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Nicolas Poussin Artworks

French Painter

Nicolas Poussin Photo
Movements and Styles: The Baroque, Naturalism

Born: June 1594 - Les Andelys, Normandy

Died: 19 November 1665 - Rome, Papal States

Artworks by Nicolas Poussin

The below artworks are the most important by Nicolas Poussin - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Dance to the Music of Time (1634)

Dance to the Music of Time (1634)

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.

The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1637-8)

The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1637-8)

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.

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Et In Arcadia Ego (1637)

Et In Arcadia Ego (1637)

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.

The Judgement of Solomon (1649)

The Judgement of Solomon (1649)

Solomon, the third King of Israel, was the son of David and Bathsheba, and was renowned for his wisdom. According to the Old Testament, Solomon has been called to rule on the claims made by two prostitutes (living in the same house) who had given birth at the same time. One of the infants has died (its body is held in the arms of the woman on the right) and the women are contesting the parentage of the living child (held up by the ankle, behind the woman on the left, by a sword wielding soldier). Solomon decrees that the surviving child should be cut in two (each woman taking a half). Upon hearing the judgement, the child's true mother forsakes her maternal claims on the child in order to spare the child's life. This gesture - or maternal cry - reveals the identity of the rightful parent to the wise King Solomon and the child is restored to its just mother.

Symmetric unity is a characteristic of many of Poussin's paintings. We see that here in the way the columns, the door frames, and the base lines of the pavement form a pyramidal composition. The untidy baying factions on either side of the King even form a congruent mirror effect. Meanwhile, King Solomon, in effect the painting's geometric axis, and with his slightly elevated hands, contributes both to the compositional balance and to the thematic element of the painting which alludes to the balance of objective justice. Indeed, Poussin's precise compositional organization creates a sense of closure in the same way Solomon's stoic intelligence has brought judicial closure. In addition to the Biblical narrative, Poussin references Greek and Roman antiquity which is redolent in the clothes, helmets, shields, columns and the frieze that adorns the throne. (There are many preparatory drawings to this painting to be found in various French museums.)

Self-Portrait (1650)

Self-Portrait (1650)

Poussin was approached by his friend and patron Paul Fréart de Chantelou to make a portrait for the foundation of the French Academy in 1648. Poussin agreed but, given his general feelings of distain towards his Roman contemporaries, he chose to produce a self-portrait. He produced a first version in 1649 modelled on a friend's tomb (a memento mori) but it is the second that has drawn most interest from historians. Poussin presents himself in a dark gown with a stole thrown over his shoulders. His posture is upright, and his head is turned towards us in almost full-face view. His expression is intense, and the setting is the artist's own studio.

The image is lent a somewhat intangible quality by an arrangement of three framed canvases that provide the painting with a quadratic structure (that structure is merely reinforced by the doorframe in the background). The canvas nearest us is unpainted except for an inscription that reads: "Portrayal of Nicolas Poussin of Les Andalys, done at Rome during the Jubilee Year of 1650, aged 56 years."

To our left, a second canvas shows a woman in front of a landscape. She is wearing a diadem (crown) with what looks like an eye at its centre. Its meaning remains ambiguous, but it has been interpreted as an allegory: painting deserved to be "crowned" the highest of all the arts, and/or as a symbol of Amicitia - a treatise of friendship shared amongst Roman statesmen. A further detail of note is the ring Poussin wears on the little finger of his right hand which rests on a closed portfolio. The stone is cut in a four-sided pyramid: a symbol of the Stoic stability and strength of character. It is, however, Poussin's sadness and emotional vulnerability once he has stepped out from behind the cover (or "shield") of his canvases that leaves the lasting impression of the artist himself.

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Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun (1658)

Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun (1658)

Poussin, who produced Blind Orion at the request of Michel Passart, a collector of art and connoisseur of landscape painting, painted several impressive "late" landscapes. Some of his earlier landscapes, such as Landscape with Saint Jean at Patmos (1640), appear tranquil and orderly. The color scheme in the earlier style too is made up of light blues and rich contrasting colors, with the result that the paintings feel composed and still. In his later paintings, however, Poussin used darker colors and eddying cloud forms to represent more volatile weather conditions. His intention was to show the relationship between the natural environment and the mind and to use nature as a way to communicate difficult or untamed human emotions.

This painting, a spectacular example of Poussin's later landscapes, represents the narrative of the blind giant Orion, as told by the Greek writer Lucian (125-180 ACE). Art historian Mary Sprinson de Jesús comments that in this painting Poussin "appears to have surrendered control and lapsed momentarily in his love of order and geometry, permitting his imagination to lead him." We can see this from the richness of the landscape, in which clouds, trees and hills overwhelm the canvas. The sun named in the title begins to peak over the hill, but from where exactly is unclear. Unlike many of his earlier landscapes, the figures are not foregrounded and do not command our attention in the same way; rather, as Orion seems to be about to move from right to left, the spectator looks towards where he might be headed, rather than focus on his giant form. It is nature therefore that overwhelms the figures and represents through painting a new kind of psychic possibility.

Related Artists and Major Works

Oath of the Horatii (1784)

Oath of the Horatii (1784)

Movement: Neoclassicism (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Jacques Louis David (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This image depicts the Horatii, a Roman family, central of which are its three sons, dressed for battle, who extend their right arms in a gesture of allegiance toward their father who holds up three swords. They are about to go to war with brothers from a family of an opposing city. On the right, two women that have family on both sides, arms slack at their sides, swoon toward one another in an attitude of despair, fearing for those that will be killed. In the shadowed background, another woman dressed as if in mourning, consoles the children. The minimal setting with its three rising arches, opening into nearly black shadow, creates a feeling of somber resolve. The painting stresses the importance of patriotism and masculine self-sacrifice for one's country. It became a metaphor for the French Revolution, in which countrymen were enrolled in the idea of killing each other toward the greater good.

When the painting was exhibited at the 1785 Salon, David was acclaimed as the greatest French painter since Poussin. As art critic Roberta Smith wrote, the painting became, "a veritable cornerstone of Neoclassicism. It announced the triumphant return of the grand tradition of Poussinian history painting, and answered the prayers of critics who had been fulminating against the decadence of court painting for years, with Boucher as main scapegoat...[and] gave visual form to the ideas of the French Revolution before the fact."

David's work became widely influential, informing the work of the subsequent generation including Gros and Ingres, as well as influencing the Romantic artists Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault, even as their movement rebelled against Neoclassicism.

The Apotheosis of Homer (1827)

The Apotheosis of Homer (1827)

Artist: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

As the newly crowned defender of the academic tradition, Ingres was commissioned to decorate a ceiling in the Louvre to coincide with the opening of the Musée Charles X. This museum intended to demonstrate the cultural superiority of France and thereby reinforce the legitimacy of its monarch. Critical to this endeavor was the establishment of a continuum that stretched from the ancient world to modern-day France, and thus Ingres's Apotheosis of Homer became a project of political and cultural legitimization. Its pantheon of Western culture celebrates the lineage of classical thinkers and draws heavily from Raphael's School of Athens (1509-1511) from the papal apartments in Rome.

Where Raphael's work centered around a dialogue between Plato and Aristotle, Ingres's cultural celebration honors Homer as the originator of Western civilization. He sits in the center of the composition, crowned with a laurel wreath by Nike, the goddess of victory, and flanked by personifications of his two masterpieces, The Iliad (at left, a sword resting beside her) and The Odyssey (at right, an oar resting against her leg). Homer is surrounded by over 40 figures from the Western canon, including the Greek sculptor Phidias (holding a mallet), the great philosophers Socrates and Plato (turned toward each other in dialogue to the left of Phidias), Alexander the Great (at far right in golden armor), among others. Ingres also includes figures from more recent centuries; below Alexander the Great sits Michelangelo, drawing board in hand. William Shakespeare stands beside the painter Nicolas Poussin at bottom left, joined by Mozart and the poet Dantë. Ingres's hero and inspiration, Raphael is dressed in a dark tunic joining hands with the Greek painter Apelles and between them, a mostly obscured figure with a youthful face is allegedly a portrait of the young Ingres himself.

Whether or not this is a self-portrait, Ingres has clearly defined his cultural ancestry and affirmed the superiority of classical values. Art historian Andrew Carrington Shelton has labeled the Apotheosis a "highly personalized aesthetic manifesto." Not only did this support the reign of his patron, Charles X, but it also strengthened Ingres's claim as the modern representative of this tradition and its deep cultural significance. While some critics found the work to be formulaic and stiff, especially when compared to Delacroix's dynamic Death of Sardinapalus, shown in the 1827 Salon, it was also soundly defended by more politically and aesthetically conservative voices. Étienne Delécluze, a friend of Ingres and a highly regarded critic, upheld the Apotheosis as the expression of ideal beauty, directly comparing Ingres to the artists who are included in his painting. At a moment in culture when classical values were giving way to more bourgeois taste and politics - embodied by the revolutionary contemporaneity of Romantic painting - Ingres stakes his claim and aligns himself with the Académie and its heroes.

Quattro Stagioni. Part I: Primavera (1993-1994)

Quattro Stagioni. Part I: Primavera (1993-1994)

Artist: Cy Twombly (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Each painting in the Quattro Stagioni (A Painting in Four Parts) depicts a different season within the ongoing cycle of life, a frequent theme in the Classical and Renaissance work that Twombly so admired. In Primavera (Spring), Twombly applies bright red and yellow paint layered over lighter whites to suggest the vitality of spring's renewal. The image as a whole resembles the stem, leaves, and blossom of a flower. Individually, the curved shapes in red recall Egyptian rowboats, a motif he integrated into several paintings and sculptures after spending time in Egypt in the 1980s. Such boats would be appropriate here, as they were used in ritual for the deceased's transport to the afterlife and were thus a symbol, like spring, for new beginnings. The artist also includes the word "Primavera," along with joyful excerpts of poetry that he used to inspire himself to paint the colorful forms.


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