Nicolas was born at Les Andelys in Normandy to Jean Poussin and Marie Delaisement, the daughter of a judge. He was probably trained at Rouen, with Noël Jouvenet, and later, according to Bellori, he made contact with the Parisian environment where he carefully studied engravings based on Raphael’s paintings. In the capital Poussin frequented the studios of Elle le Vieux and Georges Lallemand. In 1616 he set off for Rome, but had to interrupt his journey in Florence in order to return to Paris. There he did six large tempera paintings for the Jesuits that have since been lost. Those works earned him the protection of Cavalier Marino who invited him to Rome in 1623 and introduced him to Sacchetti and Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII. His first known works date from the Roman period, where he created his own form of classicism that only in part reflected the contemporary artistic trends of the city. In 1626, the year he shared lodgings with the sculptor François Douquesnoy, Cardinal Barberini commissioned him to paint The Death of Germanicus (Minneapolis) that he completed in 1628. In that painting we can see the influence of his studies on tone in Venice that he furthered in Titian’s Bacchanals in the Aldobrandini collection. During that period he also painted The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus for St. Peter’s, the only “public” commission he had in Rome. In September 1630 he married Anna Maria Dughet, daughter of his landlord, Jacques the cook and sister of the painter Gaspard; in 1631 he was accepted as a member of the Accademia di San Luca. Even though he worked for a limited circle of admirers that included Cassiano dal Pozzo for whom he painted the famous cycle of The Seven Sacraments between 1637 and 1639, his fame spread to France where he painted four Bacchanals, (1636) for Richelieu. Nicolas was back in Paris from 1640 to 1642 and Louis XIII appointed him “first painter to the king.” In spite of that honor, Poussin went back to Rome. Though dominated by a quest for compositional harmony and “ideal beauty”, his paintings from this period became increasingly solemn even in his renderings of landscapes a genre that he painted frequently during this phase. In 1657 Poussin turned down the position of “Prince of the Accademia di San Luca” once again revealing his desire to remain aloof from the Roman ambient. He died in Rome on 19 November 1665.
The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites
In 1625, after the death of his first Italian patron and protector, the poet Marino, and the departure of Cardinal Barberini, the young Poussin had to contend with a period of severe crises that forced him to sell a series of paintings that included three Biblical battles for a very modest sum. The theme of this painting – that is quite rare – is based on Exodus 17: 8-13; it portrays Joshua fighting against Amalek while Moses prays on the hill. When Moses would lower his arms the enemy would prevail and for this reason Aaron and Hur are shown supporting the patriarch’s arms until sunset and victory. The companion piece to this painting is The Victory of Joshua over the Amorites. Both reflect the artist’s careful studies of classic sculpture and the works of Raphael and his school, specifically the Battle in the Vatican.Iconography
The Death of Germanicus
This is one of Poussin’s most famous paintings that was commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Barberini in 1626 to be completed in 1628. It was this painting that thrust the artist into the limelight of Roman artistic circles and it soon became one of the canonical models for the new demands of post-Carracci classicism. Inspired by The Annals of Tacitus, the painting combines the idea of a strong, ethical heroic image and archeological research. The commander and son of Nero Claudius Drusus, was nicknamed Germanicus because of his victories on German soil; he was sent to Syria by his adoptive father, Tiberius who –out of jealousy - had him poisoned by the governor Piso. Like a bas-relief, Poussin depicted the moment in which Germanicus, on his deathbed, asked his men to avenge his fate.
The Triumph of David
The essence of the new concept of the painting-theater relationship that we see in The Plague at Ashdod returns in The Triumph of David, a painting permeated with the classicist scenic impulse derived from the lessons of Palladio and Serlio. Here too we can see some pentimenti, especially in the architecture. In spite of its high quality, the painting is not mentioned in early sources and we only know of its fate from the end of the XVIII century on. Certain details, such as the realism of some faces raised some doubts about Poussin’s hand in favor of Mellin who imitated his style around 1631-1635. The majority of the critics, however, agree that it was done by the master from Les Andelys.Iconography
Midas Bathing in the River Pactolus
The story of King Midas, based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses seems to have greatly interested Poussin during the early part of his career; perhaps he was fascinated by men favored by destiny. Bacchus had given Midas the “golden touch” so that anything he touched turned to gold. When he was close to dying of hunger and thirst, he begged the god to release him from that “gift” that had quickly become a curse, so Bacchus ordered him to wash in the River Pactolus which, since that time has been a source of gold. The painting, which may have belonged to the collection of Camillo Masini was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1871.Iconography
Diana and Endymion
This painting captures the moment when Diana joins Endymion as Apollo rises in the sky at dawn so that she could spend the day with him sheltered from the sunlight by a curtain. The subject is rather unusual, most paintings favored the scene in which the chaste goddess embraces the young, sleeping shepherd. In the figures we can see extensive retouching that leads us to believe that the artist did some subsequent over painting. The inaccuracies and the still as yet incomplete mastery of the luminous structure would date the painting quite early in his career, around 1627 and hence the later modifications. The painting surfaced in England at the beginning of the XX century; it had probably belonged to the collection of Cardinal Fesch, and prior to that to Mazzarin. It has been in Detroit since 1936.
The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus
This painting was a milestone in the early part of Poussin’s career. The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus was ordered for St. Peter’s Basilica in February 1628 and was paid between June and October of the following year. For a long time it was the artist’s only painting in a public building, and then it was replaced by a mosaic. The subject had been selected by the client and Poussin took over the commission from Pietro da Cortona. There are still many of Pietro’s early studies on the subject, but they are smaller. The bloody martyrdom of the saint takes place in an atmosphere filled with sunlight.Iconography
Midas and Bacchus
This painting portrays King Midas who, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, had been given the “golden touch” by Bacchus, so that anything he touched turned to gold. When he was close to dying of hunger and thirst, he begged the god to release him from that “gift” that had quickly become a curse, and here we see him thanking Bacchus for once again having granted his wish. There are many old copies of this painting that was done around 1629-30. The theme of the Bacchanals, or paintings related to the myth of Bacchus appeared quite soon in Poussin’s career since he had been studying canvases of similar subjects by Titian (in the Aldobrandini collection) since 1598 and they had a great influence on the French artist even insofar as chromatics were concerned.
The Plague at Ashdod
Poussin began working on this painting in 1630 and it was purchased by the nobleman, Fabrizio Valguarnera in 1631 before it was completed, so Poussin worked on it a little longer. In 1665 Cardinal Richelieu bought it in Rome, and then in 1651 it became part of the collection of Louis XIV. The subject is faithfully taken from Samuel V: 1-16 and it was probably inspired by the terrible plague that struck Milan in 1630. It reveals the progress Poussin had made in scenic structure: the Titianesque landscapes of his earlier period are replaced by a well-articulated pictorial-architectural space.Iconography
The Triumph of Neptune
This painting was one of the cycle of Triumphs that Richelieu commissioned for his chateau at Poitou, and is mentioned by Bellori, Félibien and other old sources. The Triumph of Neptune the only sea subject, along with three “earthly bacchanals,” alluded to Richelieu’s role in upgrading the French navy that was celebrated in the chateau. In the XVIII century the painting entered the Crozat collection and then that of Catherine II of Russia. The Soviet government put it on sale in 1932 and it was purchased by the Philadelphia Art Museum. Poussin painted this cycle between 1634 and 1637 and, in spite of the disagreement as to the number of works and doubts as to authorship of the known paintings that were replicated several times, it is emblematic of the changes that came about in Poussin’s mature years.
The Rape of the Sabine Women
The subject is the famous episode in Roman history recounted by Livy, Virgil and Plutarch, in which Romulus organized a festival and invited the inhabitants of neighboring settlements including the Sabines. At a given signal the young Romans broke into the crowd and carried off the unmarried maidens to assure the future growth of their own population. In 1685 Félibien mentioned this painting as part of the Duchess of Aiguillon’s collection. Poussin painted a second version which is in the Louvre and that Bellori cites as having been done for Cardinal Omodi.
The Conquest of Jerusalem
The inspiration for this painting came from the History of the Jewish War by Flavius Josephus and the artist dealt with it for the first time in 1626 in a painting for Cardinal Francesco Barberini. Both paintings depict the siege and burning of the Temple by the Emperor Titus. Barberini gave the first painting to Richelieu who, in turn, gave it to the Duchess of Aiguillon. The second version, done ten years later, was also commissioned by Barberini – as we learn from Bellori – and was given to Prince Eggenberg, the emperor’s envoy to Pope Urban VIII. On the edge of the second shield on the right is the signature “NI.PUS FEC”
Landscape with Saint John on Patmos
This painting only became known around 1930 and does not seem to be mentioned by any early sources. Because of its size and stylistic similarities it was probably a companion piece to the Landscape with St. Matthew (Berlin, Staatliche Museen). The two paintings may have been part of a series of four apostles that Cardinal Francesco Barberini ordered when Poussin returned to Paris but was never completed due to the death of Pope Urban VIII and the Barberini family’s subsequent fall from grace.Iconography