Happy Anniversary, Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin: Venus Weeping for Adonis, 1626
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Nicolas Poussin: Venus Weeping for Adonis, 1626

He was without doubt the dominant figure of seventeenth-century classicism, and many consider him to be the greatest French painter of all time. As an artist he is the equal of Corneille and Racine; however, his is not an art that appeals to popular taste. Everything about him is out of the ordinary. The exquisite beauty of his works remains esoteric.

Nicolas Poussin was born in 1594 in the little town of Les Andelys in upper Normandy. After 1612 we hear of him in Paris, Poitou, and Lyon. But his artistic career really began only when he moved to Rome at the age of thirty. With the exception of one brief interval, he would never leave Rome again. There he lived an almost reclusive life as a French exile until his death in 1665.

Under the Italian popes, the Rome of that time was a world stage for the European baroque. In a profound sense, it was a stage Poussin never set foot on. Its pomp was not just foreign but morally repellent to his stoic nature. He never sought grandiose official commissions, never decorated a palazzo, and painted only a few altarpieces. His most important patrons were neither the court nor the princes of the church, but learned antiquarians like Cassiano dal Pozzo in Rome and ennobled civil servants and educated merchants in Paris. For these collectors, who were often also his friends, he painted—slowly and with reflective attention—subjects from ancient history and mythology and from the Bible (remarkably often from the Old Testament). His paintings were not meant to be objects of devotion, much less of mystic rapture, but rather of meditation. He has been praised as a peintre-philosophe.

His first years in Rome, however, displayed a very different character. Rarely has a painter come so near the sounds and moods of poetry. He listened to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered with a sensitive ear and translated them into the sensuous fervor of his pictures. In the golden light of Aurora, for example, Venus drips nectar into the ears of her dead lover Adonis (Venus Weeping for Adonis, 1626).1 A consonance is struck between the pagan and the Christian world, a consonance to be found again and again in Poussin’s paintings to the very end.

In another picture, Echo and Narcissus (1628),2 we see a dying Narcissus whose form mirrors the dead Christ in a painting by Titian’s student Paris Bordone (The Dead Christ Mourned by Angels, circa 1545–1555).3 Myth and gospel are reflected upon and compared. It is a game between love, time, and death that reaches its culmination in a painting in which Flora, the goddess of spring, dances in the middle of her garden (The Empire of Flora, 1631).4 She is…

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