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.