Nicolas Poussin – The Master of a Pictorial Universe with a Richness of Inspiration and Spiritual Depth
The text below is the excerpt of the book Nicolas Poussin (ISBN: 9781639199631), written by Youri Zolotov and Natalia Serebriannaïa, published by Parkstone International.
Nicolas Poussin, a great artist of the seventeenth century, was born in Normandy in 1594. Although he referred to himself as being from the small Normandy town of Les Andelys, it is thought by some that he actually came from Villers, a nearby village. The scenery of Poussin’s native land is striking in its majestic beauty: the wide bed of the Seine, forced by bare rocky cliffs, makes a smooth turn around stately wooded hills. On top of one of the hills are the mediaeval ruins of the Chateau Gaillard, formidable even today.
The buildings of Les Andelys stretch along a tributary to the Seine, which flows through a wide valley encircled by steep hills. Winding roads lead up to neighbouring villages. Amid such magnificence, it is easy to understand the effect of the impressions of Poussin’s childhood and adolescence on his future work.
Undoubtedly, the striking native scenery helped shape his perception of the world. The future artist could not fail to know the wonderful stained-glass panels and reliefs of the town church which had been created by Renaissance masters of the sixteenth century. Though not of the first magnitude, these Renaissance artists gave the young Poussin, through their works, the opportunity to study classic artistic traditions and to develop a feel for plasticity of form and compositional rhythm.
Unfortunately, Poussin’s contemporary biographers did not mention any facts of his youth and artistic formation. It is known, however, that he was noticed by Quentin Varin, a painter who came to Les Andelys to execute altarpieces for the local church. Although the visiting artist might have helped the talented young man with his advice, the typical late Mannerist style of the altarpieces, dated 1612, prevents regarding Varin as Poussin’s teacher.
That same year Poussin left for Paris where, judging by further developments, no patronage was awaiting him to facilitate the start of his career. A nobleman from Poitou gave the beginning artist shelter. An episode told by Poussin’s Italian biographer, Giovanni Pietro Bellori, sheds light their relationship: when after some time the nobleman took Poussin to his castle in Poitou, his mother kept the young artist busy with “domestic affairs, not leaving him even a moment for his art.” In other words, Poussin was considered a servant.
Proud, the young artist left his patron and headed back to Paris on foot. On his way, he stopped at. Blois, to execute altarpieces for the church there, and in Cheverny, to paint a few Bacchanals commissioned by the lord of the castle. None of the Bacchanals survived, but they were seen by André Félibien, the artist’s French biographer, who wrote that Poussin “was very young when he did them” and that “one cannot fail to recog nize in them the manner of this excellent painter.” As familiar with Poussin’s work as Félibien was, his statement testifies to the artist’s early formation. It is known, however, that nothing has survived from his Normandy period, and practically nothing from his years in Paris (1612-23). The modern view of Poussin took shape based on his work done at a more mature age, the mists of the centuries obscuring the image of the young artist.
This, in part, explains the surprise now elicited by the remark of Giambattista Marino, an Italian poet and Poussin’s contemporary, which characterized the youthful Poussin as being filled with a “devilish ardour”. With this in mind, the dissatisfaction felt by Poussin at the studios of Parisian artists becomes more understandable. According to Bellori,
“he was striving for knowledge but found neither a teacher nor lessons to meet his aspirations… Over a short period he changed two teachers; one of little talent, the other – Ferdinand the Fleming – praised for his portraits; but both failed to further their gifted student’s understanding of the invention of historical scenes or the beauty of natural forms.”
These two teachers of Poussin were Ferdinand Elle and, most likely, Georges Lallemand. Poussin, according to another seventeenth-century author, left Lallemand’s studio after a month, or perhaps even less, and stayed in Elle’s for about three months, indicative of his disillusionment.
It is not by chance that biographers, after criticizing his teachers, proceed to relate Poussin’s discovery of engravings from the works of Raphael. The great Renaissance traditions proved to be the most attractive for the young artist, serving as compensation for the weakness of his casual Parisian teachers. A late seventeenth-century art treatise explains this as follows:
“Painting also gains from prints, and even to a greater degree than architecture, since they have given solid training to many artists. This is demonstrated by Marcantonio’s engravings after Raphael’s drawings, which taught many great graphic artists good taste in drawing. The famous Poussin is a good example of this, since during his youth in Paris he drew from excellent prints. It was then that this great painter fortunately appreciated the manner of Raphael and antiquity, which he successfully followed in all of his wonderful works.”
After Poussin’s unavailing stay in Poitou, his Paris life continued to be difficult. Poor health forced him to go back to his native Normandy for an entire year. Poussin returned to Paris (the exact date is unknown) and his painting studies but soon started to look for a way to go to Italy and see its Renaissance and classical art – something scarce in Paris…
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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