NICOLAS POUSSIN (1594-1665), French painter, was born at Les Andelys (Eure) in June 1594. Early sketches, made when he should have been learning Latin, attracted the notice of Quentin Varin, a local painter, whose pupil Poussin became, till he went to Paris, where he entered the studio of Ferdinand Elle, a Fleming, and then of the Lorrainer L'Allemand. He found French art in a stage of transition : the old apprenticeship system was disturbed, and the academical schools destined to supplant it were not yet established; but, having been brought into relations with Courtois the mathematician, Poussin was fired by the study of his collection of engravings after Italian masters, and resolved to go to Italy. After two abortive attempts to reach Rome, and when he was again on the road, he fell in with the chevalier Marini at Lyons. Marini employed him on illustrations to his poems, took him into his household, and in 1624 enabled Poussin (who had been detained by commissions in Lyons and Paris) to rejoin him at Rome. There, his patron having died, Poussin fell into great distress; but his high qualities had won him friends amongst his brother artists, and on his falling ill he was received into the house of his compatriot Dughet and tenderly nursed by his daughter Anna Maria, to whom in 1629, when his affairs were easier, Poussin was married. Amongst his first patrons were Cardinal Barberini, for whom was painted the Death of Germanicus (Barberini Palace); Cardinal Omodei, for whom he produced, in 1630, the Triumphs of Flora (Louvre); Cardinal de Richelieu, who commissioned a Bacchanal (Louvre); Vicenzo Giustiniani, for whom was executed the Massacre of the Innocents, of which there is a first sketch in the British Museum; Cassiano dal Pozzo, who became the owner of the first series of the Seven Sacraments (Belvoir Castle); and Fieart de Chanteloup, with whom in 1640 Poussin, at the call of Sublet De Noyers, returned to France. He was well received by Louis XIII., who conferred on him the title of "first painter in ordinary," and in two years at Paris he produced not only several pictures for the royal chapels (the Last Supper, painted for Versailles, now in the Louvre) but eight cartoons for the Gobelins, the series of the Labours of Hercules for the Louvre, the Triumph of Truth for Cardinal Richelieu (Louvre), and much minor work; but in 1643, annoyed and disgusted by the intrigues of Simon Vouët, Feuquières, and the architect Lemercier, Poussin withdrew to Rome. There, in 1648, he finished, for De Chanteloup the second series of the Seven Sacraments (Bridgewater Gallery), and also his noble landscape with Diogenes throwing away his Scoop (Louvre); in 1649 he painted the Vision of St Paul (Louvre) for the comic poet Scarron, and in 1651 the Holy Family (Louvre) for the duke of Créqui. Year by year he continued to produce an enormous variety of works, many of which are included in the list given by Félibien, in which we find the names of Pointel the banker, Cardinal Manimo, Madame Mauroi, and others. He is said to have settled in a house on the Pincio, but in 1656, the year of the plague, he is entered in the census as living with his wife in the Via Paolina. He died in November 1665 and was buried in the church of St Lawrence in Lucina, his wife having predeceased him.
The finest collection of Poussin's paintings as well as of his drawings is possessed by the Louvre ; but, besides the pictures in the National Gallery and at Dulwich, England possesses several of his most considerable works : the Triumph of Pan is at Basildon (Berkshire), and his great allegorical painting of the Arts at Knowsley. At Rome, in the Colonna and Valentini Palaces, are notable works by him, and one of the private apartments of Prince Doria is decorated by a great series of landscapes in distemper, which are little known. Throughout his life he stood aloof from the popular movement of his native school. French art in his day was purely decorative, but in Poussin we find a survival of the impulses of the Renaissance coupled with conscious reference to classic work as the standard of excellence. In general we see his paintings at a great disadvantage, for the colour, even of the best preserved, has changed in parts, so that the keeping is disturbed ; and the noble construction of his designs can be better seen in engravings than in the original. Amongst the many who have reproduced his works the two Audran, Claudine Stella, Picart, and Pesne are the most successful.
Poussin left no children, but he adopted as his son Caspar Dughet, his wife's brother, who took the name of Poussin. GASPARD POUSSIN (1613-1675) devoted himself to landscape painting and rendered admirably the severer beauties of the Roman Campagna ; a noteworthy series of works in tempera representing various sites near Rome is to be seen in the Colonna Palace, but one of his finest easel-pictures, the Sacrifice of Abraham, formerly the property of the Colonna, is now, with other works by the same painter, in the English National Gallery. The frescos executed by Gaspar Poussin in S. Martino di Monti are in a bad state of preservation. The Louvre does not possess a single work by his hand. Gaspar died at Rome in 1675.
Sandrart, Acad. nob. art. pict.; Lettres de Nicolas Poussin (Paris, 1824) ; Félibien, Entretiens ; Gault de St Germain, Vie de Nicolas Poussin ; D'Argenville, Abrégé de la Vie des Peintres ; Bouchitté, Poussin et son uvre ; Emilia F. S. Pattison, " Documents inédits, Le Poussin," in L'Art (1882).