo was confirmed in 1820. In 1873 it was acquired for the Berlin Gallery.

Landscape with Diogenes: ca 1647

Whereas the mood of the London Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake is intentionally severe, the Landscape with Diogenes in the Louvre is much lighter in tone and mood. In it the well-known story of Diogenes, the humble philosopher, is depicted. Rejecting all worldly goods, he even throws away his last remaining possession, his drinking cup, when he sees a man drinking water from a stream by cupping his hands. The philosopher's final return to and communion with nature are expressed perfectly in the naturalistic landscape, and although there is a good deal of calculation in the placing of the tree silhouettes, it is the delicacy of each element and the subtle tonality of yellows and greens which dominate. Of all Poussin's work, this type of picture was imitated the least.

Landscape with Polyphemus: 1648

This picture marks the beginning of Poussin's final period that in which poetry rises to an all-embracing feeling for the world - still, however, interpreted through a mythological guise.

The subject was borrowed from "Metamorphoses" by Ovid. A terrible one-eyed giant Polyphemus enamored of nymph Galathea is singing of his love on a pipe.

The Seven Sacraments: Eucharist (1647)

For Paris intellectuals Poussin produced during the ten years after his return to Rome the paintings which were regarded in his own time as his most perfect, and which are now considered to be among the purest embodiments of French classicism. To this group belong the second series of Sacraments, executed for Paul Freart de Chantelou, a civil servant, between 1644 and 1648.

The second series of Sacraments have a solemnity wholly lacking in the more picturesque first series. This is perhaps most apparent in the Eucharist, one of Poussin's most severe compositions. The scene is set in a room of the utmost simplicity, without ornament, and articulated only with plain Doric pilasters. The Apostles are shown lying on couches round the table and are dressed in Roman togas. The artist has chosen a moment which enables him to combine the two main themes which the subject involves: the dramatic and the sacramental. Christ has given the bread to the apostles and is about to bless the cup, but on the left of the composition we see the figure of Judas leaving the room. That is to say, Poussin represents primarily the institution of the Eucharist, but at the same time reminds the spectator of Christ's words: 'One of you shall betray me'. The double theme is made even clearer in the actions of the apostles, which are defined with great precision. Some are engaged in eating the bread; others show their realization of the significance of what is taking place by gestures of astonishment, while Saint John's expression of sorrow shows that he is thinking of Christ's words about Judas.

Formally Poussin has concentrated his group into a symmetrical relief pattern. His choice of a low view-point has enabled him to foreshorten the front apostles, so that they form a compact group with those on the other side of the table.

The Seven Sacraments: Marriage (1647-48)

This painting is one of the second set of Sacraments, painted for Poussin's faithful friend, Freart de Chantelou. The second series differs from the first. Here everything is dense and taut; grays dominate a dark architectural setting from which occasional red and yellows glow impressively. Only Marriage with its garlands and luminous windows, displays any lightheartedness.

The Seven Sacraments: Confirmation (1645)

This painting is one of the second set of Sacraments, painted for Poussin's faithful friend, Freart de Chantelou.

Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake: 1648

Poussin was the innovator of Classical landscape, although only about a dozen of his pictures of this type survive. Their stylistic source was the Aldobrandini Lunettes by Annibale Carracci, assisted by Domenichino and Lanfranco. Poussin abandoned many of the Italians' concessions to realism and retreated into a totally artificial world devoid of subtle light or atmosphere. The earliest of the truly Classical landscapes is probably the Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake.

In this picture a drama is taking place, but it is not immediately apparent. It was Poussin's aim to bring about this realization slowly in the spectator, through contemplation. A man lies dead in the foreground in the coils of a snake, and another man has come across the spectacle and is fleeing in terror. In the background a woman reacts to the terror of the man in flight, and in turn her reaction is noticed by a fisherman. Poussin has depicted a series of emotions in this extensive panorama which is painted in dense blues, greens and browns. The gloom of the scene is intended to provoke the spectator to contemplate the triumph of nature over man.

The painting probably was painted for one of Poussin's main patrons, Pointel.

Landscape with Orpheus and Euridice: 1648

Less severe than the Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe is the Landscape with Orpheus and Euridice in the Louvre. Here the artist was dealing with a much less solemn subject, but even so the forms are rather hard. The whole has the feeling of having been put together in pieces like a jig-saw puzzle, rather than composed as a single entity as was the Diogenes, surely one of the most perfectly ordered but naturalistic landscapes ever painted.

Orpheus is a legendary Thracian poet, famous for his skill with the lyre. He married Eurydice, a wood nymph, and at her death descended into the underworld in an unsuccessful attempt to bring her back to earth.

Holy Family on the Steps: 1648

Dating from his mature period, this canvas reflects in its figural arrangement a thorough study of such High Renaissance artists as Raphael and Andrea del Sarto, while the background reveals Possin's genius in adapting classical architecture to a religious theme. Concerned with achieving a perfectly harmonized composition, the artist has contained the figures within a triangular format; the heads of the Virgin and the Christ Child being at the apex of this pyramid. Although Poussin, the son of a minor government official in Normandy, spent almost the whole of his adult life in Rome, he was held in the highest esteem in France, and more than any other single figure, influenced the course of the seventeenth-century French painting.

Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion: 1648

From 1648 come the two Phocion landscapes, the Funeral of Phocion and the Gathering of the Ashes of Phocion, now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Painted as a pair, both pictures are constructed exactly like a stage set. Perhaps it was because this way of creating a landscape was very theoretical that such compositions were imitated so widely; they were seen as the proper way to paint landscape - by construction rather than by observation. The scenes are of great tragedy: in one the good General Phocion has been wrongly accused by the citizens of Athens and sentenced to death, and in the other his grieving widow collects his ashes. The deep melancholy of these two pictures again indicates Poussin's determination to make the mind exercise thought rather than imagination.

Landscape with the Gathering of the Ashes of Phocion by his Widow: 1648

Perhaps it was because this way of creating a landscape was very theoretical that such compositions were imitated so widely; they were seen as the proper way to paint landscape - by construction rather than by observation. The scenes are of great tragedy: in one the good General Phocion has been wrongly accused by the citizens of Athens and sentenced to death, and in the other his grieving widow collects his ashes. The deep melancholy of these two pictures again indicates Poussin's determination to make the mind exercise thought rather than imagination.

Rebecca at the Well: ca 1648

Some of Poussin's pictures painted in the latter half of the 1640's can be dated. They include 'Rebecca at the Well', painted for Pointel in 1648, where the large scale and almost frozen quality of the figures is the same as that of the Edinburgh Sacraments. In such pictures Poussin seems to have lost the art of charging each figure with a living emotion, as he had done in the first set of Sacraments, and there is an increased gravity at the expense of humanity; but some people see this as the summit of Poussin's achievement just because it is such an extreme.

The biblical story depicted:

The patriarch Abraham, wishing to find a wife for his son Isaac, sent his servant Eliezer, to look for a suitable bride among his own kindred in Mesopotamia, rather than among the people of Canaan where he lived. When the servant reached the city of Nahor in Chaldea he prayed for guidance, asking that whoever gave him and his camels water at the well would be an eligible woman. This proved to be Rebecca, a virgin, one of the family of Abraham through his brother Nahor. She invited Eliezer to drink from her jar, and drew water for his camels. Eliezer gave his presents of gold and received hospitality at her parents' house. He then took her back to Canaan.

A Roman Road: 1648

It is assumed by some scholars that this painting is not authentic, it is only a later copy of the lost original, painted in 1648 by Poussin.

Self-Portrait: 1649

This is an earlier version of the self-portrait, executed in 1650, now in the Louvre. Poussin had done the earlier version to replace a disappointing portrait of himself which his Parisian patrons commissioned from a Roman artist.

The most conspicuous motif of the earlier self-portrait is the "memento mori". The artist present himself before a sepulchral monument - anticipating his own - flanked by putti; the expression on his face is almost cheerful. Viewed from a distance he appears to be smiling, while his head, inclined slightly to one side, suggest a melancholic mood. Cheerfulness in the face of death demonstrated the composure of the Stoics, a philosophy for which Poussin had some sympathy.

The Judgment of Solomon: 1649

Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba, and third king of united Israel; his wisdom was proverbial. Solomon's rein saw the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem.

According to the biblical story Solomon was called upon to judge between the claims of two prostitutes who dwelt in one house, each of whom had given birth to a child at the same time. One infant had died and each woman then claimed that the other belonged to her. To determine the truth the king ordered a sword to be brought, saying, 'Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.' At this, the true mother revealed herself by renouncing her claim to the child in order that its life might be spared. The child was restored to her.

The scene, widely depicted in Christian art, shows Solomon on his throne, the two suppliant women before him. An executioner stands holding the living child aloft in one hand, with a sword in the other. The dead child lies in the hand of one of the women. The subject was made to prefigure the 'Last Judgment', and came to be used as a symbol of Justice in a wider sense.

There are many preparatory drawings to this painting in various French museums.

The Assumption of the Virgin: 1650

This is perhaps the most popular painting of the artist. There are many copies, enlarged or adapted versions from the 19th century in various churches in France.

Self-Portrait: 1650

In the self-portrait at the Louvre the artist, wearing a dark green gown and with a stole thrown over his shoulders, is shown in a slightly different pose than in the earlier version in Berlin: posture is erect, his head turned to present an almost full-face view. His facial expression is more solemn, but also less decided. Instead of funeral symbolism, the setting is the artist's studio, lent strangely abstract quality by a staggered arrangement of three framed canvases, one behind the other, whose quadratic structure is echoed by the dark doorframe behind them. It is apparent that the canvas nearest to us is empty, except for a painted inscription. At the left on the second canvas there is a woman in front of a landscape, wearing a diadem with an eye; a man's hands are reaching out to hold her shoulders. This has been interpreted as an allegory: painting crowned as the greatest of arts.

A tiny but highly significant detail is the ring Poussin is wearing on the little finger of his right hand, which rests on a fastened portfolio. The stone is cut in a four-sided pyramid. As an emblematic motif, this symbolized the Stoic notion of Constantia, or stability and strength of character.


Strormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe: 1651

The two Phocion landscapes are extreme, but Poussin was to take his ideas even further, in such almost black pictures as the Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe in the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut at Frankfurt. In this picture the thoughts of the artist are so prominent that the spectator is denied any form of visual pleasure, and it requires a great deal of mental effort to contemplate it.

This painting is one of the few large-scale works of the master. It depicts the story of Pyramus and Thisbe as Ovid tells in Metamorphoses. The lovers, forbidden by their parents to marry, planned to meet in secret one night beside a spring. Thisbe arrived first but as she waited a lioness, fresh from a kill, came to quench its thirst, its jaws dripping blood. Thisbe fled, in her haste dropping her cloak which the beast proceeded to tear to shreds. When Pyramus arrived and discovered the bloody garment he believed the worst. Blaming himself for his lover's supposed death he plunged his sword into his side. Thisbe returned to find her lover dying and so, taking his sword, threw herself upon it. This story became widely popular in post-Renaissance painting.

The Exposition of Moses: ca 1650

Poussin illustrated events from the life of Moses at least nineteen times. It has been pointed out that when he could, he avoided painting scenes of saintly visions or martyrdoms, the stock-in-trade of seventeenth-century religious art. He concentrated instead on the central themes of Christianity, relating them both to their historical context in the Ancient Near East and to the basic tenets of other religions, following an intellectual fashion of the day. Of the Old Testament subjects which he painted, the majority belong to the category of types, or prefigurations, of Salvation.

From Early Christian times the Old Testament was read by Christians for its analogies with the New. Thus the waters of the Nile to which the infant Moses is consigned by his mother in 'an ark of bulrushes', following Pharaoh's cruel order to drown all the male Israelite babies (Exodus 1:2), were likened to the waters of baptism. But Poussin's interest in Moses may have been prompted also by his identification with pagan deities; as a contemporary writer influenced by these ideas wrote of this picture: 'He is Moses, the Mosche of the Hebrews, the Pan of the Arcadians, the Priapus of the Hellespont, the Anubis of the Egyptians.'

All these ideas reverberate throughout the painting. The baby on whom Pharaoh's daughter has taken pity resembles the Christ Child blessing the Magi or the shepherds in a scene of the Adoration. In the background on the left an Egyptian priest worships the dog-shaped god Anubis (barely visible now that the surface paint has grown thin and transparent). We know we are in Egypt because on the rock above the main scene a river god, symbolizing the Nile, embraces a sphinx, palm trees stand on the shore and an obelisk rises up behind a stately temple. (Curiously, the many-windowed buildings with which Poussin, who had never been there, endows Pharaoh's country now resemble modern resort hotels.)

The main interest and beauty of the painting, however, do not reside in its possible symbolism, but in the wonderful grouping of the figures, all women to contrast with an analogous group of men in 'Christ healing the Blind Man' (now in the Louvre), painted for the same patron the year before. Each plays her role in the dramatic tale, the princess generous and commanding, and the maids curious and delighted. The humbler figure in a white shift at Moses' head may be his sister who watched from nearby to see what would happen to him, and recommended their mother to Pharaoh's daughter as a wet nurse. It is tempting to see their brilliant draperies as a compliment to Poussin's patron, the Lyon silk merchant Reynon. Bodies and color each distinct and separate combine in ample rhythms across the picture surface, echoed by the rocks beyond. It is at once solemn and joyful, as befits a scene in which a child is rescued from death, and through him an entire people is saved.

The Finding of Moses: 1651

This subject is rather rare in painting.

The Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth and John the Baptist: ca 1655

A motionless quality is found in the few classical paintings of Poussin's last years, such as the Holy Families. The most striking of these is one with almost life-size figures in the Hermitage, probably finished in 1655. The last vestiges of action and expression have gone. The only figure to make any gesture at all is the infant Saint John, who holds out his hands. The other figures are lost in a marble stillness, which gives a sort of abstract grandeur to the composition.

Hagar and the Angel: ca 1660

The unusual format and the distinctive asymmetrical composition of the scene, with Hagar seeming to exit the painting, are characteristic of the last phase of Poussin's career. Likewise, the uncertain and tremulous brushwork, which gives figures and objects evanescence, derives to the illness of the aging painter who was no longer able to hold the brush as firmly as he previously had. Far from the serene visions of the artist's youthful periods, this extraordinary landscape is described as menacing and inhospitable with looming black clouds and wild vegetation. Almost lost among these, and scarcely visible, the tiny figure of Hagar moves. Pregnant by Abraham, driven out of her village by the jealous Sarah, she seems here almost annihilated by the power of the nature which surrounds her. The only note of color is the luminous angel above, who orders Hagar to turn around and retrace her steps: he alone is illuminated by the sun, the source of life and symbol of Hagar's own fertility.

Landscape with Diana and Orion: 1660-64

Poussin in old age was the grand old man of French painters in Rome. Esteemed by all and collected by discerning connoisseurs, he was revered as the man who had elevated painting to a much more serious plane than many of his Italian contemporaries, whose stature was often that of a decorator. In the early 1660s, however, a great change, which has to be described as a totally new phase, came over Poussin's art. Only a few pictures from this period survive, the earliest of which is probably the Landscape with Diana and Orion.

The change is in the completely different handling of paint, which shows his preoccupation with surface texture, and a relaxation of mood. His sense of severity and order has disappeared and been replaced by a mood much more akin to the last works of Titian, such as the Diana and Actaeon in the National Gallery, London. In the New York picture the forms are less rigid than previously, and there is a return to the sense of rhythm last seen in his work of the 1630's. The landscape becomes a much more sensual interpretation of such types of painting as the Diogenes.

In Greek mythology Orion was a hunter of gigantic stature. Drunk with wine he once tried to rape a princess of Chios, but her father punished Orion by blinding him. An oracle told him to travel east to the furthest edge of the world where the rays of the rising sun would heal his sight. On his journey he passed the forge of Vulcan whence he carried off an apprentice named Cedalion to guide him on his way. In due course Orion's sight was restored.

Poussin shows the giant, bow in hand, striding through a wooded countryside towards a distant sea. Cedalion perches on his shoulders. Vulcan stands at the roadside pointing out the way. A cloud, wafting round Orion's face, suggests that his sight is veiled. Another myth tells how Orion eventually died at the hand of Diana who set his image among the stars. She is seen floating above him.

Summer (Ruth and Boaz): 1660-64

The Seasons, the four canvasses of Poussin's late period now in the Louvre, are an even more extreme personal statement than the 'Landscape with Diana and Orion'. They are the supreme expression, not in this case of mind over eye, but of praise for the beauty and grandeur of nature, now ordered by man, and now defeating man. Spring is luxuriant, Summer a fecund harvest, Autumn the gathering of mellow grapes and Winter the terrible deluge in which all mankind is overwhelmed and destroyed.

The biblical story depicted in Summer:

Ruth was a Moabite woman and great-grandmother of David, and therefore an ancestress of Christ, hence her place in Christina art. She was married to a Hebrew immigrant in Moab and after his death left her native land and went with her mother-in-law Naomi, to Bethlehem. Here she was allowed to glean the corn in the fields belonging to Boaz, a rich farmer and kinsman of Naomi. Ruth, true to her nature, maintained, on Naomi's advice, a modest demeanor among the young men working at the harvest. One night she went and lay at the feet of Boaz as he slept in the field. By this act Boaz saw her virtue and later decided to assume responsibilities towards her of a kinsman. In due course he married her.

Autumn: 1660-64

This painting is part of a series of four, entitled the Seasons. The pictures are a sequence, and they are hung in this way in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre.

Winter: 1660-64

The Seasons, the four canvasses of Poussin's late period now in the Louvre, are an even more extreme personal statement than the 'Landscape with Diana and Orion'. All Poussin's severity and pessimism seem to have disappeared in these paintings, to be replaced by a fusion of all the poetical leanings in his nature. They are the supreme expression, not in this case of mind over eye, but of praise for the beauty and grandeur of nature, now ordered by man, and now defeating man. Spring is luxuriant, Summer a fecund harvest, Autumn the gathering of mellow grapes and Winter the terrible deluge in which all mankind is overwhelmed and destroyed.

These pictures exist on a complex series of levels, and even the most unscholarly spectator must be aware that Poussin was trying to balance moods and ideas in a much more subtle and intricate way than usual. Firstly, the pictures are a sequence, and they are hung in this way in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre. Spring is cool in tone, Summer and Autumn are warm, and Winter is cold. Even this obvious modulation of tones has its own rhythm. In all but Winter man is seen in harmony with nature, especially in Spring, surely one of the most perfect evocations of Paradise since the subject was attempted by fifteenth-century Netherlands' painters.

Apollo and Daphne: 1664

Poussin returned in his last years to the painting of mythological stories, but in a spirit entirely different from that in which he had treated them in his early years. The Apollo and Daphne, left unfinished at his death, sums up all the strange features of Poussin's last phase: the wildness and grandeur of inanimate nature, the impassive calm of the human actors, here more than ever like wax images, and the other-worldly atmosphere in which they live. These are no longer the gods and goddesses of Ovid, subject to the passions of the flesh. They are symbols created by the mind of the artist, existing in a world of pure intellect.

Source: Web Gallery of Art

Source: Art Renewal Center

This page is the work of Senex Magister

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