Nicolas Poussin and Roman Influences in France

The city and art of Rome had an enormous impact on the French Baroque Classical artist Nicolas Poussin and through him an effect on French art and artists in the following centuries. Poussin was greatly influenced by the classical ideals of Italian art and flourished in the art-loving city of Rome that encouraged a young artist to explore his abilities.

Nicolas Poussin spent a most of his productive artistic career in Rome and over half of his life in the ancient city. Though Poussin was a known, practicing artist before he spent any time in Rome, it has been said that his successful artistic career actually began with his arrival in the city. While there, he served many Roman patrons but was also increasingly sought after by French patrons. Because of this he was able to influence the tastes of French patrons which in turn heavily impacted the future of French art itself.

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Poussin subsequently influenced diverse French artists, as Anthony Blunt states in Nicolas Poussin: The A. W. Lectures in the Fine Arts: “For Ingres, for instance, Poussin was a model of classical composition, surpassed only by Raphael and the Antique. Degas saw in him ‘purity of drawing, breadth of modeling, and grandeur of composition’. Czanne aimed at revivifying Poussin’s formal perfection by a renewed contact with nature, the early Cubists saw in him the near-abstract qualities which they themselves sought.” (Blunt, 1967)Poussin also considerably affected the newly formed institutions of French art.

The accepted teachings at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which was founded in 1648, were based upon Poussin’s ideological values for art. His philosophy about the great importance of drawing as the crucial intellectual core of painting was a precept at the Academy. The new official stance on artistic value reflected Poussin’s own artistic values and his belief in the superiority of history painting. Though in actuality many artist of the early eighteenth century followed his values more in belief than in actual practice, his influence is reemerges in artists like David and Ingres of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In this paper I will attempt to illustrate the notable and profound influence Rome had on the art of Nicolas Poussin and, through his work, the influence the city had on the varied development of French art (Russel, 1969)

Poussin’s Early Life and Career

Nicolas Poussin was born just outside Les Andelys in Normandy in the year 1594. Though his father had once been a soldier, his family was of the farmer peasant class. In spite of the modest means of his family, his parents struggled to give him a complete education in Latin and letters where he discovered at an early age his natural talent and interest for drawing. Close to the age of seventeen he met an artist by the name of Quentin Varin who had traveled to his hometown to paint altarpieces. Varin recognized the young Poussin’s innate talent and greatly encouraged him to become a painter. So Poussin, at the young age of eighteen, ran away from his humble village to go to Paris (Russel, 1969).

There in Paris, it is thought that he may have worked for a time with Quentin Varin, who was a Flemish painter, before working with a Flemish portraitist, Ferdinant Elle. Through these connections, Poussin was able to work with and befriend a number of Flemish painters while he was living in Paris. He also studied a bit while there, but his Parisian education did not inspire his imagination or challenge his abilities. He is said to have had very little regard for his French teachers, and claimed that the most important occurrence while there was an encounter with a courtier of Marie de Mdicis by the name of Courtois.

Courtois gave Poussin unlimited access to the vast royal art collections containing some of the great works of Raphael as well as many other talented Italian artists which immediately captivated Poussin. The result of his fascination with these works of art as well as his zest for the Italianate style can be found in his early work.

It is at this time that Poussin began to discover a passion for classicism. He tried in vain twice to journey to Rome to further pursue his education in this style during the next decade, but was forced to turn back each time before he reached his destination. Meanwhile, he had some small commissions for minor works and decorative pieces in France while he continued to study his craft in Paris (Russel, 1969). While still in Paris, Poussin began to make a name for himself, and by 1622 he had many patrons and supporters who recognized his talents.

One important proponent was the Italian Giovanni Battista Marino and another was the archbishop of Notre-Dame de Paris who commissioned Poussin to paint a version of the Death of the Virgin. (Russel, 1969). This was most likely the last painting Poussin created in Paris before his departure for Italy in late 1623 or early 1634.

Poussin in Italy

Upon his arrival in Italy, Poussin first went to Venice to live with his friend and patron Giovanni Battista Marino. By March of 1624, Poussin is listed as living in Rome with another French artist, Simon Vouet. Sadly, Poussin’s Italian patron, Marino, died shortly after Poussin’s arrival in Italy, but in a fortunate turn of events, Poussin was recommended to the Cardinal Francesco Barbarini through some of Marino’s connections.

After a short time of doing some work for Barbarini, the Cardinal left Rome and again Poussin was without a patron in Italy. Poussin struggled as a starving artist until Barbarini’s return in 1626. Unfortunately Poussin soon fell ill. He was nursed back to health by a French family and eventually married their daughter.

With the new stability of a family life and a steady patron, Poussin was finally able to dedicate himself to his original goal in Rome, and thus began his education by viewing the works of the great masters as well as sharing ideas and techniques with other young artists in the city. Rome at that time was, and is today, the ideal place for a young artist to learn and expand on his/her abilities. It provided a multitude of stylistic choices and examples from the grandeur of antiquity, the glory of the High Renaissance, and the budding appearance of a vibrant new style, Baroque. As a student of Rome, Poussin was able to research artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Caravaggio and Bernini.

He was then able to take what he could from them and synthesize it into his own unique style with their masterpieces as guides. Poussin had access to not only the splendors of Roman architecture and art, but also to its libraries of drawings and writing of antiquity to gain inspiration. It was during this time in Rome that he finally seemed to flourish (Blunt, 1967).

Influences on Poussin’s Style

Poussin is said to have learned spatial construction and organization from ancient works of art and architecture (Russel, 1969). He is also said to have not copied entire works, but rather to have chosen specific figures or elements from these works for their classic nature and studied them thoroughly. Deriving much of his inspiration and compositional ideology from his analysis of the artwork in Rome, Poussin agreed strongly with the idea of the perfection of classical Antiquity.

For him it was an ideal that was not just for his art, but was also for his life. Poussin admired the perfection of the ancient artists and strove to equal the importance of that perfection. Poussin’s artistic style did not only derive from Italy. He retained some stylistic elements from his French heritage. His exposure to Italian art helped to solidify some of the classical ideals that he discovered in his youth, and also helped him acquire a background for incorporating those ideals into his art.

It is in the basic composition, however, that we see his French heritage. Like many French painters his works sometimes lacks a finite line of recession into the canvas, and instead devotes attention to the pattern of figures and forms on the planar surface. The space itself, unlike some Italian Renaissance works such as da Vinci’s Last Supper, has no independent power. Space is portrayed with the use of overlapping and atmospheric perspective rather than the strict use of one-point linear perspective.

In Poussin’s work the vanishing point is without consequence as the eye is lead across the picture plane rather than into it. This is because the forms in the painting work together on the surface as a wave of light and shadow that contributes to the movement of the eye and evokes a sense of time and space. The scenes of his paintings are arbitrarily cut out of a larger context rather than composed with a distinctive compositionally framed effect (Russel, 1969)

Poussin’s style, while incorporating some aspects of the Baroque sensibilities, was well labeled French Classicism. To distinguish his style, however, as merely classicism would be to oversimplify his work and indeed the work of the period itself. French Classicism, while mostly classical in nature, embodies stylistic tendencies from many sources including naturalistic, realistic, and dynamic schools of art that lend it a diversity that is, in fact, inherent of all work of the Baroque period. Poussin’s work exemplifies this ethic (Martin, 1977)

Achieving his educational and artistic goal, Poussin continued his life in Rome painting for both Italian and French patrons. Though he moved back and forth between Rome and Paris, Poussin remained primarily in Rome. He was appointed the position as painter for the King of France and did many commissioned works for the king, while continuing to be inspired by the beautiful surroundings and venerable antiquity of Rome.

In 1652 his slowed down his work ethic due to poor health, but was once again named First Painter to the King of France in 1655 (Russel, 1969).  By 1665 Poussin’s adored wife had died and he was suffered from paralysis. He died and was buried in his beloved city of Rome on November 19, 1665. Poussin’s WorkOne of Poussin’s most famous works, and an excellent example of his love for classical antiquity, is his The Rape of the Sabine Women. One can recognize this subject from the works of Livy and Plutarch with which Poussin was surely familiar. This painting depicts a famous image from Roman mythological history.

After the founding of Rome by Romulus, it was discovered that there were not enough women in the Roman population. In the interest of preserving his city, Romulus invited the people of a neighboring population, the Sabines, to a celebration within the walls of Rome. Upon their arrival the Roman men captured the appalled Sabine women. After much fighting, the Sabine men were defeated and retreated from Rome, leaving their women behind. The women were then made wives of the Roman men, and according the myth it was soon realized by all that the violent event was in the best interest for the future of Rome Russel, 1969).

In this image we see the event at the climatic moment of the actual capture of the women. The dramatic poses and rapid movement from highlight to shadow emphasize the intense emotion of these actions. At the time that Poussin painted this scene, this subject was thought to be a heroic one for Rome. Romulus, the stoic and almost religiously solemn figure at the upper left, is the hero. His violent actions and resolute attitude are for the good of Rome regardless of the barbaric way in which the event was carried out.

These acts were forgiven as just means to an end that shaped the future of the city of which the Romans were so proud.For this reason, the Rape of the Sabine Women was a popular subject and a popular painting. The subject and the setting of this work are a grand Italianate city and is classically Roman. The style in which the painting was produced, however, diverges from the Italian tradition in that Poussin, like many French painters of his time, did not focus on the depth of the image, but rather on the planar surface of the image.

It can be seen that in this painting, recession into space, while not unimportant, is not significant. One does not get the feeling of being drawn into the image because there is no distinct recession line and the figures are firmly grounded on the surface of the image. The activity produced by strong vertical, diagonal, and horizontal lines in the figures and structures, lead the eye around the surface of the canvas.

A strong diagonal line leads from the bearded man in the lower right corner with his upward gaze, through the tip of the blade of his attacker, directly toward the figure of Romulus. This strong diagonal is slightly counterbalanced by a diagonal in the opposite direction produced by the flailing arms of the captured women. The Rape of the Sabine Women is an excellent example of Poussin’s combination of his love of classical Roman antiquity and his French stylistic sensibility.

Another work that exemplifies Poussin’s interest in classical antiquity is Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion from 1648. Though Poussin thought that landscape painting was not as much of an artistic achievement as that of history painting, he was actually a very successful and quite influential landscape painter. However Poussin’s landscapes were more heroic rather than rustic which is unlike his Dutch and Flemish counterparts to the North (Russel, 1969).

Poussin often portrayed events from classical tales in a landscape setting which makes his work more historical though the landscape is predominate. His settings were typically Italianate, reflecting the countryside surrounding him and not at all reminiscent of the landscapes from his native France.

In Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion we see another event from the writings of Plutarch. In this incident Phocion, an Athenian general, was unjustly killed by his own countrymen. The general was originally forbidden to be buried on Athenian soil, but was later brought back to Athens, was given a public funeral, and was memorialized by the state. In the foreground we see two soldiers taking the body of the general away from his homeland.

The figures are dwarfed and weighted down by the expansive landscape surrounding them, and seem completely isolated from their surroundings as if to indicate the isolation of the general from his own country (Russel, 1969). In this image we see a distinct Italianate style as well and resembles the works of Italian landscape painters of the same era. The solid structures, carefully arranged trees and distant forms are all indications of this style. Unlike many Poussin’s figurative history paintings, in this painting we can see more of an influence of Italian spatial representation with a more distinctive vanishing point (Blunt, 1967). It is obvious that Poussin’s art was heavily influenced the time he spent in Rome.

His exposure to the Roman culture and environment served only to strengthen his desire for knowledge and appreciation of classical antiquity. This influence can be seen in all aspects of his work as well as in the work of subsequent French artists. Poussin’s profound influence on the art in France is apparent in the work of many individual artists. His values concerning subject matter, painting style, and artistic inspiration became the cornerstone of the Royal Academy which in turn influenced some of the most popular art in subsequent times.

The Academy’s system of rank and order controlled the primary artistic community in France. Following Poussin’s artistic values, history painting was the most respected and ideal form of art because it required the vast knowledge of perspective, still life, anatomy, and landscape as well as many other aspects of art. Therefore, for a time, the most well respected painters were history painters (Blunt, 1967).

During the early and mid eighteenth century, however, artists like Oudry, Watteau, and Vernet dominated and most Academy artists did not actively follow Poussin’s philosophies. The arrival of the neoclassical painters David and Ingres in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, began a renewed interest in Poussin’s classical ideals as he continued to influence artists.

Even the Impressionists and Cubists had an appreciation for Poussin’s his work for, respectively, its perfection and near abstract qualities (Blunt, 1967). The influence of Rome extends throughout the world in artistic, philosophical, and political arenas. One agent of that grand influence was Nicolas Poussin who brought Baroque Classicism and other aspects of Roman art of that time to France.

Works Cited

  1. Blunt, Anthony. Nicolas Poussin: The A.W. Lectures in the Fine Arts.Bollingen Foundation, NY 1967.
  2. Martin, John Rupert. Baroque. Harper & Row, NY 1977
  3. Russel, John. The World of Poussin. Time Life, NY 1969

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