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Poussin Nicolas - The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites copy
The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, ca.1624

Born on June 15, 1594, Nicolas Poussin was another giant of French painting whose attention to composition, line and color make him easily identifiable as one of the greats. I wanted to do a post of him earlier but ran out of time due to a new work schedule (better late than never, I always say!) Poussin is unique in that he could more than hold his own in Classical, landscape and historical painting...his name is synonymous with harmony and perfection, which would have a massive influence on French art from the Academic style right up until the Cubists.

The painting above is an extremely busy composition, and very atypical of Poussin's usual balanced, quiet subject matter. In this particular battle, Joshua and the Hebrews are determined to completely destroy the Amalekites, a ruthless tribe who were considered even worse than the Philistines, who attacked the Hebrews shortly after they fled Egypt. So, under commandment by God, Joshua and his people basically kick ass over the entire tribe, including women and children. Poussin definitely conveys the atmosphere of war, yet still manages to create vivid color harmony in the process. All the figures seem to be facing all directions to heighten the chaos, yet it is the three main fighters in the foreground with bows and arrows that lead the eye to the defeated Amalekites on the left. Note in the background we see Moses on his knees praying for victory against a serene sky above. Good Old Testament ass-kicking...

Nicolas Poussin - La Mort de Germanicus
La Mort de Germanicus,1627

A more typical Poussin, here we see the death of one of Rome's greatest war heroes, which apparently caused a lot of grief throughout the citizens of the Republic. Poussin's use of red to punctuate the drama repeats itself here again. A basically horizontal composition dominates the work, yet the vertical architecture of the background counterbalances perfectly. There is a strong sense of both space and intimacy by combining the architecture with this group of mourners, covered in blue cloth. The soldiers are on the left while the common citizens are on the right. The French palette of combining blues and reds in costumes is most likely a Poussin invention, and it is still pleasing to the eye today. Another interesting detail to note is his attention to facial expression, something he didn't take lightly even in large paintings — Poussin would have made a formidable portrait painter. In many of the figures here one can definitely see the influence of Raphael, both in anatomy, posing and facial structure.

Nicolas Poussin - The Nurture of Bacchus - WGA18285
The Nurture of Bacchus, ca.1630-1635

Moving on to the more sensual side of Poussin, warm figures against a dark background. Note again the use of red. Despite his Classical reputation Poussin reveals a deeply passionate sensibility in his work, handling each subject and theme with just the right amount of drama and grace. Even in the way we see a satyr feeding young Bacchus from a plate, hoofed legs carefully folded on the blanket to the baby angel resting on the goddess, Poussin resists stereotypes. There is a sense of harmony and peacefulness even with the nudity and sensuality.

Nicolas Poussin - Apollo and the Muses (Parnassus) - WGA18307
Apollo and the Muses (Parnassus), ca. 1630

I love this painting. Despite its theatrical and contrived appearance, it works. Poussin's love of harmony and balance is clearly evident yet he also infuses warm and cool colors effortlessly. Again, we see the strong horizontal counterbalanced by vertical tree trunks. Poussin appears to have a fascination with the number four: four cherubs floating high above in the background, two pairs of male figures book ending the painting on both sides, and two groups of four women muses in the background. I love how the blues of the sky with rich clouds above provides a soothing backdrop to this mythological scene. Even the cool greens of the trees catch the eye. This painting is not just a sumptuous treat for our senses, but a harmony of humanity and nature.

Nicolas Poussin 'Jupiter and Antiope' or 'Venus and Satyr'
Jupiter and Antiope or Venus and Satyr, 1600's

This highly erotic painting leaves little doubt as to its meaning, and quite surprising for the time. Poussin uses a dominant warm palette with only her lower body and the forearm of the satyr bathed in a soft light. The satyr shushes Cupid as he knows that getting some has little to do with true love. Note the look of confusion on Cupid's face. Had an Italian artist dared to paint such a theme he would have certainly had to answer to the Inquisition...I suspect this was a private commission!

Nicolas Poussin 010
The Martydom of St. Erasmus, 1628

Again, this is a complex subject matter that Poussin handles deftly, in fact so much that one can really appreciate the intellect as well as the artist. St. Erasmus, or Saint Elmo, patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain, is shown here being brutally tortured because of his unwillingness to stop preaching the gospel. His intestines are being pulled out of his stomach and wound around a windlass. Note again the powerful use of red here to underline the drama unfolding. Curiously Poussin uses a dominant vertical composition to reveal the one-sided violence against an innocent person. The facial expressions are real and unstaged. Note the prophet pointing to the heavens above. Elmo is foreshortened and bound by the wrists yet appears dignified and strong. The figure arrangement is a complex series of triangles that can be studied endlessly. Poussin takes the savage and unreal and makes it into something visually striking, even poetic.

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