Nicolas Poussin: The Master of Intellect

On the 19th of November 1665, Nicolas Poussin, aged seventy one, died in Rome. He was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, and in 1830 was commemorated with a monument donated by Chateaubriand. Despite the fact that most of his working life was spent in Italy, Poussin is considered the leading painter of the classical French Baroque Style. Among Poussin’s patrons were the king of France Louis XIII, the Italian scholar and patron of arts Cassiano dal Pozzo, and the controversial Cardinal Richelieu.

When he first arrived in Rome in 1624, he was still an unformed painter. But soon he became one of the most prolific and renowned artists of his time. In his works he referred to Latin literature, mostly Ovid’s Metamorphoses, stories from the Old Testament, ancient history and myths, and later in his career he would explore the concept of the Seven Sacraments. Some accused him of a tendency to over-intellectualise his works and said that he ‘painted with his head’. This is probably true and manifested itself in the way Poussin committed to the study and reflection on his chosen subjects.

“All days were for him days of study, and the moments he spent in painting and drawing were for him a recreation. He was always at work wherever he found himself. When he walked through the streets, he observed the actions of the people round him, and if he found anything worthy of remark, he made notes in a book which he carried with him… It was in these retreats, and upon these promenades that he made slight sketches of things that interested him – both notes for landscapes (terraces, trees, and beautiful effects of light); and also for figure compositions (groups of figures, details of costume, or other particular ornaments). “ (André Félibien, Entretiens sur les vies et sur les ouvrages des plus excellents peintres, anciens et moderns, 1666-68)

“He used frequently to examine the ancient sculptures in the vineyards about Rome, and this confirmed him more and more in the love of those antiquities. He would spend several days together in making his reflections upon them by himself. It was in these retirements that he considered the extraordinary effects of nature, with respect to landskips, that he designed his animals, his distances, his trees, and every thing which was excellent and agreeable to his gusto.” (Roger de Piles, The Art of Painting and the Lives of the Painters, 1750).

“When he decided to paint a new composition [Poussin] first studied the subject carefully, then made two or three slight drawings of the general arrangement. If the painting was to contain figures, he would take a board marked out in squares, of the right proportion for this project, and would arrange upon it little nude figures made of wax, in the poses necessary to explain the action of the whole. Then, in order to represent the drapery, he clothed these figures rather in wetted paper or in thin cloth, then sewed his draperies with threads which allowed him to suspend the figure at the appropriate height above the line of the horizon. It was after these models that he painted his pictures.” (Joachim von Sandrart, Teutsche Akademie, 1675-79).

All these techniques applied by Poussin in his works would result in elaborate paintings filled with intricacies of gesture, colour and design. One of such paintings is The Rape of the Sabine Women painted around 1633-34. Based on the legend of the founder of Rome, Romulus, who ordered to abduct women of the neighbouring Sabine people, the painting refers to a subject popular during the Renaissance period: a story symbolising the central importance of marriage for the continuity of families and culture. In the painting, Romulus and his servants stand erect overlooking the chaotic struggle of the opposite forces: male versus female – the struggle of the woman to the left, who has been identified as the only married woman in the paining, Hersilia, and the future wife of Romulus; and old versus young – the father to the bottom right trying to save his daughter from the muscular Roman man. The painting develops a complex narrative, finale of which, is the reconciliation of the two nations represented by the couple in the centre, walking away from the place of conflict.

Nicolas Poussin: The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-5),
Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.

In his early career Poussin was much inspired by the works of Titian. But his opinion of the work of Raphael and Caravaggio was rather unfavourable. “Poussin said of Raphael, ‘That he was an angel compared with the modern Painters, but an ass in comparison of the ancients.” (Piles). And as to Caravaggio he simply could not stand his work “… and said that he had been brought into the world in order to destroy painting.” (Félibien). It is justified to think then that Poussin would not approve most of the modernist and post-modernist painters either…