Nicolas Poussin: The Founder of French Classicism (Work & Bio)

Nicolas Poussin, the founder of French Classicism, was a key figure in 17th-century painting. Read and discover his fascinating life and work.

Jan 23, 2023By Vladislav Tchakarov, BA History



Nicolas Poussin is considered one of the greatest French artists of all time and the founder of French Classicism, he was well-educated as an expert in philosophy and literature. He was deeply engaged in the theory of art, in which, as in painting, he adhered to the principles of classicism (this trend is an imitation of ancient classicism), becoming one of the key figures of 17th-century painting.


Nicolas Poussin: His Early Life  

“The Israelites gathering Manna in the Desert”, from his first period in Rome
“The Israelites gathering Manna in the Desert”, from his first period in Rome


Poussin was born in Normandy, northern France and the nature of his native land inspired the artist all his life, next to the landscapes of his beloved Italy. Little is known about his early years. At the age of 18, he moved to Paris, without permission from his family, and traveled by foot.

Already in his student years, Poussin became interested in the art of the Renaissance and Antiquity. Following this new great interest in Antiquity, Poussin moved to Italy in order to further develop his skills. In the beginning, he spent time studying in Venice before finally arriving in Rome in 1624. Following the Italian classicists and studying their works, he soon became an artist in great demand. With the exception of a short period in Paris, Poussin spent his entire life in Rome.


What Was Poussin’s Style?

“The Adoration of the Magi”, 1633
“The Adoration of the Magi”, 1633


In his early period in Rome, Poussin made attempts to paint religious works for churches and establishments, which, however, did not bring him the recognition he desired. Needless to say, this is when he decided to forget about the Baroque style of painting.

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The cold response to his altarpieces and other works moved him towards a more classical style of painting. His paintings lost the common lustrous colors and adopted more of the cold and pure ones. You can see how his paintings became much more ordered. One of the first paintings from this transition period – “The Adoration of the Magi” from 1633 can be considered a manifesto of the change in style, although modeled after an earlier work by Raphael.


Poussin Caught the Attention of Cardinal Richelieu, First Minister of Louis XIII

“The Triumph of Bacchus”, commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu
“The Triumph of Bacchus”, commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu


Following his artistic conversion towards the Classical style, Poussin no longer accepted any commissions from churches and monasteries. Instead, he focused all his work towards private collectors and high nobles.

Soon enough, his fame and reputation had reached his homeland and Paris. He received a major commission from Cardinal Richelieu, the first minister of Louis XIII, for two canvases that were intended for his chateau. One of the two paintings was the famous “The Triumph of Bacchus”.


What Was Poussin’s Unhappiest (and Darkest) Period?

“Institution de l'Eucharistie“, large altarpiece from his period under Louis XIII in Paris, commissioned by St. Germain
“Institution de l’Eucharistie“, large altarpiece from his period under Louis XIII in Paris, commissioned by St. Germain


King Louis XIII was dearly impressed with his work and invited him to move to Paris, where he was immediately given the title Ordinary Painter of the King. He was given the task to decorate the Long Gallerie of the Louvre and to paint numerous altarpieces for the king and other high nobles.

While this may sound like an incredible honor and an opportunity that most painters would pay dearly for, Poussin was unhappy. The king appointed him many assistants that had to follow him everywhere and help him with the painting process – something that entirely disrupted his independence.

It is clearly visible how his works from this period were significantly darker, predominantly infused with themes of death and mortality. The colors had disappeared from his paintings which were consumed by darkness.


Why Was Poussin Known as ‘Raphael of the Century’ & ‘French Raphael’?

Nicolas Poussin Self-Portrait, Location: Louvre Museum, Paris
Nicolas Poussin Self-Portrait, Location: Louvre Museum, Paris


At the time, artists would study and improve their painting by copying the works of the great masters. One of the masters that had the largest influence over Poussin was Raphael, and this is clearly visible in many of his paintings.

You can see the rigorous composition, clean of unnecessary details in paintings from both artists, and the reason behind it may be their shared fascination for ancient cultures. In the later period of his life, Poussin painted a lot of dramatic paintings that revolved around history, once again taking inspiration from Raphael.

It is clear why after decades of success in Rome and Paris, Poussin was named the French Raphael – a well-deserved appellation that proves his genius and prominence in this art period.


What Are the Art Themes of a Poussin Painting?

“Autumn”, part of the “Four Seasons” cycle of paintings
“Autumn”, part of the “Four Seasons” cycle of paintings


The themes of the Poussin paintings are diverse: mythology, history, the New and Old Testaments. The heroes of Poussin are people of strong character and majestic deeds with high feelings of duty to society and the state. His paintings are poetically sublime; measure and order reign in everything. The color is built on the consonance of strong, deep tones. However, the best works of Poussin are deprived of cold rationality.

In the first period of creativity, harmony and the unity of man and nature was the main characteristic of his paintings. The sensual element in him became orderly, rational, everything had acquired the features of heroic, sublime beauty.

In the 40s, a turning point was observed in his work. During his period in Paris in the court of the king, where he was deeply unhappy, his paintings were cold and abstract, losing their bright and warm colors.

In the last years of his life, Poussin drew many landscapes. He created a wonderful cycle of paintings, the “Four Seasons”, which has a symbolic meaning and personifies the periods of earthly human existence.


Nicolas Poussin’s Paintings Sold in Recent Auctions

Two Putti Fighting, Mounted on Goats
Two Putti Fighting, Mounted on Goats


Three significant works by Poussin have been sold at auctions at Sotheby’s in recent years for over 3 million dollars combined. It is clear that the numbers you will see below do not stand near the record-breaking prices at auctions that we have been witnessing in recent years but that does not change the importance and brilliance of the paintings and their artist – Nicolas Poussin.

The painting “Two Putti Fighting, Mounted on Goats” is only just a fragment of a once larger piece of art by Poussin. This was revealed from a pen drawing by Poussin that showed the figures of two nymphs standing on the left of the putti. While the relation between the actual painting and the drawing has not been entirely confirmed, Poussin was known for the long and exhausting preparations he took before starting a painting. With this knowledge, it comes close to mind that the drawing could be part of his preparation process or a sketch of an older piece of art that Poussin was studying previously.

The painting was sold in 2015 at Sotheby’s for $149 000 with a pre-auction estimates of 150 000 – 200 000 USD.


The Baptism of Christ

The Baptism of Christ, Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665, via Sotheby’s.
The Baptism of Christ, Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665, via Sotheby’s.


In a recent Sotheby’s auction, 4 December 2019, an incredible spiritual panel painted by Poussin sold for over 2 million dollars. This rare panel called “The Baptism of Christ” was commissioned by the elder brother of two of Poussin’s closest friends – Jean Fréart de Chambray. The pre-sale estimate was 1,5 – 2 million GBP, with a realized price of 1 815 000 GBP.

Poussin painted very few panels and even fewer works of such small size throughout his life as he was accustomed to canvas painting and large pieces. Nevertheless, this commission was very personal to him, and this can be seen in the abundance of preserved letters of correspondence that addressed this painting.


Narcissus Gazing at His Reflection and Cupid Shooting an Arrow, in a Landscape

Narcissus gazing at his reflection and cupid shooting an arrow, in a landscape, Nicolas Poussin, via Sotheby’s.
Narcissus gazing at his reflection and cupid shooting an arrow, in a landscape, Nicolas Poussin, via Sotheby’s.


The most recent auction that included a work by Poussin was held on 29 January 2020, once again at Sotheby’s. Depicting the famous Narcissus myth, this painting, known as “Narcissus Gazing at His Reflection and Cupid Shooting an Arrow”, was sold for $680 000, from a pre-estimate of $400 000-600 000.

The existence of this painting was unknown to scholars until its reappearance at an auction in 1997. Apart from being an original work by Poussin, its history has not yet been confirmed to this day. The exact year and date of creation are unknown although Sir Denis Mahon suggested 1627 as it would fit a period of Poussin’s creative life during which he favored mythological scenes and landscapes.



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By Vladislav TchakarovBA HistoryVladislav Tchakarov is a History student at Sofia University in Bulgaria and a contributing writer at TheCollector. Originally from Bulgaria, he moved to the Netherlands to work and study Business Management before realizing that his passion for history is too great which lead to his return to Bulgaria and the beginning of his History studies.