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Nicolas Poussin

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Nicolas Poussin: June 1594- Nov. 19,1665...France

"The purpose of art is delectation."
~Nicolas Poussin

One of the most influential artists of the Baroque was Nicolas Poussin. This French artist painted like a Roman. Maybe that was because he spent most of his professional career in Rome. This would-be great artist had humble beginnings. He was born to small time framers in France, not far from the Seine River around Normandy. He was probably going to farm, as his parents had done, but one day Quentin Varin, a regional artist and one of the favorite artists of Maria de'Medici, came into town to paint. This visit to his hometown inspired Poussin to develop his skills as an artist. Due to his low status, having little money, and no idea on how to go about it. It was difficult for him to find a quality teacher as he set off to travel in search of artistic knowledge. For the learner, this was a time of transition in the art world. The apprentice system was outdated, but the academic road had little merit. He had returned home embarrassed by the experience. His passion for art, however, was too strong. He set out a second time for Paris and was soon compelled to travel on to Rome, Italy.

In Rome, more than any other artist of the Baroque, Poussin studied the Renaissance. He was deeply influenced by his idol Raphael Sanzio, as well as Titian and the classical ideas that filled Rome as a whole. Poussin would remain in Rome from 1624 until 1640. While in Rome, Poussin’s created many works. One of which was Rebekah Quenching the Thirst of Eliezer at the Well. This work was commissioned by Cassiano dal Pozzo. The work is based on subject matter that comes from the Bible. Abraham sent his old and faithful servant, Eliezer of Damascus, on a mission to find his son Isaac a wife in Mesopotamia. Abraham wanted no part of his family hitching up with Canaanite woman. Eliezer was thirsty as he and his pack of ten camels entered the outskirts of Nahor. When he met Rebekah and she not only offered him water, but also volunteered to water the camels, he knew it was a sign that she was the one for Isaac. Poussin is creating a pictorial illustration of Rebekah offering Eliezer water. In the painting, contrary to the story, Eliezer is both simply dressed and a younger man. It is possible that he is representing Eliezer as a self-portrait. A man on a long journey away from home to quench is thirst of discovery, for Poussin, it’s not a search for a woman, but a search for artistic knowledge and connections with potential patrons (which he obviously finds). Although the story is in Mesopotamia, the background buildings strongly resemble the landscape of Rome. The structure behind Rebekah looks a lot like the Colosseum.

Rebekah Quenching the Thirst of Eliezer at the Well
1627. Oil on Canvas. 36X46 inches. Private Collection.

It was at this time that he returned to Paris, France. Why return to Paris? Well, that is generally what one did when summoned by King Louis XIII. Although the academics accepted his style as a formal ideal, he was a little overconfident. He took commissions he could not produce and the work he did make was under appreciated. Failure and illness motivated him to move back to Rome.

While in Rome, Poussin's work more thought through with a more refind idea behind each new work. He painted, among many works, Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice. The work was no doubt painted on the bank of the Tiber River on the edge of what is today Rome (where the people are standing) and Vatican City (with the Castel San Angelo). Like many of the artiste before him, Poussin places a mythological story into his environment. The simple version of the story is that Orpheus and Eurydice were married and one day some little musician people began to chase after Eurydice. She was freaked out by this and ran away. Not paying close attention to what she was doing, she stepped on a poisonous snake and quickly died. Orpheus, a wonderful singer, sang so sadly that the gods wept and gave him permission to travel to the Underworld to get her. Hades was moved by his wonderful singing and allowed her to return to the living, under the condition that Orpheus lead his wife and lot look back until they were out of the Underworld. As the were about to exit, he had to look at her and Eurydice descended back into the Underworld forever. This painting illustrates their life before, enjoying their time together, along with friends, as Orpheus sits playing music. His stories can be hard to understand without understanding of his time and culture. The old is fused with his Baroque way of working. One need to take time to look at his work, because without really seeing it, you’ll never understand it. He is purely Baroque in morality and communicated through a simple dramatic style.

Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice
1648. Oil on Canvas. Louvre, Paris, France.

Another of his great works of his later career was Landscape with Funeral of Phocion. Again, Poussin is taking something, this time from the historical past, and placing it into his own time context. Phocion was a Greek political leader who was respected by the common people and military leaders of Athens. Although respected, he and some of his friends were falsely accused of committing treason, and thus, sentenced to die by drinking hemlock. Because he was seen as a traitor to his city, he was not allowed to be cremated nor buried there. Men were hired to carry the bodies from the city and cremate them in the country. The painted scene shows the removal of Phocions body from the city.

Landscape with Funeral of Phocion
1650. Oil on Canvas. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, England.

Poussin remained in Rome: working, evolving, ageing. His health was in a major decline starting about 1660. By 1665 his painting career was over, largely due to his suffering from Parkinson’s disease. This was the year of his death. Preceded in death by his wife, Nicolas Poussin only left behind one adopted son (Gaspar Poussin), who was biologically his wife’s brother (making his sister his mom).

As an artist that worked in isolation, Poussin liked the solitary life of an artist. Luckily his talent was no secret. In the work, we see his love for Roman architecture, but also his need to create a moral lesson within the work. A morality set in nature, Poussin believed, was the main ingredient to art. The best way to communicate is with a focused design. Using Raphael Sanzio as the inspiration, Poussin created idealized works that were deeply dependent on his drawing ability and the compositional design of the painting as a whole. His paintings looked a topics that ranged from historical, to mythological, and religious in content. Due to the high regard that the French academics had for Poussin, the French Royal Academy contrasted his style with Peter Paul Rubinsstyle in the eighteenth century, thus creating the Poussinist style. Sadly, well after he had already died and never saw the impact that he created. The Poussinist style is adopted by artists that felt more strongly about drawing and composition than color. "Colors in painting are as allurements for persuading the eyes, as the sweetness of meter is in poetry." Art is more for the brain than the eye; an idea that would impact generations of artists to follow.

poussin.jpg
Landscape with Funeral of Phocion

Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063