Nicolas Poussin was born in 1594 in Les Andelys in Normandy, near Rouen, where he studied with the artist Quentin Varin (c. 1570-1634). After moving to Paris in 1612, he worked in the studios of Georges Lallemant (c. 1580-1636) and Ferdinand Elle (1580-1649). During his years in Paris Poussin saw works by and engravings after Raphael (1483-1520) and Giulio Romano (1599?-1546), artists of the High Renaissance, who would continue to inspire him throughout his career. Poussin made two unsuccessful attempts to visit Rome, in 1617 and in 1622. In Paris he met the poet Giovanni Battista Marino (1569-1625) in 1622, and Marino probably facilitated the painter's trip to Rome in 1624. Except for a brief return to France in 1641-1642, Poussin remained in Rome for the rest of his life.
Poussin's first years in Rome are not sufficiently documented to offer a clear chronology of his works. It is known that this period was full of hardship, but that he also quickly found a place within Rome's artistic circles. With the Flemish sculptor Francois Duquesnoy (1597-1643), he drew from the antique and measured ancient statues. He studied for a time with the Bolognese classicizing painter Domenichino (1581-1641). Through Marino he met the collector Marcello Sacchetti (1586-1629) and received two important commissions from Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), nephew of Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644): The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, 1625 (Jerusalem, Israel Museum) and The Death of Germanicus, 1626-1628 (Minneapolis Institute of Arts). In 1628 Poussin received his first and only public commission in Rome, for an altarpiece for the newly constructed basilica of St. Peter's representing The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus (Vatican City, Vatican Museums).
Though Poussin was now encountering his first recognition, he continued to experiment, especially in the 1620s and 1630s, with a variety of stylistic idioms. His knowledge of Venetian painting had already left its mark in the luminosity and vibrant coloring of his Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus and the National Gallery of Art's The Assumption of the Virgin (1963.5.1) and would be felt as well in some of his most beloved paintings of these years, such as The Inspiration of the Poet, c. 1631/1632 (Paris, Musée du Louvre) and the Ovid-inspired Empire of Flora, 1631 (Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie).
In 1632 Poussin became a member of the Accademia di San Luca, further solidifying his position in Rome. Shortly thereafter (1634) he received his first major French commission from Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) for a series of bacchanals, including The Triumph of Bacchus (Kansas City, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) and The Triumph of Pan (London, National Gallery). At about this time the antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657), secretary to Francesco Barberini, commissioned from Poussin The Seven Sacraments. Six paintings survive: five in Belvoir Castle, Grantham, Leicestershire, England, and one in the National Gallery of Art (The Baptism of Christ, 1946.7.14). During his work on this series, which he did not complete until 1642, Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643) bid Poussin to return to France. Although initially resisting the invitation, the painter finally yielded in 1640. He was made First Painter to the King and placed in charge of the decoration of all royal residences, his primary responsibility being to paint the decoration of the Grand Galerie of the Louvre. This type of large-scale project, requiring numerous assistants, was not agreeable to Poussin, and under pretense of bringing back his wife he sought permission to return to Rome in 1642. The deaths of Richelieu in 1642 and Louis XIII in 1643 followed shortly, halting all progress on the enterprise, and Poussin was able to remain in Rome.
The second phase of his career was dominated by French patrons. Between 1644 and 1648 Poussin painted for Paul Fréart de Chantelou (1609-?1694) a second series of The Seven Sacraments (Duke of Sutherland, on deposit at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). Around 1648 Poussin turned his attention to landscapes, a genre he had explored earlier in the century. His interest in the human passions was carried over into works such as the pendant Landscape with the Body of Phocion Carried out of Athens (Cardiff, National Museum of Wales) and The Ashes of Phocion Collected by His Widow (Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery), 1648.
The Holy Family on the Steps (Cleveland Museum of Art) is representative of Poussin's practice of returning to a specific theme over a number of years. Between 1635 and 1657 he completed more than a dozen paintings devoted to the subject of the Holy Family. A career-long dialogue with Raphael is evident in his Holy Family with Saint John and Saint Elizabeth of 1655 (St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum).
Poussin's preeminent final achievement was his series The Four Seasons (Paris, Musée du Louvre), 1660-1664, painted for the duc de Richelieu (1629-1715), great-nephew of the cardinal, which fused the genres of landscape and allegory. A canvas with much in common with The Four Seasons, the Apollo and Daphne (Paris, Musée du Louvre) was Poussin's final work, which he left unfinished due to the unsteadiness of his hand, dedicating it to Camillo Massimi (1620-1665) in 1664, a year before his death. Poussin was buried in San Lorenzo in Lucina, Rome.
[Frances Gage, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 373-374.]
Blunt, Anthony. Nicolas Poussin: The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts (1958). 2 vols. New York, 1967. Reprint London, 1995.
Rosenberg, Pierre, and Antoine Prat. Nicolas Poussin, 1594–1665: catalogue raisonné des dessins. 2 vols. Milan, 1994.
Rosenberg, Pierre, and Louis-Antoine Prat. Nicolas Poussin 1594–1665. Exh. cat. Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1994.
Verdi, Richard, et al. Nicolas Poussin, 1594–1665. Exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1995.
Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: 373-374.