Nicolas Poussin is considered one of the Masters of painting. Very little is known about his early years, but the artist’s surviving work is a testament to his revolutionary style at a time of much artistic upheaval. His paintings are characterized by his ability to create intensely dramatic compositions that are moderated by formal design.
Poussin received his first formal artistic training from Quentin Varin, a painter travelling in the Normandy region in 1612. Shortly thereafter, Poussin headed to Rouen, then Paris. By 1624, Poussin was settled in Rome after spending many years travelling around France and Italy.
Once in Rome, Poussin read poetry, ancient literature, and various philosophical treatises while studying under a handful of contemporaneous painters. This environment provided the artist with a solid foundation in painting styles of the day, while allowing him to become acquainted with Greco-Roman mythology and allegory. Poussin’s greatest work would balance these two concepts, representing elements of myth or religious episodes in a concrete, highly-defined space and time. His paintings are almost theatrical in their clarity and distinct narrative. He developed theories on the use of light and colour to enhance the mood of a scene. Such developments are visible in The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus where the intensity of colour reflects the emotion of the narrative. In order to achieve the proper play of light in complex works such as this, Poussin would create miniature wax figures and place them within a stage set in a shadow box.
Poussin received many public commissions, even a summons from King Louis XIII of France to paint the Grande Galerie of the Louvre in 1639. Poussin’s meticulous, rather slow approach to painting was more suited to private commissions and the artist would increasingly seek to create smaller-scale works for individuals. The morality, psychological intensity, and rational approach to narrative that Poussin would invest in all of his mature works elevated the artist in the eyes of his contemporaries and his followers: the artist was dubbed a ‘pictor philosophus,’ a philosophical creator. Nicolas Poussin died in Rome in 1665.