POUSSIN, Nicolas
(b. 1594, Les Andelys, d. 1665, Roma)

The Seven Sacraments I: Baptism

Oil on canvas, 96 x 121 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

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 1630s 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 1630s, 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.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.