Although Nicolas Poussin's work exerted an enormous influence on the development of French seventeenth-century painting, the artist perfected his style in Rome, incorporating the lessons of Renaissance and contemporary Italian painters into his own idiom. Poussin's Baptism of Christ is one of a series of canvases illustrating the Seven Sacraments executed from 1638-1642 for his friend and patron Cassiano dal Pozzo.
In Poussin's composition, the river Jordan winds through the foreground plane where he has placed thirteen figures. Christ is located to the right of the canvas; on his left side -- which represents paradise -- two figures, probably wingless angels, kneel to help him. To his right, on the earthly side of the Jordan, Saint John holds a vessel over Christ's head.
The reactions of the figures to the right of Christ demonstrate why mastery of the human form was essential to history painting. The row of figures behind Saint John have anguished expressions and contorted poses. Poussin has depicted the specific moment when the voice of the Lord proclaimed: "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). By presenting complex poses and physiognomies, Poussin has evoked a very human reaction -- the fear of those present as they acknowledge Christ as the son of God -- thereby encouraging the viewer to identify with this significant moment.
Commissioned by Cavaliere Cassiano dal Pozzo [d. 1657], Rome; by inheritance to his brother, Carlo Antonio dal Pozzo [d. 1689], Rome; by inheritance to his son, Gabriele dal Pozzo [d. 1695], Rome; by inheritance to his son, Cosimo Antonio dal Pozzo [died c. 1739], Rome; pledged by Pozzo to Marchese del Bufalo, Rome, as payment for debt [Bufalo offered his set of Poussin's Seven Sacraments to King Louis XV of France in 1729 when Bufalo ran into financial difficulties]; returned to Cosimo Antonio dal Pozzo, Rome, when debt paid, in either February 1730 or February 1732; by inheritance to his daughter, Maria Laura dal Pozzo Boccapaduli; by inheritance to the Boccapaduli family, Rome, who attempted to sell the series to Sir Robert Walpole [d. 1745], but export license was denied by the Pope; sold 1785 for the Boccapaduli family by (James Byres, Rome) to Charles Manners, 4th duke of Rutland [1754-1787], Belvoir Castle, Grantham, Leicestershire; by inheritance to his son, John Henry Manners, 5th duke of Rutland [1778-1857], Belvoir Castle; by inheritance to his son, Charles Cecil John Manners, 6th duke of Rutland [1815-1888], Belvoir Castle; by inheritance to his son, John James Robert Manners, 7th duke of Rutland [1818-1906], Belvoir Castle; by inheritance to his son, Henry John Brinsley Manners, 8th duke of Rutland [1852-1925], Belvoir Castle; by inheritance to his son, John Henry Montagu Manners, 9th duke of Rutland [1886-1940], Belvoir Castle; sold 1939 to (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Paris, New York, and London); sold December 1944 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York; gift 1946 to NGA.
- 17th Century Art in Europe, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1938, no. 318, repro.
- Recent Additions to the Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1946, no. 786.
- Poussin: Sacraments and Bacchanals. Paintings and Drawings on Sacred and Profane Themes by Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1981, no. 37.
- Nicolas Poussin, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1994-1995, no. 69 (Paris) and no. 44 (London), repro.
- L'Idea del Bello. Viaggio per Roma nel Seicento con Giovan Pietro Bellori, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, 2000, no. 37, repro.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1945 (reprinted 1947, 1949): 154, repro.
- Frankfurter, Alfred M. Supplement to the Kress Collection in the National Gallery. New York, 1946: 55, repro.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Great Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1952: 112, color repro.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 338, repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 315, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 105.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:288, color repro.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 93, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 274, repro.
- Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 271-274, fig. 250.
- Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 72, pl. 58.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 317, no. 417, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 318, repro.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 163, repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 178-179, no. 140, color repro.
- The Arts of France from François Ier to Napoléon Ier. A Centennial Celebration of Wildenstein's Presence in New York. Exh. cat. Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York, 2005: 52, fig. 15, 71(not in the exhibition).
- Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 2009: no. 83, 379-388, color repro.
- Vogel, Carol. "Inside Art: A Christie's Loss Is the Kimbell's Gain." New York Times 160, no. 55,523 (September 9, 2011): C23.
- Kimbell Art Museum. "Recent Acquisition: The Sacrament of Ordination by Nicholas Poussin." Calendar, February through August 2012: 17, color repro.
- Unglaub, Jonathan W. Poussin's Sacrament of Ordination: History, Faith, and the Sacred Landscape. Fort Worth, 2013: 21, color fig. 17.