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Nicolas Poussin

French Painter

Nicolas Poussin Photo
Movements and Styles: The Baroque, Naturalism

Born: June 1594 - Les Andelys, Normandy

Died: 19 November 1665 - Rome, Papal States

"I fear the malignity of our times. Virtue, conscience and religion are banished among men. Nothing but vice, trickery and self-interest reign. All is lost. I have lost hope in the existence of Good. Everything is filled with evil."

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.

Key Ideas

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.
Nicolas Poussin Photo

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.

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