Nicolas Poussin and Roman Influences in France

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The city of Rome and its art had a profound impact on Nicolas Poussin, a French Baroque Classical artist. This influence also spread to French art and artists in later centuries. Poussin was greatly influenced by the classical ideals found in Italian art and flourished in Rome, a city renowned for its passion for art. The city served as inspiration for this talented artist to delve into his abilities.

Nicolas Poussin spent the majority of his productive artistic career and more than half of his life in Rome. Rome is where he is said to have truly started his successful artistic career, although he was already a known and practicing artist before arriving there. During his time in Rome, Poussin served numerous Roman patrons and also gained popularity among French patrons. His influence on French patrons’ preferences greatly shaped the future of French art.

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Poussin’s impact on French artists was far-reaching, influencing a diverse range of practitioners from Ingres to Degas and Czanne. In Nicolas Poussin: The A. W. Lectures in the Fine Arts, Anthony Blunt asserts that Ingres viewed Poussin as a paragon of classical composition, second only to Raphael and the Antique. Degas, on the other hand, admired Poussin for his precision in drawing, his ability to create depth in his figures, and his overall mastery of composition. Czanne, inspired by Poussin’s formal perfection, sought to infuse his own work with a renewed connection to nature. Additionally, the early Cubists recognized in Poussin’s art the near-abstract qualities they themselves aspired to achieve. Furthermore, Poussin’s influence extended beyond individual artists and had a significant impact on the newly emerging French art institutions.

The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, founded in 1648, embraced Poussin’s teachings as the guiding principles for art. The Academy adopted his belief in the supreme importance of drawing as the intellectual foundation of painting. Poussin’s own artistic values and his conviction regarding the superiority of history painting shaped the Academy’s new official perspective on artistic worth. While numerous artists in the early eighteenth century held these values more as beliefs than in practical implementation, Poussin’s influence resurfaces in later artists such as David and Ingres during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Within this paper, I aim to demonstrate the significant impact that Rome had on Nicolas Poussin’s art and how the city influenced the diverse progression of French art through his work (Russel, 1969).

Poussin’s Early Life and Career

Nicolas Poussin, born in 1594 just outside Les Andelys in Normandy, came from a farmer peasant family. Despite their modest means, his parents ensured he received a comprehensive education in Latin and letters. During this time, Poussin discovered his natural talent and passion for drawing. At the age of seventeen, he crossed paths with Quentin Varin, an artist who had come to his hometown to create altarpieces. Recognizing Poussin’s artistic potential, Varin greatly encouraged him to pursue painting. As a result, at the young age of eighteen, Poussin left his humble village and journeyed to Paris (Russel, 1969).

In Paris, it is believed that Poussin may have collaborated with Quentin Varin, a Flemish painter. He then went on to work with Ferdinant Elle, a Flemish portraitist. These connections allowed Poussin to interact with and establish friendships with various Flemish painters during his time in Paris. Although he did receive some education while in the city, it did not inspire his creativity or present any intellectual challenges. Poussin held little respect for his French teachers and considered his encounter with a courtier named Courtois, belonging to Marie de Mdicis’ court, as the most significant event during his stay in Paris.

Courtois allowed Poussin complete freedom to explore the extensive royal art collections, which housed remarkable works by Raphael and other talented Italian artists. Poussin was immediately enthralled by these masterpieces. His early works are a testament to his admiration for these art pieces and his passion for the Italian style.

During this period, Poussin’s interest in classicism intensified, prompting him to attempt two unsuccessful trips to Rome to develop further expertise in this artistic style over the next ten years. Unfortunately, circumstances forced him to abandon these journeys before reaching his desired destination. Despite setbacks, Poussin managed to secure some small commissions for minor works and decorative pieces in France while continuing his studies in Paris (Russel, 1969). It was during his time in Paris that Poussin started gaining recognition, establishing a reputation for himself and attracting numerous patrons and supporters who admired his artistic skills by 1622.

Giovanni Battista Marino, an Italian poet, was a significant advocate for the movement. The archbishop of Notre-Dame de Paris also supported the movement and requested Poussin to create a painting depicting the Death of the Virgin (Russel, 1969).

Poussin’s final creation in Paris before leaving for Italy between late 1623 and early 1634 is believed to be this artwork.

Poussin in Italy

Poussin first lived in Venice with his friend and patron Giovanni Battista Marino when he arrived in Italy. However, by March 1624, Poussin had relocated to Rome and was now living with fellow French artist Simon Vouet. Sadly, Marino, who was Poussin’s Italian patron, died soon after Poussin’s arrival. Fortunately, Marino’s connections led to a recommendation for Poussin to work for Cardinal Francesco Barbarini.

Following a short stint at Barbarini, the Cardinal left Rome, leaving Poussin without an Italian patron. As an artist, Poussin encountered financial difficulties until Barbarini returned in 1626. Regrettably, Poussin’s health declined and he became sick. Nonetheless, a French family provided him with care and nursed him back to health. In due course, he married their daughter.

Having found stability in family life and a reliable patron, Poussin was finally able to dedicate himself fully to his original goal in Rome. He completely immersed himself in the works of renowned masters and engaged in exchanges of ideas and techniques with fellow young artists residing in the city. Rome has long been regarded as an ideal place for budding artists to expand their knowledge and refine their skills. It provided an abundance of stylistic choices and served as a repository for examples from classical antiquity, the grandeur of the High Renaissance, and the emerging Baroque style. During his time as a student in Rome, Poussin closely studied notable artists including Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Caravaggio, and Bernini.

While in Rome, Poussin had the opportunity to explore the city’s splendid architecture and art, along with its libraries that housed ancient drawings and writings. Drawing inspiration from these sources, he skillfully incorporated his own style to produce exceptional works of art. Rome proved to be a thriving environment for Poussin.

Influences on Poussin’s Style

According to Russel (1969), Poussin acquired knowledge about spatial construction and organization from ancient works of art and architecture. Instead of replicating entire works, Poussin selected specific figures or elements that held classical qualities and examined them extensively. Poussin derived a significant portion of his inspiration and compositional ideology from studying artwork in Rome, firmly agreeing with the concept of the perfection of classical Antiquity.

For Poussin, the ideal transcended both his art and his life. He revered the flawless craftsmanship of ancient artists and aspired to attain the same level of significance. While influenced by Italian art, Poussin also retained stylistic elements from his French background. His encounter with Italian art not only reinforced his appreciation for classical ideals, but also provided him with a foundation for incorporating these ideals into his own work.

His French heritage is evident in the basic composition of his works. Similar to other French painters, he does not always depict a clear line of depth into the canvas. Instead, he focuses on the arrangement of figures and forms on the flat surface. Unlike some Italian Renaissance works, like da Vinci’s Last Supper, the space in his paintings does not have an autonomous presence. Instead, space is conveyed through overlapping and atmospheric perspective, rather than relying on strictly one-point linear perspective.

In Poussin’s work, the vanishing point holds no significance as the eye is guided across the picture plane instead of being drawn into it. This is achieved by the forms within the painting working harmoniously on the surface, forming a wave of light and shadow that not only directs the movement of the eye but also creates a feeling of time and space. Poussin’s paintings feature scenes that are chosen arbitrarily from a larger context, rather than being composed with a deliberate frame-like effect (Russel, 1969).

Poussin’s artistic style, although it included elements of the Baroque movement, was primarily categorized as French Classicism. However, describing his style solely as classicism would be an oversimplification of his work and the overall artistic movement during that period. French Classicism, though heavily influenced by classical art, also incorporated stylistic elements from various sources such as naturalism, realism, and dynamic schools of art. This diversity was inherent in all artworks of the Baroque period. Poussin’s artworks serve as a prime example of this artistic approach (Martin, 1977).

Achieving his educational and artistic goal, Poussin continued his life in Rome, painting for Italian and French patrons. Despite his frequent travels between Rome and Paris, Poussin mostly resided in Rome. He served as the painter for the King of France and produced numerous commissioned works for the king, all the while finding inspiration in the exquisite surroundings and historical significance of Rome.

In 1652, due to poor health, Poussin’s work ethic slowed down and he was once again appointed as the First Painter to the King of France in 1655 (Russel, 1969). However, by 1665, Poussin’s beloved wife had died and he suffered from paralysis. On November 19, 1665, he passed away and was laid to rest in his cherished city of Rome. One of Poussin’s most renowned works, The Rape of the Sabine Women, exemplifies his profound admiration for classical antiquity. Poussin was undoubtedly well-acquainted with the accounts of Livy and Plutarch that depicted this subject. This painting portrays a notable moment from Roman mythological history.

After the establishment of Rome by Romulus, it was discovered that there was a shortage of women in the Roman population. To address this issue and ensure the survival of his city, Romulus invited the Sabines, a neighboring population, to a celebration within the walls of Rome. Upon arrival, the Roman men captured the shocked Sabine women. Following a fierce battle, the Sabine men were defeated and withdrew from Rome, leaving their women behind. These women were then married to Roman men, and according to the myth, it was soon recognized by everyone that this violent event was for the benefit of Rome’s future (Russel, 1969).

In this image, we witness the climactic moment of the women’s capture, depicted with dramatic poses and swift movement between light and darkness to amplify the overwhelming emotions. During Poussin’s era, this subject was considered heroic for Rome. The upper left portrays Romulus, a stoic and solemn figure, as the hero. Despite the brutal nature of the event, Romulus’s forceful actions and unwavering demeanor are regarded as beneficial for Rome.

These acts, which shaped the future of a city the Romans were proud of, were forgiven as means to an end. As a result, the Rape of the Sabine Women became a popular subject, depicted in paintings. The painting portrays a grand Italianate city in a classical Roman style. However, Poussin’s approach differs from the Italian tradition as he, along with other French painters of his time, prioritized the planar surface of the image over depth.

The painting does not emphasize recession into space but rather focuses on the activity produced by strong lines in the figures and structures. There is no distinct recession line, which prevents the viewer from feeling drawn into the image. Additionally, the figures are firmly grounded on the surface of the image. However, these elements lead the eye around the canvas.

The Rape of the Sabine Women is a great demonstration of Poussin’s ability to combine his passion for classical Roman antiquity with his French stylistic sensibility. In this painting, a powerful diagonal line can be traced from the bearded man in the lower right corner, who looks upward, to the tip of the attacker’s blade, directly leading to Romulus. This strong diagonal is slightly balanced out by another diagonal in the opposite direction created by the flailing arms of the captured women.

Poussin’s interest in classical antiquity is demonstrated in Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion from 1648. Despite believing that landscape painting was not as artistically significant as history painting, Poussin was a highly successful and influential landscape painter. His landscapes were more heroic in nature, in contrast to the rustic style of Dutch and Flemish artists to the north (Russel, 1969).

Poussin’s paintings frequently depicted scenes from classical stories within a landscape environment, giving his work a stronger historical context despite the prominence of the landscape itself. The settings he portrayed typically had an Italian influence, reflecting the rural areas around him and diverging from the landscapes commonly associated with his home country of France.

The painting Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion portrays Plutarch’s account of the unjust killing of Athenian general Phocion by his own people. Initially, he was denied burial in Athens but later returned and given a public funeral, receiving honors from the state. In the foreground of the painting, two soldiers can be seen carrying Phocion’s body away from his homeland.

The expansive landscape surrounding the figures dwarfs and weighs them down, creating a sense of isolation for the general from his own country (Russel, 1969). The image also showcases a distinctive Italianate style that resembles the works of Italian landscape painters from the same era. The solid structures, carefully arranged trees, and distant forms all reflect this particular style. In contrast to many of Poussin’s figurative history paintings, this artwork demonstrates a stronger influence of Italian spatial representation with a more pronounced vanishing point (Blunt, 1967). It is evident that Poussin’s time in Rome heavily influenced his artistic style.

His exposure to Roman culture and environment only heightened his desire to learn and appreciate classical antiquity. This influence can be observed in all aspects of his work and in the work of other French artists that followed. Poussin’s significant impact on French art is evident in the work of numerous individual artists. His beliefs regarding subject matter, painting style, and artistic inspiration became the foundation of the Royal Academy, subsequently shaping some of the most renowned art of later periods.

The Academy in France held the ultimate control over the primary artistic community by implementing a system of rank and order. Consistent with Poussin’s artistic principles, history painting held the highest regard and was considered the ideal form of art. This was due to its requirement of extensive knowledge in perspective, still life, anatomy, landscape, and various other artistic elements. Consequently, during this period, history painters were held in the highest esteem (Blunt, 1967).

During the 18th century, artists such as Oudry, Watteau, and Vernet were prominent, while most Academy artists did not adhere to Poussin’s philosophies. However, the neoclassical painters David and Ingres brought about a revival of interest in Poussin’s classical ideals during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, further influencing other artists.

Even the Impressionists and Cubists admired Poussin’s work for its perfection and almost abstract qualities (Blunt, 1967). Poussin, who brought Baroque Classicism and other elements of Roman art to France, was an agent of Rome’s influence in artistic, philosophical, and political fields worldwide.

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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Nicolas Poussin and Roman Influences in France. (2019, May 18). Retrieved from

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