(b. 1594, Les Andelys, d. 1665, Roma)
French painter, a leader of pictorial classicism in the Baroque period. Except for two years as court painter to Louis XIII, he spent his entire career in Rome. His paintings of scenes from the Bible and from Greco-Roman antiquity influenced generations of French painters, including Jacques-Louis David, J.-A.-D. Ingres, and Paul Cézanne.
Childhood and early travels
Poussin was born in a small hamlet on the Seine River, the son of small farmers. He was educated at the nearby town of Les Andelys, and he apparently did not show any interest in the arts until the painter Quentin Varin visited the village in 1612 to produce several paintings for the Church of Le Grand Andely. Poussin's interest in the arts was awakened, and he decided to become a painter. As this was impossible in Les Andelys, he left his home, going first to Rouen and then to Paris to find a suitable teacher. His poverty and ignorance made this search very difficult. He found no satisfactory master and studied at different times under several minor painters. During this period Poussin endured great hardships and had to return to his paternal home, where he arrived ill and humiliated.
Recovering after a year, Poussin again set out for Paris, not only to continue his studies but also to pursue another aim. While previously in Paris, he had been exposed to the art of the Italian High Renaissance through reproductions of Raphael's paintings. These engravings, according to his biographer Giovanni Battista Passeri, inspired him to go to Rome, which was then the centre of the European art world. But only in 1624 was Poussin successful in reaching Rome, with the help of Giambattista Marino, the Italian court poet to Marie de Médicis.
First Roman period
Marino commissioned Poussin to make a series of mythological drawings illustrating Ovid's Metamorphoses. Poussin meanwhile experimented with various painting styles then current in Rome, an important influence being that of the Bolognese painter Domenichino. Poussin's culminating work of this period was a large altarpiece for St. Peter's representing the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus (1629). But it was a comparative failure with the artistic community in Rome, and Poussin never again tried to compete with the Italian masters of the Baroque style on their own ground. Thereafter he would paint only for private patrons and would confine his work to formats rarely larger than five feet in length.
Between Poussin's arrival in Rome in 1624 and his departure for France in 1640 he came to know many of Rome's most influential people, among them Cassiano dal Pozzo, secretary to Cardinal Barberini, whose rich collection of ancient Roman artifacts had a decisive influence upon Poussin's art. Through Pozzo, who became Poussin's patron, the French painter became a fervent admirer of ancient Roman civilization. From about 1629 to 1633 Poussin took his themes from classical mythology and from Torquato Tasso, and his painterly style became more romantic and poetic under the influence of such Venetian masters as Titian. Such examples of his work at this time as The Arcadian Shepherds and Rinaldo and Armida have sensuous, glowing colours and manage to communicate a true feeling for pagan antiquity.
In the mid-1630s Poussin began deliberately to turn toward Raphael and Roman antiquity for his inspiration and to evolve the purely classical idiom that he was to retain for the rest of his life. He also began painting religious themes once more. He began with stories that offered a good pageant, such as The Worship of the Golden Calf and The Rape of the Sabine Women. He went on to choose incidents of deeper moral significance in which human reactions to a given situation constitute the main interest. The most important works that exemplify this phase are those in the series of Seven Sacraments painted in 1634-42 for Pozzo. While other artists painted in the style of the Roman Baroque, Poussin tried in these works to fashion a style marked by classical clarity and monumentality. This style was inspired by Roman pre-Christian architecture and Latin books on moral conduct, as well as by the nobility and greatness of Raphael's works, which, as he believed, had renewed the spirit of antiquity.
Painter to Louis XIII
Between 1638 and 1639 Poussin's achievements in Rome attracted the attention of the French court. Louis XIII's powerful minister Cardinal Richelieu tried to persuade Poussin to return to France. Eventually Poussin reluctantly acceded to this request, journeying to Paris in 1640. Though received with great honours, Poussin nevertheless soon found himself in trouble with the ministers of the king as well as with the French artists, whom he met with the utmost arrogance. He was offered commissions for kinds of work he was not used to nor really qualified to execute, including altarpieces and the decoration of the Grande Galérie of the Louvre palace. What he produced did not elicit the praise he expected, so he left Paris in defeat in 1642 and returned to Rome. Unfortunately he did not live to see his own style of painting accepted and eventually glorified by the French Academy in the late 17th century.
Second Roman period
Many of Poussin's paintings on religious and ancient Roman subjects done in the 1640s and '50s are concerned with moments of crisis or difficult moral choice, and his heroes are those who reject vice and the pleasures of the senses in favour of virtue and the dictates of reason - e.g., Coriolanus, Scipio, Phocion, and Diogenes. Poussin's painterly style was consciously calculated to express such a mood of austere rectitude: such solemn religious works as Holy Family on the Steps (1648) exhibit only a few figures, painted in harsh colours against the severest possible background. In the landscapes Poussin began painting at this time, such as Landscape with the Body of Phocion Carried out of Athens and Landscape with Polyphemus, the disorder of nature is reduced to the order of geometry, and the forms of trees and shrubs are made to approach the condition of architecture. The composition in these paintings is worked out very carefully and has an unusual clarity of structure.
Poussin's health declined from 1660 onward, and early in 1665 he ceased to paint. He died that year and was buried in San Lorenzo in Lucina, his Roman parish church.
Poussin believed in reason as the guiding principle of art, yet his figures are never merely cold or lifeless. They may resemble figures used by Raphael or ancient Roman sculptures in their poses, but they retain a strange and unmistakable vitality of their own. Even in Poussin's late period, when all movement, including gesture and facial expression, had been reduced to a minimum, his forms harmoniously combine vitality with intellectual order.