Nicolas Poussin & the Perfection of Drawing

Amid the great names of the 17th century, French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) was one of the greatest. An innovative figure that had an uncanny ability to blend academic refinement with classical trends of his day, Poussin yielded a remarkably varied body of work. Amidst his vast oeuvre of paintings, Poussin was also a prolific draftsman, dedicating a significant portion of his study to drawings and sketches after the masterworks of earlier generations. These drawings, many of which are still documented today, reveal both Poussin's talents as an artist and his fascination with the classical world.

Nicolas Poussin

Two Girls Accompanied by Cupid, c. 1625 Pen and brown ink and brown wash over black chalk – J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

A native of France's Normandy region, Poussin moved to Paris in his late teen years. While there, Poussin took particular interest in the work of the previous era's artists. He was entranced, for example, by the art as Raphael (1483-1520), whose paintings espoused the lines of classicism, as well as Titian (1490-1576), whose Venetian heritage resulted in highly honed rich color. Having witnessed these artist's works, Poussin felt the pull of Rome, so much so that he left Paris for the Eternal City in 1624 in hopes of absorbing the brilliant classicism that was defining paintings of the day.

Nicolas Poussin

Studies of Antiquities, c. 1645 Pen and brown ink with later red chalk framing lines – J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

His time in Italy was remarkably formative, as his exposure to both the art of antiquity and of the 16th century was resonant in Poussin's body of work for the remainder of his career. This was in part owed to his circle of associates. In addition to the camaraderie of fellow painter Simon Vouet (1590-1649) (who would go on to become Poussin's rival), Poussin also made the acquaintance of Cassiano del Pozzo, who encouraged the study of the classical world. Cassiano was also incredibly influential in helping Poussin secure some of his earliest commissions in Rome, ensuring his longstanding success in the city.

Nicolas Poussin

Landscape with a Portico, 1642-1645 Brush and brown wash – Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

While Poussin is celebrated today for many of these significant commissions, a look to his drawings and sketches can be equally fascinating. Throughout his extended sojourn to Rome – he would stay there essentially for the remainder of his life – Poussin absorbed the plethora of art around him. He sketched after the numerous antiquities that peppered the city as well as the art of his relative contemporaries, including the fresco of Parnassus by Raphael in the Vatican apartments.

Classical Landscape with Figures, 1646-1647 Brush and brown wash over black chalk sketch – Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.


His drawings reveal his true passion for the study of past masters, but they also showcase his remarkably virtuosity as an artist. Deft strokes, combined with subtle shading, result in drawings as compelling as his finished oils. Poussin's indebtedness to this study fueled his art until the very end of his career. Today, it serves as a fantastic reminder of the passion that Poussin brought to his art. Have you had a chance to view Poussin's drawings in person? Tell us your story!

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