These are the 12 most famous paintings by Nicolas Poussin who was the most important Baroque painter of the 17th century. He was the originator of classicism who lived in Paris and Rome. During his stay in the French capital, he served as the Fist Painter to the ruling king, Louis XII.
His paintings can be described as clear and in order, and he favored line over color. Each of his paintings tells a story, oftentimes mythological or religious, so he never painted contemporary subjects (aside from his self-portraits)
The Rape of the Sabine Women (1638)
The Rape of the Sabine Women is also known as the Abduction of the Sabine Women or the Kidnapping of the Sabine Women. It is one of the most famous paintings by Nicholas Poussin and depicts an incredibly famous scene from early Roman mythology, but the word rape should be understood as kidnap because the word rapto (meaning to kidnap) in Romance languages.
After founding Rome, Romulus, the first king, wanted the city to grow and strengthen. His main concern was that Roman citizens were predominantly male and that women were in smaller numbers. On the advice of the Senate, the Romans roamed the surrounding area in search of women who they can bring back to Rome and start a family with. But the woman refused. So, the Romans had an idea to organize a festival and invite their neighbors Sabines and kidnap their women. The plan worked, so thirty Sabine women were kidnapped and ordered to accept Roman men as their new partners.
Et in Arcadia ego (1638)
Et in Arcadia ego is also known as Les bergers d’Arcadie or The Arcadian Shepherds. This idealized pastoral scene depicts people dressed in the garments of classical antiquity and a woman. They are all gathered around an austere tomb and are reading an epigraphic inscription. This painting has a sculpted version – a marble bas-relief as a part of Poussin’s tomb in Rome.
The Crossing of the Red Sea (1634)
This bronze-toned and Old Testament-inspired painting titled The Crossing of the Red Sea shows Moses guiding the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land. When they reached the Red Sea, Bible tells us that Moses stretched out his arm and that the water divided, allowing the group to pass safely. As the Pharaoh and his army followed them, they went after them through the divided sea, but God commanded Moses to stretch out his hand once again, so the sea engulfed the army.
Holy Family (1649)
In the sole center of this painting, The Holy Family is Mary, presenting Christ to the world. Saint Elizabeth is on the left, foretelling his eventual death, while Saint John the Baptist, her son, offers Jesus an apple (a symbol of the apple from the Garden of Eden). Saint Joseph is shown on the left, holding a compass (a symbol of God).
The Inspiration of the Poet (1630)
Inspiration du poète or The Inspiration of the Poet is a classicist painting, with once again mythological motifs. It depicts Apollo, Cupids, and one of the Muses who is getting ready to crown a poet who is writing. It is antiquity-themed and was painted during Poussin’s Roman artistic period. The model for the Muse was the artist’s wife Anna Dughet.
Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun (1658)
Orion was the son of the god of the sea, Poseidon, and Euryale, who was the daughter of King Minos of Crete. Poseidon gave his son a gift to walk on water, and he is often described as a giant hunter, who was armed with an unbreakable club of solid bronze.
He was blinded by the king of Chios, who disapproved of his love for his daughter. The only way Orion could have his sight back was if he set his eyes on Helios (sun god) at the moment he rises from the Ocean. Poussin’s painting Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun depicts his quest for the rising Sun.
The Annunciation (1657)
The Annunciation shows Archangel Gabriel announcing the pregnancy of Jesus Christ to the Virgin Mary. Above the Holy Ghost, a dove hovers, with a luminous atmosphere around her. What is unique is that Poussin decided to depict Mary in the cross-legged pose, wearing a yellow cloak (symbol of hope). It is also interesting that the Archangel’s wings are in three colors, rather than just one.
Landscape with Saint John on Patmos (1640)
Landscape with Saint John on Patmos shows Sint John who wrote the Gospels of the New Testament and an eagle (his attribute). Saint John is depicted as an old man on the Greek island of Pathmos, where he wrote his gospel and the book f Revelation. His profile is shown in harmony and in a classical landscape, often a Poussin motif.
Triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite (1636)
This painting is also called Birth of Venus. It shows a crowd of figures, sitting on a beach, with putti (figures of winged male children) flying above them. It resembles Birth of Venus by Botticelli, which is also showing the arrival of the goddess. What is also interesting is that this was belonging to Catherine the Great (1762-1796), queen of Russia, but was sold by the Soviet Russian government in the 1930s.
Massacre of the Innocents (1629)
This painting was commissioned by a Roman collector called Vincenzo Giustiniani, who wanted to preserve a memory of Giustiani children, members of a noble Venetian family, who were kidnapped by the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire in the 1560s. It depicts a tragic scene of a mother trying to protect her son.
Apollo and Daphne (1664)
Apollo and Daphne is a myth from ancient Greek mythology, which was later used by the Romans. The character, besides Apollo (a warrior and god of archery and knowledge) and Daphne (a nymph and huntress), is Eros (or Cupid, Amor – god of love). As Apollo falls madly in love with Daphne, he finds out she is sworn to remain a virgin and she turns him down. He tried chasing her, but right at the moment he catches her, she turned into a laurel tree. In this painting, Apollo is seated and gazing at Daphne who is embracing her father (the god of the river). Cupid is aiming a leaden arrow at her so that she will flee from Apollo and refuse his love. This painting lacks the final brush strokes as Nicolas painted this not long before his passing.
A Dance to the Music of Time (1636)
A Dance to the Music of Time was painted in the 1630s as a commission for the future Pope Clement IX. It shows four dancing figures, holding each other by the hand. There are many interpretations of who these figures are. One of them is that in the right corner of the painting, Time plays an ancient musical instrument, the lyre. In the sky, the viewer can see the goddess of dawn, Aurora who is leading a chariot of the god of the Sun, Apollo, with a luminous ring representing the Zodiac. Another interpretation is that the figures symbolize poverty, labor, riches, and pleasure/luxury. Another one is that they show the four seasons.
What famous paintings by Nicolas Poussin do you think we should add to this list? Comment below.