Pictori philosopho (Blunt, 3), Painter-philosopher was a name given to Nicolas Poussin by Serous d Agincourt in 1782. Agincourt later found out that the name Pictori philosopho had already been given to the German artist Anton Raphael Mengas.
Nicolas Poussin was born in 1594 in the town of Les Andelys on the Seine. He came from a nobel family that was ruined by religious wars according to Giovanni Pietro Bellori. No actual proof of this has been established his father Jean Poussin was said to have had some descent of the hierarchy. His mother was the daughter of an alderman. His father served in the military under the command of Charles IX, Henry III, and Henry IV were he came home with a small holding and led the life of a peasent. Education in Les Andelys was not that of high caliber top notch schooling, but early biographers report that Poussin learned Latin. The visit of a painter to Les Andelys by the name of Quentin Varin greatly affected Poussin in the early years of his life. The affect of Varins short visit to Les Andelys so greatly affected Poussin that he left home that same year.
He crept secretly out of the house without the knowledge of his parents.(Blunt, 13)
Upon departure of his home in Les Andelys he traveled to the province capital of Rouen. Once in Rouen he studied for several years under Noel Jouvenet who lived in Rouen at the time. According to biographer Bellori, Poussin arrived in Paris, France in the year 1612, at the latest 1613.
There is not much information on the time of Poussins life that he left Rouen and the time that he arrived in Paris. Once in Paris he met a man from Poitou who offered his home to Poussin and treated him with great kindness. Poussin was set to decorate his chateau, but due to the interference of a mother-in-law the project was hung out to dry. This left Poussin,
The young artist found himself without money and three hundred miles from Paris. (Blunt, 13)
He then began the long trek to Paris on foot; he supported himself by painting in small towns that he passed through. He arrived in Paris so ill that he returned to Les Andelys, where he spent a year recovering from his illness. After a years rest Poussin returned to Paris where he built a name for himself as a reputable artist. He made many friends who helped him get started on the road to success. Before the end of 1623 Poussin finally left Paris insight of a new start in a new city. At the age of thirty Poussin left Paris for Rome, Italy.
Poussin arrived at his destination in March of 1624. During his journey he made a short stop in Venice. In Rome Poussin met painter Marcello Sacchetti on of the active patrons of the arts in Rome. During his first couple of years in Rome Poussin stayed in various homes. In 1629 he took shelter with Jacques Dughet, a French cook, and his family. Jacques and his family took care of Poussin when he suffered from what is called mal di Francia.(Blunt, 55) After several years were spent recovering from his illness Jacques gave his daughter Anne Marie to Poussin in marriage. The ceremony toke place on September 1, 1630 in the city of Lucina. Jacques Dughet had two sons named Gaspard and Jean, who were artist and worked under the supervision of their brother-in-law. Gaspard was so inspired by Poussin that in the later years of his life he took the name of his great teacher Gaspard Poussin.
During this time Poussin kept company with many painters who he was to keep a close friend ship for many years. He lived close to many painters and sculptors of the time. Among these was Jean Lemaire, who later worked with Poussin on the execution of the Long Gallery in the Louvre from 1640 to 1642. While in Rome Poussin dressed as a Frenchman, until hostile Romans attacked him due to the anti-French sentiment at the time. He saved his hand by blocking a blow with a portfolio he was carrying. This caused him to change his dress and adopt that of the Romans. Although Poussin had received some training in Paris he took up school again in Rome. Poussin studied anatomy, geometry, and perspective while going to school in Rome.
In the years of 1629 to 1630 Poussin was affected by the same illness that affected him when he first went to Rome, evidently syphilis (Hibbard, 21). It was a hard time for Poussin who was also bothered by an incident that took place in 1630. San Luigi dei Francesi decide that the decoration of the chapel of the Virgin should be completed. It was started by Giovanni Baglione and not completed due to the painters loss of most of his eyesight (Blunt, 100). Three artist names were mentioned: Lanfranco, Charles Mellin, and Poussin. After much discussion about the selection Mellin was awarded the job. What made the defeat more appalling was the fact that Domenichino, an artist whom Poussin might have thought to vote in his favor, voted against him.Sometime later Poussins painting found their way to Paris. These painting made such an impression that in 1639 he was invited to enter the service of Louis XIII. Poussin couldnt decide whether to go or not, so in late 1640 he was commanded to return to France because legally he was still a citizen of France. Accompanied by a friend Paul Freart, who later became one of his closest friends and patron, he arrived in December of 1640 (Hibbard, 23). He was employed to decorate a vault of a long gallery in the Louvre, a job he was unprepared for. Poussin was hated by most of the French artist. Later that year he asked to return to Rome to close his home and to bring back his wife, which he had carefully left behind. Upon arriving in Rome Poussin decide that he would not return to Paris due to all the confusion in the city and stayed in Rome where he found peace and tranquility.
My nature leads me to seek out and love things that are well ordered, fleeing the
confusion that is as foreign and hostile to me as is the light to deepest darkness.
He had written this to a friend in Paris in 1642. His popularity increased to international status and was well revered. In 1643 we hear him first complain of his trembling hand (Hibbard, 24) that later in his life so greatly affected him that he could hardly write let alone paint. Poussin was compared with the great Raphel. Duc de Chevreuse stated:
The most illustrious painter of all times, equaling Raphel in drawing and surpassing him in history and composition (Hibbard, 24).
By the 1660s, Poussin had aged considerably; he had all but ceased painting and lived more and more like a stoic philosopher (Hibbard, 25). His wife passed away in late 1664, having bore no children to Poussin, he sank into depression and feeling older. A month after the death of his wife, Anne-Marie, he wrote Chantelou:
When I needed her most she left me, full of years, paralytic, wracked by all kinds of infirmities, a stranger and without friends(Hibbard, 25)
Six months after the death of his wife Poussin himself passed away. Jean Dughet, his father-in-law, wrote:
Your Highness has doubtless heard of the death of the famous M. Poussin, or rather, of painting itself.(Hibbard, 25)
Poussin painted two versions of this painting one hangs at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the other hangs in the Louvre. No one is sure which of the two were painted first. Blunt dates the Louvre version 1635 and the New York one 1637. Both paintings seem to have been painted at two different periods; though they have similar dimensions, they differ in conception as well as in execution. The Metropolitan Museum version is barer, conforming more to the classical ideal, it has fewer figures than the Louvre version, and its composition is very close to Giovanni da Bologna. On the other hand the Louvre version which seems to be more a baroque, is in fact more complex in composition, and is more freely executed within a more rigorous formulation (Arikha, 12). Painted for the Cardinal Aluigi Omodei, he proposed it for sale in 1655. Sent from Rome to Louis XIV in 1865, along with The Triumph of Flora (Louvre), which also belonged to the Cardinal Omodei. Their whereabouts from 1655 to 1865 are unknown, but it is said to have been in the collection of the Cardinal Omodei all his life.
The abducted Sabine women became the mothers of the Roman patricians; this crime became a heroic act for the Romans. The theme of the abduction of the Sabines, widespread during the Roman Empire, disappeared during the Middle Ages and reappeared during the XVth century. Among the painters who painted this heroic act of the Romans were: Jacopo del Sellaio, Bartolomeo di Giovanni, Antonio Avelino, and Amico Aspertini (Arikha, 15). Poussin gathered information from many different sources. He combined the texts of Livy, Plutarch, and of Virgils description of the rape of the sabines women (Arikha, 15). Each point in this painting has its retort; each forms its own rhyme. For instance the couple on the left rhymes with the couple running on the right of the painting. The group formed by Romulus on the tribune rhymes with the group on the balcony in the upper right hand corner of the painting. The old women kneeling rhymes with the old women sitting. As in a poem everything in this painting rhymes.
This painting was commissioned by a man that Poussin knew very little about, his name was Nicolas Hennequin (Master of the Royal Hunt). To this day we know little about Nicolas Hennequin and what association he had with Nicolas Poussin. It is said that Poussin for part of the composition relied on several different sources. One of these sources for the central section was the ancient Aldobrandini Wedding Roman fresco. This connection with an antique work of art shows Poussin’s love for the past and his love for the country he lived in.
This painting is clearly an act of homage by Poussin to the painters of the High Renaissance. The Holy Family on the Steps has a pyramid like affect with the central figures. This is believed to have come from Poussin’s study of The Canigiani Holy Family, Raphael; Holy Family with Saints, Palma Vecchio; Doni Tondo, Michelangelo; and Madonna and Child with St. Anne, Leonardo (Hibbard, 51). From studying these painting you see that Poussin choose a broader based triangle for his group and a lower point of view. The closest association to Poussins triangular composition seems to be found in the works of Palma and Titian, although they are far looser in their groupings than those of Poussin. Poussin is the most geometric (Hibbard, 51). The tilt in the Madonnas head and her relationship to the upper body of the Christ Child is similar to the so-called Madonna of the Fish, by Raphael. Poussin would have surely have seen this in the Neapolitan church of San Domenico before its removal around 1638 (Hibbard, 53).
On the left side of the triangle there is an elderly female figure that is evidently St. Elizabeth since the nude boy on her lap is her son St. John the Baptist. The young saint is offering an apple to the young Christ, which he has picked from the wicker basket at his feet. The seated Joseph, on the right side of the triangle, is related to the Joseph in Andrea del Sartos Madonna del Sacco (Hibbard, 57). In this painting though Joseph has a stretched out leg that had to have come from a different source. Michelangelos Ancestors of Christ in the Sistine lunettes shows Naason in the same position with the out stretched leg. The role of Joseph was to keep with the Virgin Mary and the young Christ. When present at all in paintings Joseph appeared gently ridiculous. In Orazio Gentileschi The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, where an exhausted old man has fallen sound asleep while the young Christ feeds from his mothers breast. In 1522 with the publication of Isidoro Isolanos Summa de Donis S. Josephi, implied that Joseph was more than just a humble and illiterate carpenter, more as a learned man for a book equals wisdom often theological wisdom. Poussin shows Joseph drawing and Sarto portraits him reading which tells us that Isolano must have been a source for both the painters.In one of Poussins earlier painting he shows Joseph leaning on a measuring rod, which must imply that Joseph was not just learned, but a master of mathematical or architecural science.
The still life in the painting is unique, and is set to the left of the Virgins feet. Below Joseph there is a bronze vase and a golden coffer. Though the contents of the vase and coffer are unknown, according to Blunt:
…are difficult to identify with certainty, they both appear to be some gum deposit, and may well be frankincense and myrrh. (Hibbard, 59)
The contents of these two vessels would recall a previous visitation by the Magi. Poussins painting on this subject supports this; The Adoration of the Magi dated 1633, in which two similar containers appear.
The Holy Family on the Steps has no biblical foundation, and as a theme of religious devotion it seems to have been a Renaissance conception of Poussin. Other paintings of this time also have no religious foundation. Such as Sacra Conversazione, which shows Mary and Christ enthroned with various saints gathered on either side as if paying a visit (chronologically impossible).
The Holy Family on the Steps is a very religious picture, but how religious was Nicolas Poussin? While in Paris Poussin associated with freethinkers, medical men, and philosophers. Many of his religious paintings seem to be more than historical, some appear to be devotional acts. The seventeenth century was a time of great religious ferment in many places.
rationalism penetrated to the very heart of religious thought, bringing the formulation of an explicit rational religion. (Hibbard, 43)
In this time there was a lot of people who believed that there was a God and he created the world but that he had takes no part in its functioning, otherwise known as deism. Another typical feeling was that of atheism, the belief that there is no God. Many serious men believed these thought in both Protestant and Catholic countries. Poussin lived a life of frugal simplicity, protested against growing luxury of the rich. One evening, after receiving his friend Cardinal Camillo Massimi in his house, Poussin himself carried the candle to light the great men to the door. The cardinal said he was upset to discover that the not have a single servant to do this work. Poussin replied:
And I pity painter did your Eminence for having so many. (Hibbard, 44)
Poussin was a Jansenist, which believed in the ideas of deterministic predestination brought about by Bishop Cornelius Jansen, whom they took there name from. Poussin once wrote to Chantelou:
One must attain true virtue and wisdom in order to stand firm and remain unmoved before the assaults of mad blind fortune. (Hibbard, 44)
He was expressing his thought as more of a Greek Philosopher than that of a Christian Philosopher. He also stated:
One must accept the will of God, who orders things thus, and fate wills that they should happen in this way. (Hibbard, 45)
In 1641 Poussin painted a large altarpiece for the church of the Jesuit Novitiate in Paris, that of which he had no scruples whatsoever in doing it. He searched for a subject and found The Miracle of St. Francis Xavier. The religious subjects that Poussin did paint were often arcane stories of Moses from the Old Testament, scenes of salvation that prefigure Christian Sacraments, and especially subjects that refer to baptism (Hibbard, 45).
Poussin believed that virtue and wisdom could be taught to mankind through painting. When he died in 1665, every artist and every lover of painting in Rome revered him. Among the great painters who were most inspired by Poussins work was Cezanne, the famous post-impressionist. If Poussin looks back to Raphael and Ancient Rome he points forward to Ingres and Picasso. Poussin painted pictures of total perfection, but those same paintings touch our hearts with their poetry.
Arikha, Avigdor. Nicolas Poussin, The Rape of the Sabines. Houston: Museum of Fine
Blunt, Anthony. Nicolas Poussin, New York: Bollinger Foundation. 1967.
Carrier, David. Poussins Paintings. University Park: The Pennsylvannia State
Hibbard, Howard. Poussin: The Holy Family on the Steps. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Oberhuber, Konrad. Poussin The Early Year in Rome. New York: Hudson Hills Press.