Nicolas Poussin:
'the Great Storyteller' who Influenced French Art for Centuries.

Nicolas Poussin was born June 1594 Les Andelys, northern France.

He ran away to Paris when he was 18 and lived there for 12 years. He trained under several artists and was very inspired by the royal art collection. He was particularly drawn to roman sculpture and the many renaissance paintings, so he decided to move to Rome as soon as he had enough money.

The rest of his time in Paris was primarily spent learning to paint even better and trying to make enough money to afford the move to Rome. He worked as much as he could, but could only find work occasionally.

He painted six paintings for the Jesuit Church in Paris in 1622 (none remain today), shortly thereafter, illustrated Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

In 1924, almost 30 years old, Nicolas Poussin finally moved to Rome.

Nicolas Poussin. The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus. 1628. Vatican Museum.Nicolas Poussin. The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus. 1628. Vatican Museum.

After painting The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, a huge dramatic altarpiece for the Church of St. Peters in the Vatican that received tepid public acceptance, Poussin decided he should just stick with small scale paintings for educated private patrons who would recognise and appreciate the complexity and meaning in his art.

In 1636, Cardinal Richelieu, advisor to Louis XIII, commissioned Poussin to paint scenes of Greek mythology for his chateau, the Palais Cardinal (now known as Palais-Royale, near the Louvre). (Interesting that a catholic cardinal would be asking for scenes from mythology, don’t you think?)

Near the end of 1640, Poussin moved back to Paris to live at the Louvre and decorate the royal palaces for the king. Poussin hated the job. He was well paid but he missed Rome, he didn’t enjoy the work, and he didn’t get along with the local artists. He went back to Rome in 1642.

For the next 10 years or so, he painted smaller canvasses alone in his studio. Much of his client base was French bankers and civil servants who had heard of him while he was in Paris, so as much as he hated his time back in Paris, it had served him good purpose.

Nicolas Poussin. Time Revealing Truth with Envy and Discord. 1640-1642. Louvre, Paris, France.Nicolas Poussin. Time Revealing Truth with Envy and Discord. 1640-1642. Louvre, Paris, France.

Nicolas Poussin’s Technique

Poussin was deeply interested in the classical era of art, architecture, history, and philosophy and sought to include aspects of these in his work. His style morphed from sexy, richly-coloured mythological scenes to strong lines and darker-coloured religious images.

Poussin’s style became more and more classical over his career, and he became known as the leader of classicism. The subjects were clear, without distracting back or foreground, colour was toned down and subjects looked to be posed like heroic statues.

Poussin always researched his subjects thoroughly. He would read the entire story from which they were featured, whether from ancient Greece, Rome, or the Bible. His paintings told so much of a story in one scene, that Poussin became known as "the great storyteller."

Nicolas Poussin. The Death of Germanicus. 1627-1628.Nicolas Poussin. The Death of Germanicus. 1627-1628.

He had a very methodical approach to painting. Before he started painting, he would:

  • make sketches on pen and wash;
  • create small wax models and arrange them in a box like a tiny theatre, to study the light effects;
  • create larger models to model the gestures he was trying to capture;
  • add taffeta or wet paper to the models to study its draping effect;

And THEN he would finally start painting. It was a very long process! As he said himself, when asked what the key to his success was, “I tried to neglect nothing.”

Nicolas Poussin Pharaohs Daughter Finds Baby Moses. 1638. Louvre, Paris, France.Nicolas Poussin Pharaohs Daughter Finds Baby Moses. 1638. Louvre, Paris, France.
Nicolas Poussin. The Baby Moses Saved from the River. 1647. Louvre Paris France.Nicolas Poussin. The Baby Moses Saved from the River. 1647. Louvre Paris France.

Later in his career, landscape became a subject he often painted. From 1660-1664, he painted the series The Four Seasons depicting changes in seasons, changes in time of day, age, and the evolution of the spiritual history of humanity.

He quit painting when he became partly paralysed in 1664 and died the next year.

For centuries thereafter, the work of Nicolas Poussin was used as a standard in the teaching of art in France.