Les Andelys, Normandy
Rome, Papal States
Summary of Nicolas Poussin
A Frenchman who spent almost his entire working life in Rome, Nicolas Poussin is considered the founder of the French classical tradition. He specialized in scenes from the Bible, ancient history, and mythology and his canvases are revered for their narrative intensity and their rational and ordered approach to composition. Poussin is admired for his strong use of color and his inclination to prioritize the cerebral over the emotional. He was able to demonstrate that art could be an intellectual pursuit and through his layering of meaning he produced paintings of extraordinary dramatic depth and allegorical complexity. Towards the latter part of his career, Poussin's art submitted to a further transformation as he diversified to depict landscapes and a series of pantheistic allegories that were expressed through the harmonious forces of nature. Though his reputation was downgraded in the first half of the 18th century, Poussin enjoyed something of a rebirth in the second half of that century when the Neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David and his followers championed Poussin's style above all other Classicists. Poussin's reputation has remained buoyant ever since.
- By the early 1630s, Poussin had rejected the expressive Mannerist style in favor of a more controlled approach to composition. Taking his lead from Classicism and Raphael over Venice and Titian, Poussin demonstrated his aspiration to use painting to communicate concepts and ideals through the fusion of different mythological and classical themes. He wanted his paintings to engage the spectator by making extra demands of their powers of reflection.
- Poussin developed and practiced a highly symmetric approach. His precise geometrical organization, coupled with visual allegories, borrowed from the Hellenic philosophy of Stoicism. Poussin wanted to convey universal ideas about human experience and existence. He believed that we are all subject to forces outside our control and the only way to a contented existence was through logical thought and personal self-control.
- In his later paintings Poussin turned to a darker palette and freer compositional formations to represent the relationship between the natural environment and the mind. He painted expressive landscapes as a way of communicating conflicted or untamed human emotions. Poussin hoped that this would bring about a higher cerebral connection with his spectator.
Biography of Nicolas Poussin
Nicolas Poussin was born near the town in Les Andelys in Normandy in 1594. He was the child of a noble family who had fallen on hard times. He was schooled in many subjects, including Latin and letters, but showed a talent for drawing (he was apparently scolded by his teachers for doodling in his books). The French Baroque painter Quentin Varin came across his work whilst passing through Poussin's town and encouraged him to go into painting professionally. His parents, however, did not agree which led the young Poussin to run away to Paris in 1612 aged just 18.
Important Art by Nicolas Poussin
Dance to the Music of Time was commissioned by the future Pope Clement IX, Giulio Rospigliosi, Poussin's most important patron during his early years in Rome. Rospigliosi was also a gifted opera lyricist and the painting has been read as reflecting the patron's interest in music (and dance). At the same time, this painting is seen as one of Poussin's most famous allegorical works. It represents the theme of the passing of time and the cycles of life; the four figures representing the wheel of human fortune: Poverty, Labor, Riches, and Pleasure. Labor leads one out of poverty onto riches which lead to pleasure. To become spoiled by the excesses of pleasure, however, only leads one back to poverty.
The figures' differences are represented through their clothing and positioning (Poverty being the male figure in black with his back fully turned towards the spectator). The elderly, bearded man on the right-hand side is recognizable as Father Time, though, possibly to please Rospigliosi, Poussin has swapped his traditional scythe for Orpheus's lyre. To reinforce the themes of the painting, Poussin places one small putto with an hour glass at Time's feet, while mirroring him on the left of the picture plane, another putto is shown blowing bubbles (a pictorial symbol of the fragility of man according to ancient mythology). Above in the heavens, meanwhile, we see Apollo riding his chariot (a symbol of the rising sun) indicating the passing of days. Bacchus, the God of wine and intoxication, finally, represented as both a young and old man in the herm on the left, faces Pleasure (possibly by way of a warning).
Through Poussin's fusion of different mythological and representative figures, this painting demands that the spectator call on his/her intellect to decode its meaning. Indeed, though he represented myths in many of his narrative works, Dance to the Music of Time shows Poussin's aspiration to use narrative painting to also communicate concepts and ideals.
In this striking, and influential, painting (of which there are two versions) Poussin drew on Roman mythology to depict a scene of mass panic in which a man (Romulus) gives the order for the young women in this town square to be seized by Roman soldiers. This story was very popular during the Renaissance and was painted by many painters, including Pietro da Cortona and the Frenchman Jacques Stella (an acquaintance of Poussin's). Over the years, several painters used Poussin's work as a study piece. Degas for instance would copy the version of the painting hanging in the Louvre, noting (in 1853) that "it is only after proving yourself a good copyist that you should reasonably be permitted to draw a radish from nature."
In this, the second version, Poussin focusses on the architecture and setting in order to contrast the disorder of the crowd with the apparent simplicity of the buildings. Though at first the painting may look overcrowded, once the spectator follows each individual confrontation, it becomes clear that Poussin meticulously planned the position of each person. Moreover, the perspective of the buildings draws our eye further into the painting, as if to suggest that these atrocities may be happening across town. The sumptuous colors of the robes offer a ghoulish contrast against the aggressions of the Roman soldiers.
Rospigliosi also commissioned this piece, also known as The Arcadian Shepherds, which is quite possibly Poussin's most famous masterpiece. Four shepherds stand around a tomb in this pastoral scene. The concept of an Arcadia comes from the idealised location named by the poet Virgil; it is supposed to denote a beautiful country paradise. However, Poussin contrasts this blissful idyll with the presence of a tomb. The crouching figure traces the words "Et in Arcadia Ego" meaning, "Even in Arcadia; I am there" suggesting that death knows no bounds; even in the most heavenly of settings. The shepherd on the right, who looks away and out of the frame, appears shocked and nervous, as if he is struggling to come to terms with his own mortality.
Like Dance to the Music of Time, Poussin uses his painting to communicate universal ideas about human experience through visual allegories. Here, we see Poussin's interest in the Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism, founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The philosophy promotes the idea that life is so unpredictable that we cannot control external events. Our time on this earth is fleeting and it is logic and self-control, rather than destructive emotions, that brings contentment and happiness. Stoicism doesn't then concern itself with theoretical musings and circular debates, but rather with overcoming destructive fears and anxieties, and ultimately to have the wisdow to act only on what can actually be acted upon.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Nicolas Poussin
- Nicolas Poussin: Dialectics of PaintingBy Oskar Batschmann
- Nicolas PoussinBy Richard Verdi
- Nicolas PoussinBy Anthony Blunt
- Commemorating Poussin: Reception and Interpretation of the ArtistOur PickEdited by Kate Scott and Genevieve Warwick