POUSSIN, NICOLAS (1594–1665), French painter, was born at Les Andelys (Eure) in June 1594. Early sketches attracted the notice of Quentin Varin, a local painter, whose pupil Poussin became, till he went to Paris, where he entered the studio of Ferdinand Elle, a Fleming, and then of the Lorrainer L'Allemand. He found French art in a stage of transition: the old apprenticeship system was disturbed, and the academical schools destined to supplant it were not yet established; but, having met Courtois the mathematician, Poussin was fired by the study of his collection of engravings after Italian masters. After two abortive attempts to reach Rome, he fell in with the chevalier Marini at Lyons. Marini employed him on illustrations to his poems, took him into his household, and in 1624 enabled Poussin (who had been detained by commissions in Lyons and Paris) to rejoin him at Rome. There, his patron having died, Poussin fell into great distress. Falling ill he was received into the house of his compatriot Dughet and nursed by his daughter Anna Maria to whom in 1629, Poussin was married. Among his first patrons were Cardinal Barberini, for whom was painted the “Death of Germanicus” (Barberini Palace); Cardinal Omodei, for Whom he produced, in 1630, the “Triumphs of Flora” (Louvre); Cardinal de Richelieu, who commissioned a Bacchanal (Louvre); Vicenzo Giustiniani, for whom was executed the “Massacre of the Innocents,” of which there is a first sketch in the British Museum; Cassiano dal Pozzo, who became the owner of the first series of the “Seven Sacraments” (Belvoir Castle); and Fiéart de Chanteloup, with whom in 1640 Poussin, at the call of Sublet de Noyers, returned to France. Louis XIII. conferred on him the title of “first painter in ordinary,” and in two years at Paris he produced several pictures for the royal chapels (the “Last Supper,” painted for Versailles, now in the Louvre) and eight cartoons for the Gobelins, the series of the “Labours of Hercules” for the Louvre, the “Triumph of Truth” for Cardinal Richelieu (Louvre), and much minor work. In 1643, disgusted by the intrigues of Simon Vouet, Feuquiéres and the architect Lemercier, Poussin withdrew to Rome. There, in 1648, he finished for De Chanteloup the second series of the “Seven Sacraments” (Bridgewater Gallery), and also his noble landscape with Diogenes throwing away his Scoop (Louvre); in 1649 he painted the “Vision of St Paul” (Louvre) for the comic poet Scarron, and in 1651 the “Holy Family” (Louvre) for the duke of Créqui. Year by year he continued to produce an enormous variety of works, many of which are included in the list given by Félibien. He died on the 19th of November 1665 and was buried in the church of St Lawrence in Lucina, his wife having predeceased him.
The finest collection of Poussin’s paintings as well as of his drawings is possessed by the Louvre; but, besides the pictures in the National Gallery and at Dulwich, England possesses several of his most considerable works: The “Triumph of Pan” is at Baisildon (Berkshire), and his great allegorical painting of the “Arts” at Knowsley. At Rome, in the Colonna and Valentini Palaces, are notable works by him, and one of the private apartments of Prince Doria is decorate by a great series of landscapes in distemper. Throughout his life he stood aloof from the popular movement of his native school. French art in his day was purely decorative, but in Poussin we find a survival of the impulses of the Renaissance coupled with conscious reference to classic work as the standard of excellence. In general we see his paintings at a great disadvantage, for the colour, even of the best preserved, has changed in parts, so that the keeping is disturbed; and the noble construction of his designs can be better seen in engravings than in the original. Amongst the many who have reproduced his works Audran, Claudine Stella, Picart and Pesne are the most successful.
Poussin left no children, but he adopted as his son Gaspar Dughet (Gasparo Duche), his wife’s brother, who took the name of Poussin. Gaspar Poussin (1613–1675) devoted himself to landscape painting and rendered admirably the severer beauties of the Roman Campagna; a noteworthy series of works in tempera representing various sites near Rome is to be seen in the Colonna Palace; but one of his finest easel-pictures, the “Sacrifice of Abraham,” formerly the property of the Colonna, is now, with other works by the same painter, in the National Gallery, London. The frescoes executed by Gaspar Poussin in S. Martino di Monti are in a bad state of preservation. The Louvre does not possess a single work by his hand. Gaspar died at Rome on the 27th of May 1675.
See Sandrart, Acad. nob. art. pict.; Lettres de Nicolas Poussin (Paris, 1824); Félibien, Entretiens; Gault de St Germain, Vie de Nicolas Poussin (1806); D’Argenville, Abrégé de la vie des peintres; Bouchitté, Poussin et son œuvre (1858); Emilia F. S. Pattison (Lady Dilke), Documents inédits, Le Poussin, in L’Art (1882).