Nicolas Poussin, famous for his landscapes and historical paintings, was the chief formulator of French classical painting during the 17th century. Although he spent the majority of his life in Italy, his style became the standard for French classical art.
Nicolas Poussin was born in Normandy in Les-Andelys, in June 1594 to peasant farmers. He studied painting in the mannerist style under local painter, Quentin Varin, until he went to Paris. There, he was trained under Ferdinand Elle and Georges Lallemand from 1612 to 1621. After a year-long tour of Italy, Poussin settled in Rome in 1624 and worked in Domenichino’s studio. He was introduced to Cardinal Francesco Barberini and to the antiquary Cassiano dal Pozzo, who became the artist's most important patron. By 1628, he was commissioned to make an altar piece for San Pietro in Vaticano.
His early work in Rome (1624–33) manifested diversified tendencies. He began to experiment with the baroque style of Pietro da Cortona and Lanfranco, which was reflected in works such as the ‘Martyrdom of St. Erasmus’ (1629). Although Baroque was on the rise, Poussin decided to stick to Classicism and used Greek and Roman mythology as his primary subjects. Rich brushwork resulted in colorful compositions that stressed movement, which were mainly inspired by the works of Titan.
Poussin fell upon some hard times when he became ill during his early years in Rome. His landlord Dughet and Dughet’s daughter Anna Maria nursed him back to health. During his recuperation, he and Anna Maria fell in love and were later married in 1629.
By about 1635, Nicolas Poussin's fame was well established. He began to show a preoccupation with the classical and serene style of antiquity inspired by Raphael. His compositions displayed cooler colors and smoother brushwork, producing a more statuesque effect. Works such as ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (1633) is an example of the greater linear precision and sculptural solidity of his figures.
In 1640, Nicolas Poussin was called to Paris by Louis XIII to displace Vouet as first painter to the king. He was given the authority to supervise all paintings and ornaments in the royal houses. A cold austerity characterizes the few works that remain from this period, one of which is ‘Truth Rescuing Time’. His disinterest in being in France, coupled with ill health, initiated his return to Rome in September 1642. He continued to paint despite his weakened physical condition. During this time, the artist abandoned his poetic and dynamic style for the contemplative aspects of his subjects.
During the late 1940’s, Nicolas Poussin turned to landscape painting, and changed the face of classical landscapes. Works such as ‘Landscape with Polyphemus’ (1649) influenced generations of French painters, including Jacques-Louis David and Paul Cézanne.
Poussin spent his late years on more romantic themes. His compositions were laid out in an orderly way, almost in geometrical form that consisted of a lyrical gravity of figures and landscape settings. One of his last works consisted of a series of paintings known as the ‘Four Seasons’ (1660-64).
Nicolas Poussin died on the 9th of November in 1665, and was buried in the Church of St Lawrence in Lucina. He never had any children of his own, but had adopted his wife’s brother Gaspard Dughet and raised him as his son. Gaspard Dughet became a well-known landscape painter who was often referred to as 'Il Poussin'.