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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665) was the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style, although he spent most of his working life in Rome. Most of his works were on religious and mythological subjects painted for a small group of Italian and French collectors. He returned to Paris for a brief period to serve as First Painter to the King under Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, but soon returned to Rome and resumed his more traditional themes. He was a major inspiration for such classically oriented artists as Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Paul Cézanne.

 A tour of Nicolas Poussin’s Art

  • The Crossing of the Red Sea
    • “The Crossing of the Red Sea” by Nicolas Poussin depicts the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites, from chapter 14 of the book of Exodus. Poussin’s composition of the classic Biblical story shows Moses with his hand raised, as through him, God completes the parting the Red Sea. The Israelites are shown in the aftermath of this event, awestruck and celebrating because they have escaped Pharoah’s army. Some of the Israelites are pulling from the waters, the armor and clothing of the drowned Egyptian military, after the Israelites had crossed in safety. Museum:  National Gallery of Victoria – NGV
  • A Dance to the Music of Time
    • “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Nicolas Poussin is a painting whose exact meaning is not known. One interpretation is that the picture represents the passing of time and the different stages of life. Its iconography depicts the revolving wheel of fortune: poverty, labor, wealth, and pleasure. Poussin’s paintings are based on a historical iconographic that was understood by his patrons of the 1600s. Poverty is the male figure at the very back of the circle. He dances with his back turned towards the viewer, barefoot and of low status, looking towards Labour. Labour, represented as a healthy young woman, dancing barefoot whose bare shoulders and hair cover represent hard work, she is eagerly trying to grasp Wealth’s hand. Wealth is a young woman with paler skin who dances with golden sandals and robe; she is reluctantly reaching out to Labour’s hand. Pleasure is the young woman in blue who gazes at the viewer with a smirk and a flushing face. Museum: Wallace Collection
  • The Arcadian Shepherds
    • “The Arcadian Shepherds” by Nicolas Poussin depicts a pastoral scene with idealized shepherds from classical antiquity gathered around a tomb. The painting’s original title was “Et in Arcadia ego,” a phrase that translates to “Even in Arcadia; there am I.” The traditional interpretation of this term is that “I” refers to Death, and “Arcadia” means a perfect land. It is thus a reflection on mortality, especially the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all worldly goods and pursuits. The term Arcadia symbolized pure, rural, idyllic life, far from the city. This term was used as a contrast to the many Ancient Greeks who lived in the city-states close to the sea and led the busy urban life of the polis. Only the Arcadians, in the middle of the Peloponnese, which lacked cities led the ideal shepherd’s life. Museum: Louvre
  • Spring or The Earthly Paradise
    • Spring or The Earthly Paradise by Nicolas Poussin depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden next to the Tree of Knowledge. This scene is before the original sin and the expulsion from Eden. No snake is visible as Eve points out the forbidden fruit. The composition is dominated by vegetated wood with varying gradations of greenery. Adam and Eve are but a small part of the woodland, dwarfed by nature. The foreground is dimly lit as if it is the morning before the distance morning sun reveals the swans on a lake with meadows and mountain. The early morning light can also be seen glimmering through a gap in the rocks and shrubs in the middle ground, echoing the Birth of Bacchus symbolically. Museum: Louvre
  • Summer, or Ruth and Boaz
    • Summer or Ruth and Boaz by Nicolas Poussin depicts Ruth the Moabite kneels before Boaz. The cornfield forms the center of the painting with layers of corn which are detailed with individual stems. In the middle ground, the reapers and a group of horses are all engaged their pastoral work as a peasant plays on bagpipes to the right. On the left, a reaper quenching his thirst while two women prepare bread in the shade of the large tree. The screen is full of the symbols of plenty and the rewards of work. Museum: Louvre
  • Autumn or The Spies with the Grapes of the Promised Land
    • “Autumn” by Nicolas Poussin is also known as “The Spies with the Grapes of the Promised Land” depicts a scene in which long shadows are cast by the evening sun, whose fading light catches a town nestling under a mountain in the distance and buildings perched on a rocky ledge to the right. The central figures of the composition are from the story in the Old Testament, Book of Numbers in which two Israelite spies return to their camp with the Grapes of the Promised Land. In Poussin’s interpretation, they need a pole to carry the large grapes, whose size is symbolic of the Promised Land. One of the spies also holds a branch of huge oranges. Museum: Louvre
  • Winter or Flood
    • Winter or The Flood by Nicolas Poussin depicts the final stages of the horrific cataclysm of The Flood with the rising waters covering the plain with the last few rocky outcrops disappearing under the waters. The moonlit scene is colored in different shades of bluey-grey, interrupted by flashes of lightning. The outlines of Noah’s Ark is floating in the far distance. Surrounded by jagged rocks and a few remaining trees, the stranded survivors in the foreground are facing impending doom. Museum: Louvre

Nicolas Poussin

A Tour of Artists

Reflections

  • “Every time I leave a Poussin, I know better who I am.” – Cézanne
  • “Poussin was one of the greatest innovators found in the history of painting.” – Ingres

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“Every time I leave a Poussin, I know better who I am.”
– Cézanne

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Photo Credit: 1) Nicolas Poussin [Public domain]

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