Nicolas Poussin

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Poussin, Nicolas

Poussin, Nicolas (nēkôläˈ), 1594–1665, French painter, b. Les Andelys. Poussin was considered the greatest of living painters by his contemporaries. Although he spent most of his life in Italy, his painting became the standard for French classical art.

Poussin studied painting in the mannerist style in France until 1624, when he traveled to Rome via Venice. His early work in Rome (1624–33) manifests diversified tendencies. He executed many drawings of antique monuments for the great patron of the arts Cassiano del Pozzo. He experimented also with the baroque style of Pietro da Cortona and Lanfranco in works such as the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus (1629; Vatican). The paintings of Titian and Veronese influenced his choice of mythological and elegiac subjects.

Poussin's growing preoccupation with the works of antiquity and of Raphael resulted in a new clarity of composition in such paintings as the Adoration of the Magi (1633; Dresden) and The Golden Calf (c.1635; National Gall., London). His figures began to exhibit greater linear precision and sculptural solidity. Poussin became especially concerned with the didactic and philosophical possibilities of painting. He formulated the doctrines that became the basis of French classical and academic art, whereby a work was intended to arouse rational and intellectual, rather than visual, response in the viewer. His approach to and successful justification of this intellectualization profoundly influenced painting far into the 19th cent.

In 1640, Poussin was called to Paris by Louis XIII to displace Vouet as first painter to the king. Both the intrigues of Vouet and the task of administering the large-scale decoration of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre were distasteful to Poussin. A cold austerity characterizes his few works that remain from this period, e.g., Truth Rescuing Time (Louvre). By 1643, Poussin had returned to Rome. He then produced works that are considered the purest embodiments of French classicism. A comparison of his early and late versions of Shepherds of Arcadia (c.1629, Chatsworth Coll., England; and c.1650, Louvre) shows the fundamental change in his outlook. The poetic, dynamic emphasis of the early work was abandoned for the contemplative aspects of the subject in the later work. In his two series of the Seven Sacraments (1640s), he concentrated upon the symbolic meaning of each sacrament, stressing monumental solemnity and dignity.

During the late 1640s Poussin turned to landscape painting. In such works as the Death of Phocion (1648) he constructed a classical landscape, ordered with mathematical precision through the use of architecture. A renewed interest in mythology led him to favor esoteric themes, as in the Landscape with Orion (1658; Metropolitan Mus.). In his late work he developed a freer conception of nature, while his figures were considerably reduced in size and importance. Of his last works, the paintings in the series known as the Four Seasons (1660–64; Louvre) are most notable.


See his drawings ed. by W. F. Friedlander (4 vol., 1939–63); his paintings ed. by A. Blunt (1966); studies by C. Wright (1985) and Y. Zolotov (1985).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Poussin, Nicolas


Born in June 1594 in Les Andelys, Normandy; died Nov. 9, 1665, in Rome. French painter; the most consistent representative of 17th-century classicism.

Poussin studied the art of classical antiquity and the works of Raphael, Titian, the mannerist artists of the Fontainebleau school, and the masters of the Bolognese school. He studied perspective, anatomy, and mathematics. In 1612, Poussin went to Paris. The only early works by him that have been authenticated are drawings commissioned by G. Marino on themes from Ovid, Vergil, and Livy (bister and ink, c. 1622–24, Royal Library, Windsor). In late 1623, Poussin traveled to Venice, and in the spring of 1624 he settled in Rome.

Poussin sought specific compositional and coloristic interpretations for each subject that he depicted. Some of his works, such as Death of Germanicus (c. 1628, Minneapolis Institute of Arts), anticipate the strong civic spirit of late classicism. Others, for example, Martyrdom of St. Erasmus (c. 1628, Vatican Pinacoteca), are baroque in spirit. Poussin also painted a number of works based on mythological and literary themes. Marked by a poetic use of light and by a distinctive color scheme reminiscent of the Venetian school, these works include Sleeping Venus (c. 1625–27, Dresden Picture Gallery), Echo and Narcissus (c. 1625–27, Louvre, Paris), Rinaldo and Armida (c. 1625–27, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), The Kingdom of Flora (c. 1631–32, Dresden Picture Gallery), and Tancred and Erminia (1630’s, Hermitage, Leningrad).

Poussin’s classical tendencies emerged more distinctly in works executed between 1635 and 1639 (for example, The Rape of the Sabine Women, second version, c. 1635, Louvre; The Gathering of the Manna, c. 1637–39, Louvre). The exact compositional rhythm that prevails in these works is experienced as a direct reflection of the principle of reason, which moderates lowly impulses and imparts grandeur to the noble deeds of man.

From 1640 to 1642, Poussin worked in Paris at the court of Louis XIII. His works from this period include Time Freeing Truth (c. 1641–42, Art Museum, Lille). Intrigues of court artists headed by S. Vouet prompted Poussin’s return to Rome.

The ethical and philosophical direction of Poussin’s work intensified during the artist’s second Roman period. This intensification is evident in such works as Moses Drawing Water From the Rock (1648, Hermitage), Eliezer and Rebekah (1648, Louvre), Arcadian Shepherds (also known as Et in Arcadia ego, second version, c. 1650, Louvre), and Rest on the Flight to Egypt (c. 1658, Hermitage).

In his representations of ancient Greek or Roman subjects and in his depiction of biblical figures in the guise of heroes from classical antiquity, Poussin selected a means of artistic expression that would most effectively relate the moralistic meaning of a given situation. Poussin’s Self-portrait (1650, Louvre) is imbued with stoic calm and with faith in the high dignity of an artist’s labor.

Beginning in the 1640’s, Poussin was increasingly attracted by images from nature. Developing the principles of the ideal landscape, he represented nature as the embodiment of perfection and purpose. He introduced into his landscapes mythological personages to personify natural elements (for example, Landscape With Polyphemus, c. 1649, Hermitage; Landscape With Orion, 1650–55, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). He used biblical stories to express, in the spirit of stoicism, the idea of a higher necessity or fate as the principle regulating the interrelationship between man and his surroundings. This concept is reflected in St. John on Patmos (1644–45, Art Institute of Chicago) and the series The Seasons (1660–65, Louvre). In the last picture in the series The Seasons—Winter, or The Flood— reflection on the transience of life is raised to the level of universal human tragedy.

Poussin’s classicist credo is expressed in his art theory, including his theory of modes (akin to the 16th-century theory of musical modes), which governs the structural and emotional direction of his works.


Correspondance…. Paris, 1911.
In Russian translation:
Pis’ma. Moscow-Leningrad, 1939.


Vol’skaia, V. N. Pussen. Moscow, 1946.
Grautoff, O. Nicolas Poussin, sein Werk und sein Leben, vols. 1–2. Munich-Leipzig, 1914.
Friedländer, W., and A. Blunt (eds.). The Drawings of Nicolas Poussin (catalog), vols. 1–4. London, 1939–63.
Nicolas Poussin, vols. 1–2. Paris, 1960.
Blunt, A. Nicolas Poussin [vols. 1–2. New York, 1967].
Badt, K. Die Kunst des Nicolas Poussin, vols. 1–2 (Cologne), 1969.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.