Born in Les Andelys, Normandy, and active in Paris from 1612 to 1623, Poussin, like many European artists of his generation, was drawn to Rome. He arrived there in 1624 an unformed painter, but would become a central figure for the Roman and European art of his time—despite the fact that he defined himself against the prevailing Baroque tastes of his adopted city and steadfastly followed his own artistic path. Poussin brought a new intellectual rigor to the classical impulse in art, as well as a unique, somewhat reticent poetry. His sensitivity to the nuances of gesture, design, color, and handling, which he varied according to the theme at hand, permitted him to bring a very focused expression to his art and to create for each narrative a memorable and enduring form. The wide range of his oeuvre includes scenes of subdued tenderness, bacchic revelry, mourning, righteous civic virtue, and other more difficult to identify states of mind or being.
In Rome, Poussin was welcomed into the lively group of intellectuals centered around Cassiano dal Pozzo, the remarkable archaeologist, philosopher, and naturalist employed by the Barberini family. Cassiano became Poussin’s close friend and patron, as well as a link to other well-placed collectors. His intense curiosity about the lives and thought of the early Greeks and Romans, and his dedication to recording the monuments of their civilization, would exert a strong influence on the young painter.
In 1628, with Cassiano’s help, Poussin received his only papal commission. The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, painted for the Church of Saint Peter (now Vatican Museums)—one of his largest and most Baroque compositions—was coolly received, and was followed by the loss of an important commission for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. At this point it became clear to Poussin that he would not be sought out to decorate the churches and palaces of Counter-Reformation Rome, and that this was not, in fact, where his real strength lay. The large, theatrical saints in ecstasy and scenes of apotheosis so popular at the time clearly struck no responsive chord in Poussin, and with remarkable vision and determination he set off in his own direction. Within the circle of Cassiano and for a small group of discerning patrons in France, he gradually developed an audience for the paintings of relatively modest size—rationally ordered, subdued, often exquisitely poetic works—for which he is now so well known.
Poussin’s Subject Matter
A man of extraordinary learning and intellectual sophistication in his own right, Poussin played a significant role in the choice of subject for many of his private commissions. Some are themes of his own invention or subjects that no previous artist chose to depict; frequently his paintings carry a moral or philosophical message, or draw attention to man’s precarious position in the universe. They are inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, ancient history, certain stories from the Old Testament, and—late in his career—the Seven Sacraments (The Confirmation, from the series of The Seven Sacraments, Collection of the Duke of Rutland, Belvoir Castle) conceived within the early Christian church. Toward the end of his life, he would create a group of transcendent landscapes with Stoical themes, including four paintings representing the Seasons, now in the Louvre, Paris. All of these subjects he painted with extraordinary empathy and near-identification. Although they might suggest conflicting systems of belief—pagan, Jewish, Christian, Stoic, pantheistic—Poussin seems to have taken on each type of narrative as an even-handed, respectful interpreter, representing each as a product of human culture and history and of our essential need to create order out of what might seem chaos. These pictures appear to be about “faith” as a phenomenon as much as they are about a particular faith.
During his first years in Rome, Poussin sampled many different artistic styles, but he chose his influences carefully. He was clearly impressed by the paintings of the great Venetian colorist Titian (ca. 1485/90?–1576), as well as by the friezes he found on Greco-Roman tombs. The wonderful little Rest on the Flight into Egypt may date as early as 1627 and reveals a clear debt to Titian. The playful horde of putti, the highly keyed reds, blues, and whites of the Virgin’s robe, and the intensely blue sky—as well as the optimistic spirit of the picture as a whole—reveal Poussin’s admiration for Titian’s Bacchanals, then in the Aldobrandini collection in Rome. What Poussin brings to the picture that we would not expect to find in a similar work by Titian is its intimacy (due in part to the small scale) and a very tender poetry.
The first painting by Poussin to be acquired by an American museum, Midas Washing at the Source of the Pactolus (ca. 1627), is one of many works by the artist inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The painterly handling is typical of Poussin’s earlier works and a stark contrast to the cleanly drawn and regimentally ordered pictures from his middle years such as The Abduction of the Sabine Women (ca. 1633–34). The composition of the Midas is beautifully and subtly laid out; it is deeply satisfying but does not call attention to itself. The same can be said for the picture’s subdued palette and fluid brushwork. In comparison to the dazzling altarpieces of his Baroque contemporaries, this painting is a “soft sell,” and reveals the independence of Poussin’s eye and mind. The story of Midas, the unfortunate king who asked Bacchus that all he touched be turned to gold, carries with it the aura of the earth at an earlier stage of development so common in Poussin’s mythological scenes, but also suggests—in its questioning of material wealth—the Stoicism that figures prominently in the artist’s later work and that was a true reflection of his character and way of life.
Tasso’s epic poem about the Crusades, Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), completed in 1575, was the source for a group of Poussin’s canvases from the early 1530s. These paintings have the gentle, otherworldly quality of a fairy tale—in spite of the fact that for Poussin, the appeal of the subject seems to have been the conflict between pleasure (or enchantment) and duty (the Crusades). In The Companions of Rinaldo, a picture once owned by Cassiano dal Pozzo, Rinaldo is out of sight in the lair of the sorceress Armida, and his companions, Carlo and Ubaldo, have come to rescue him from temptation and recall him to duty and more manly adventures. They have been ferried to the “Fortunate Isles” in the exotic little boat in the background, modeled after a similar vessel the artist must have known from a Roman sarcophagus. Their movements are exquisitely graceful, yet somehow tentative (they are hardly figures of impulsive determination), and the startling blue and copper of their costumes adds to the richness of their characterization. These fine young men, like so many of Poussin’s figures, seem to be poised for all time just so, frozen in pursuit, and this is part of their poignant charm.
It was not unusual for the artist to paint several versions of a subject, rethinking the composition and the expressive quality of the picture in the process; this was the case with Poussin’s two paintings of The Abduction of the Sabine Women, which have been described as scenes of “subdued mayhem.” Both paintings, with their powerfully opposing diagonals, are examples of the vigorous and assertive style that Poussin adopted for many of his scenes from ancient history. In what appears to be the earlier version (ca. 1633–34), he has dispersed the figures in several frieze like planes parallel to the foreground, and the architecture seems to stop the eye from moving back into the distance. In the version in the Louvre, from about 1637, the artist draws our eye into the distance with diagonals created by the architecture on the right, and he has taken pains to develop groups of figures here and there that introduce random diagonal elements into the center of the composition and bring a breath of fresh air to the tightly structured scene. It was to aid in the creation of such complex and carefully organized narratives that Poussin probably used the small stages with wax figures and painstakingly arranged draperies described by his contemporaries.
Poussin may well have used such a stage to plan the rigorous composition of Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man, a painting from 1655 that shows the artist responding to the imposing and solid classicism of Raphael’s School of Athens, a fresco of 1510 for the Stanza della Segnatura (Vatican, Rome). Raphael’s masterpiece was the source for a compositional type that Poussin returned to again and again, manipulating the conventions of classical art: the draped figures, rhetorical gestures, and architecture. Here these components are pared down to their most minimal, unadorned aspect. In a mute performance, the figures sit, stand, turn from and face us, gesturing expressively as they enact the narrative. With each painterly adjustment or formal decision, however, we sense the remarkable authority and spirit of invention that the artist brings to the sometimes rigid confines of the classical idiom. The intense blues, golds, and oranges employed here were inspired by the highly saturated colors discovered in Roman wall paintings by contemporary archaeologists.
Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun, from 1658, is among Poussin’s late masterpieces, and intuitive rather than systematic in design. The artist appears to have surrendered control and lapsed momentarily in his love of order and geometry, permitting his imagination to lead him. There is, nevertheless, a sureness to the composition that reveals the master hand and mind at work. Poussin apparently followed Natalis Comes’ sixteenth-century commentary on the story of Orion, which gives a meteorological interpretation of the myth. Beyond the specific roles played by the main characters—the giant Orion, Cedalion on his shoulders, and Diana in the clouds—the image of a blind and clearly vulnerable giant feeling his way across a vast primeval landscape with the aid of several benevolent smaller figures is extraordinarily touching. We know that he will find the rising sun and regain his sight with their help. In the midst of a pagan landscape, there is a sense that, beyond the myth of Orion, we may also be dealing with something approximating a vision of earthly as opposed to heavenly salvation, or the struggle of each individual human being to find his way. Poussin’s sight was weakening during the years he produced his late landscapes, and they have an almost pointillist technique, which is particularly well suited to their subject matter.
In a letter to his close friend and patron Paul Fréart de Chantelou, Poussin instructs us in appreciating his art. After hearing of Chantelou’s disappointment when he compared a more sober canvas he had just received from the artist with a more sensuous and pleasing painting he had made for another French collector, the artist patiently explained to him that various subjects made different demands on an artist, and required very different expressive means to properly fulfill them. Just as the Greeks created “Modes” to write music with a different spirit or mood for different contexts, Poussin tells his friend, so he, in a similar manner pursued his art, always seeking the design, handling, and formal means appropriate to a given subject. From such remarks developed the “Theory of the Modes” that has been linked with Poussin’s name since the seventeenth century, and which helps us to understand his artistic process. These remarks also reveal Poussin’s unusual self-awareness and his tendency to be analytical where his work was concerned.
Sometimes associated with an uncompromising, almost ascetic formalism, Poussin’s art is, in fact, a marriage of poetry and reason, sensibility and intellect, a balance of two aspects of one character. Sometimes they sit comfortably together in a finished work. Sometimes, in a particular painting, intellect or sensibility might prevail to a lesser or greater degree, not with unhappy consequences. We may even sense, in his more austere or sober productions, a renunciation: of elegy, tenderness, the world of the senses. One looks to these paintings as much to read the extraordinary character of their creator, as for their beauty and interest as works of art.
Poussin’s paintings would have a profound influence on many later artists, in particular such classical and classicizing painters as Jacques Louis David, Paul Cézanne, and Pablo Picasso.