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Nicolas Poussin was born in June 1594 near Les Andelys in the region of Normandy, according to his early biographer and friend, Giovanni Pietro Bellori. In his youth, Poussin would focus all his time filling his sketchbooks with several kinds of imaginative figures that only his mind could create, according to his also friend and biographer Andre Felibien.
Although it’s unclear if Poussin studied under Quentin Varin, his early sketches surely caught the artist’s attention. Also, Varin’s influences are notable in Poussin’s later work, regarding his attention to facial expression, storytelling, and vibrant colors.
At eighteen years old, he ran away to Paris, as his parents opposed him pursuing a career as a painter. Poussin would arrive in Paris in a favorable moment, as the city was flourishing during Marie de Medici’s regency, and the Queen would give many commissions for the palace decoration.
There was also a rising number of wealthy merchants who also bought art, as well as commissions to redecorate rebuilt structures damaged or destroyed around Paris during the French Wars of Religion. However, as Poussin was not a member of the most powerful guild of sculptors and painters in the city, he would not receive many art commissions, because of the monopoly of most of them, and would even bring lawsuits against outsiders.
Poussin’s early drawings granted him a position in the studios of well-established painters. For about three months, the artist worked at Ferdinand Elle’s studio. Elle was a Flemish painter who painted mostly portraits, a style that vaguely interested young Poussin. Subsequently, the artist ingressed in Georges Lallemand’s studio. However, Poussin was possibly displeased with the teacher’s inattention to accurate drawing and inconsistent articulation of his figures.
Upon perceiving that he was unsuited to work in a studio system, Poussin preferred to paint alone and very slowly. Little is known about his period in Paris. However, Poussin certainly came in contact, through print reproductions, with artworks by Giulio Romano and, most notably, Raphael, whose impactful artworks became a key influence on Poussin’s paintings.
In 1624, Poussin went to Rome in 1624, where he was able to study thoroughly the works of Renaissance painters, such as the Carracci family and Raphael, whose artworks Poussin loathed. He was also inspired by Baroque artists, such as Guido Reni and Caravaggio. In Rome, the artist also befriended other notable artists, such as Claude Lorraine, Andrea Sacchi, and Jacques Stella.
Towards the end of his life, Poussin lived a comfortable life, working at a slow pace and without any assistants. French painter Charles Le Brun eventually joined the artist in Rome. This period would consolidate Poussin as a pivotal influence on Le Brun’s artwork.