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Monday, May 6, 2013

Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin Self-portrait, 1650
As artists, we all think from time to time about our legacy. Will our work still hang on walls a hundred years after our death? Will they be museum walls or bathroom walls (over the commode, perhaps)? Will anyone know who painted them, despite our name at the bottom. Nicolas Poussin probably didn't have such misgivings. He was well enough known and admired in his own time to have assuaged such doubts. Yet strangely, his legacy today as an artist would probably surprise him. He is better remembered for those artists he influenced than for his own work or that of those he trained to follow him (who are mostly unknown). Those he influenced became art icons themselves, Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste Ingres, Paul Cezanne, even Picasso all knew this legacy. And those were just the legitimate ones, he had dozens, maybe hundreds of imitators (which keeps art authenticators fully employed).

Landscape with a Calm, 1650-51, Nicolas Poussin
The bulk of Poussin's work involved massive religious paintings (although only one was commissioned by a Pope), and historical or mythological subjects. Yet, he would probably be chagrined to know that he is best remembered for his background landscapes such as his Landscape with a Calm (above) from 1650-51. Although there were usually figures, biblical or pagan, in virtually all his paintings that are essentially landscapes, it is for these romantic, idealized depictions of contrived nature (few were of actual locations) for which he is most loved and revered. Why is this? Simply, there were dozens of artist as good or better at painting God, gods, and goddesses in his time. Rome was polluted with them. Poussin eventually rose above most of them, but few, if any, artists of 17th century France or Italy were turning out painted canvases which had as their primary purpose the glorification of God's green earth.

Venus and Adonis, 1624, Nicolas Poussin, his last painting before decamping to Rome,
and relatively tame as compared to some of his other works from that period.
Nicolas Poussin was born in northern France in 1594. He began studying art in his native Normandy before running away to Paris when he turned eighteen. He arrived in Paris during an awkward time in the history of art, when the old apprentice system was starting to give way to academic training, thus he did not benefit from either to any great extent. He bounced around among the studios of a number of French artist of the time, remembered now mostly for having trained Poussin. Many of these eventually formed the core of the French Academie des Beaux Arts, but that was not until 1648 by which time Poussin was in Rome, already well established in his career. His early work in Paris mostly involved the illustration of the poet, Giambattista Marino's version of Ovid's Metamorphosis. Many of these early works are quite erotic (above), more Rococo than of the prevailing Baroque style.

The Death  of Germanicus, 1627, Nicolas Poussin
Poussin's association with Marino, and more importantly, Marino's association with the court of art patroness, Marie de Medici (then regent of Louis XIII) allowed him his "big break" as an artist, his move (along with Marino) to Rome in 1624, where he was to remain for the next sixteen years of his life. Rome was where the money was, where the church was, where the commissions were. Poussin's blockbuster Death of Germanicus in 1627, painted for the fabled Barberini family, cemented his place among the leading artists of Rome, bringing him almost more work than he could handle.

Spring: Adam and Eve                        Summer: Ruth and Boaz
1660-64, Nicholas Poussin
It's likely Poussin's landscapes were appreciated to some degree during his own lifetime as seen in a series of four seasonal paintings with biblical titles (though barely more than that). His Spring  depicted Adam and Eve.  His Summer is sometimes referred to as Ruth and Boaz, his Autumn was also titled, Spies with Grapes, while his winter scene depicted The Deluge (the titles here have become somewhat arbitrary over the years).

         Autumn: Spies with the Grapes                               Winter: the Deluge
1660-64, Nicolas Poussin

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