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Nicolas Poussin was a French painter who was the founder and greatest practitioner of 17th-century French classical painting. His work symbolizes the virtues of logic, order, and clarity, and it has influenced the course of French art up to the present day.
Poussin was of peasant extraction, born near Les Andelys, Normandy, in June 1594. He studied painting in Paris and perhaps also Rouen. In 1624 he went to Rome, where, except for an 18-month sojourn in Paris from 1640 to 1642, he lived for the rest of his life. His early work in Rome reflects the crowded compositions and animated surfaces of mid-16th century Mannerism. About 1630 his style began to change as he drew away from the emerging exuberant baroque style and devoted himself entirely to his passion for the antique, concentrating on biblical and mythological subjects. At first his paintings, such as the Plague at Ashdod (1630-1631, Musée du Louvre, Paris), had the rich, glowing color of the Venetian artist Titian, but after 1633 Poussin moved steadily toward more sober, cool tonalities. His compositions became more serene and his figures more sculptural, echoing the mature paintings of Raphael, while he attempted to depict emotion through easily readable gestures, poses, and facial expressions, as in Adoration of the Golden Calf (1634?, National Gallery, London).
Poussin journeyed to Paris in 1640 with some reluctance, although the trip earned him the enduring patronage of wealthy bourgeois collectors and also cemented his relations with the French Académie Royale, which later elevated his style to the status of formal doctrine. His paintings of the next decade, from 1643 to 1653, such as Holy Family on the Steps (1648, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.), following his return to Rome, are the purest embodiment of French classicism. They are characterized by calm, structured composition, cool colors, hard, clear lighting, and a feeling of solemnity. During his last years, from 1653 to 1665, Poussin's style developed and changed. He minimized the actions and facial expressions of his subjects but maintained the emotional intensity of his paintings. Allegory, symbolism, and mysticism played an even greater role than before; his scenes were still, yet vital and intensely personal. Paintings like the Arcadian Shepherd (1656?, Musée du Louvre), in which he attained a monumental simplification and almost supernatural calm, went beyond the illustration of historical events to become symbols of eternal verities.
Poussin's belief that art should appeal to the mind rather than to the eye—that it should present the most noble and serious human situations in an orderly manner devoid of trivial detail or sensuous allure—became the basis of the French academic style of the 17th century. Until the 20th century he remained the dominant inspiration of such classically oriented artists as Jacques-Louis David, Jean August Dominique Ingres, and Paul Cezanne. He died in Rome on November 19, 1665.
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