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LIFE OF NICHOLAS POUSSIN.
WE will not repeat the trite com mon-places about the biography of illustrious men, and the importance of transmitting to posterity a faithful and honest record of the mental achievements of those who have risen to eminence in the walks of literature, science, or the arts, by the combined efforts of genius and perseverance; or, by fortunate inventions and discoveries, have extended the range of human knowledge and power-these are topics which make part of that intuitive knowledge of which every man possesses more or less, as the range of his mind is circumscribed within a smaller or larger circle, and which may be weakened, but cannot be enforced, by the formality of a technical statement and illustration. On the present occasion, however, while we would avoid truisms and tritical remarks with the most sedulous care, we may, nevertheless, be permitted to observe, that there is no individual biography on record, at least we are acquainted with none, which affords, at once, so much instruction and unalloyed pleasure, as that of the illustrious artist who forms the subject of the present memoir. Moralists have often said that idleness is the parent of vice: and, if this maxim be true, it must follow, conversely, that constant and unre
Chiefly abridged from the Life of Nicholas Poussin; by Mrs Graham. Longman and Co. London, and Constable and Co. Edinburgh, 1820.
mitting exertion is, if not the parent of virtue, at least the best safeguard against temptation, in every possible form. The restless mind of man has an incessant craving for sensation and excitement; and unless this propensity be happily directed to the attainment of objects in themselves desirable and honourable, it will compass its own gratification at the expence of every sober and virtuous habit, and of every reasonable and acknowledged moral restraint. Where the field is uncultivated or neglected, the devil sows tares. The morality of a character seems, in fact, mainly to depend on the tone given to the mind towards some active pursuit; and hence men, whose tempers and dispositions are neither amiable nor virtuous, but who are immersed in business, or the votaries of ambition, are, on the average, far less vicious and depraved than they would have be come had their minds been thrown back on their own resources, and had they been left without any marked line of conduct to pursue, or any enviable or desirable object to attain. But if such be the beneficial influence of exertion, even on minds of no amiable or divine mould, the inference is certainly fair, that, on gentle and quiescent spirits, strangers equally to the stormy and malevolent passions of ambition and envy, and unschooled in the vices, and craft, and sophistications, of the world, the effects of constant and enthusiastic devotion to a favourite pursuit will be, to preserve, in their characters and morals, a sort of primitive innocence and in
fantine simplicity and purity, strange ly, perhaps, contrasting with high mental excellence and great intellectual power, with a reputation, the reward of successful exertion, and too great to be affected by time or accident, with powers of deep reasoning, or original conception,-of all-grasp ing comprehension and minute research. That these observations apply closely to the subject of the following memoir will, we trust, be made apparent before we have advanced far in our narrative.
The family of Poussin, though poor, was, we are assured, noble. His father was a native of Soissons, and served with credit in the army during the reigns of the three successive monarchs, Charles IX. Henry III. and Henry IV. Like many of his fellow-soldiers at the period when he quitted the army, he had nothing left in possession but the honour he had acquired; and was subsequently reduced to the greatest indigence. With his wife, the widow of Le Moine, a solicitor of Vernon, whom he had married after the capture of that place, he retired to Andelys, in Normandy, sometime in the year 1592; and, in June 1594, the subject of this memoir was born. Of the youthful predilections, habits, and progress of Nicholas Poussin, nothing is known; and we shall not, therefore, imitate Mrs Graham, in hazarding conjectures -when we are destitute of facts. Passeri tells us, it is true, that Poussin was chidden by his master for scrawling wretched figures on the blank leaves of his books, but so has every younker who, for the first time, has got hold of a bad pen and worse ink, and conceived himself privileged to maculate and defile ad libitum. Future are not always indicated by early predilections.
Quintin Varin, who had some celebrity as a painter, was the first to notice the rising talents of Poussin, and to attempt to attract them to the centre of his own interest; and after some battling with John Poussin, the father, who seems to have cherished a military hatred of the arts, the son was handed over to Varin as a pupil. But he did not long remain in this obscure situation. A country town, and a common sign post painter, were not just the most delightful objects in the universe to
the sanguine and juvenile imagination of the pupil of Varin. Accordingly, at the age of eighteen, the only age at which he could ever have done so wild a thing, he set out for Paris, without either money, interest, or friends. Genius, however, is never wholly depressed. He engaged himself successively to several masters, from whom he received such instructions as the wretched and degraded state of the arts at that time in France permitted, and, during this period, succeeded in gaining the friendship of Phillipe de Champagne, from which he afterwards derived singular advantage, and also recommended himself to a young nobleman of Poitou, then attending the University of Paris, who generously supplied him with money to enable him to prosecute his studies, and had him introduced to every person of his acquaintance likely to facilitate his progress, and, among others, to Courtois, the king's mathematician, and then employed at the Louvre. This introduction procured him access to Courtois's excellent collection of prints, many of which were by Marco Antonio, and Giulio Romano, and which Poussin most indefatigably and carefully copied. This appears to have been the first event in his life that opened his eyes to the force and grandeur of composition and design, and which, says Mrs Graham, gave" him the first glimpse of that light he had so ardently longed for." Soon after this, Poussin, in an evil hour, accepted the invitation of the young nobleman, who had shown him such disinterested friendship, and accompanied him to his seat in the country, which he meant to ornament and embellish, with the pencil of his friend. The mother of this nobleman, however, appears to have had but small relish for the society of a young painter, and to have been, in fact, a most bru tal and ferocious termagant: She managed every thing, and her son among the rest; ridiculed and insulted his friend; laughed at and interrupted his pursuits; loaded him with domestic drudgery; and at last, by her detestable usage, drove him, gentle and forgiving as he was, to leave her house, and to set out again, on foot, for Paris, as usual, totally without money or friends.
Accordingly, he now began to feel,
in good earnest, the effects of poverty, depression of spirits, and disease. Compelled to labour, not for improvement, but bread, he succeeded in procuring only a scanty subsistence, which, with the unremitting labour to which he had tasked himself, brought on a severe and dangerous illness which had nearly cost him his life. When he had recovered a little, he returned into Normandy, and lived a year at Andelys, in the bosom of his family, during which time he used to paint sometimes in distemper, and sometimes in oil," for very low prices!" To this practice he was driven by his necessities; and we agree with Mrs Graham in thinking, that, to his early practice in painting in distemper, is to be ascribed the hardness observable even in his best and most classical performances, while it cannot, at the same time, be denied, that it must have given him great readiness and facility. Shortly after his recovery, he made an unsuccessful attempt to reach Rome, the great centre of art, as she had, in former times, been of empire, but the exhausted state of his funds, and the perfection to which painting had been carried in many of the towns of Italy,-which rendered it impossible for a young and unpractised artist to subsist by his pencil merely,-prevented him from proceeding farther than Florence, whence he soon returned to Paris, and applied himself more intensely than ever to the study of anatomy, optics, and perspective, which kindred sciences he was enabled successfully to prosecute, by the friendship of Phillipe de Chainpagne, who placed him in the College of Laon. After some time vigorously devoted to study and to assisting Duchesne, an inferior painter, he made another attempt to reach his beloved Italy, but was again arrested on his way by illness, but too apparently the result of excessive poverty. His only resource, when convalescent, was to return to Paris, where a new scene unexpectedly opened to him.
In 1623, the Jesuits resolved to celebrate the canonization of Loyola and Xavier, their patron saints, when the pupils of the College determined to commit to enduring canvass a few of the more famous miracles of these notable worthies. Of these pictures Poussin painted six in less than a
week, and gained such credit for the wonderful rapidity with which he painted wonders, that his reputation seemed to be all at once established as a painter of genius and promise. Although the details of these works were necessarily negligent, they exhibited a grandeur of conception and design, which, while they vindicate the taste and discrimination of the Jesuits, were never wasted on a more unworthy, not to say detestable, subject.
Poussin now became a man of notoriety. His acquaintance was sought by eminent men, several of whom became his warm and zealous friends. Of these, the most remarkable, every way, was the Chevalier Marini, who not merely recommended him to the notice of some courtiers, but conferred on him the far higher and more praiseworthy service of assisting him in acquiring a more complete acquaintance with the Latin and Italian classics. "Marini gave Poussin an apartment in his house, and as his own health was at that time extremely deranged, (the author means his bodily health,) he loved to have Foussin by the side of his couch, where he drew or painted, while Marini read aloud to him, from some Latin or Italian author." In this way Poussin acquired a fondness for the great works of the Latin muse, and an intimate knowledge of classical fictions, allusions, allegories, and personages; and learned to form those fine though austere ideal conceptions of nymphs, fairies, and bacchanals, with which so many of his pictures are filled, and of which Sir Joshua Reynolds remarks, (Fifth Discourse,) "No painter was ever better qualified to paint such subjects, not only from his being eminently skilled in the knowledge of the ceremonies, customs, and habits of the ancients, but from his being so well acquainted with the dif ferent characters, which those who invented them gave to their allegorical figures." Poussin did not, however, confine his attention merely to the study of the classics, and of those beautiful mythological allegories, and personifications with which they abound; he strove to extend his acquaintance with that noblest part of philosophy which gives an insight into human nature, and reconciles and explains, and harmonizes the appa