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Nicholas Poussin self-portrait

Nicholas Poussin self-portrait


Jean Pesne (1623-1700) after an original painting of 1649 by Nicolas Poussin (1595-1665)

Etching on paper, modern print from original plate in the collection of the Louvre Museum

500 x 385mm (sheet), 520 x 410mm (frame)  

Framed with museum glass (99% UV filtration)

Higher res images available on request

Jean Pesne’s etching of Nicolas Poussin’s self-portrait captures one of the greatest artists of the seventeenth century at the height of his fame and powers, but in his wary gaze we also see a hint of the illness that overshadowed the final two decades of his life.  Nicolas Poussin was born in Les Andeleys, Normandy and trained in Rouen and Paris, but spent most of his working life in Rome.  Here he achieved great renown as a painter of mythological and religious scenes set in Arcadian landscapes.  During a brief return to France in 1640-2, Poussin met three men who were to become important friends and patrons: Paul Fréart de Chantelou, Jean Pointel, and Jacques Cérisier (or Serisier).  This trio successively commissioned and owned the self-portrait after which this print is made. 


In 1649 Chantelou asked Poussin for a portrait to display in his cabinet of paintings by the artist, and Poussin, unable to think of anyone better to commission, agreed to paint one himself.  That self-portrait, after which the present etching is made, is now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (no. 1488).  Poussin painted himself standing in front of a tomb – presumably his own – carved with a relief of putti holding a laurel wreath.  In his hand is a chalk holder and sketchbook (the book’s title, ‘De lumine e colore’ and the tomb inscription were added later by another hand).  They emphasise his skill in composition and figure-drawing, and may be a riposte to the criticisms of Pietro da Cortona that artists like Poussin, who followed classical principles, were unable to draw varied or complex multi-figure compositions.  But Poussin was dissatisfied with the portrait, put it aside, and began a second self-portrait for Chantelou (Louvre, Inv. 7302)


Why was Poussin unhappy with his first self-portrait?  Perhaps its memorial aspect was uncomfortably close to the truth.  Since 1642, Poussin had been showing the signs of a neurological disorder (or possibly the late effects of syphilis) that manifested itself in uncontrollable trembling in his hands.  The trembling came and went, getting progressively worse as Poussin grew older. For an artist whose reputation and pride were built on his skill in design, this was a devastating blow.  Poussin’s late drawings are unmistakeably shaky, his ability to paint was compromised, and in his final years wrote heartbreakingly of the sheer effort it took simply to write a letter.  In 1649 his motor skills had not yet degenerated so badly, but Poussin had already been living with his condition for several years.  It was a cruel irony to paint a memento mori of himself holding a stylus, knowing that his manual dexterity was in decline even as he was at the height of his imaginative powers.  Poussin must have reconsidered, and so begun another self-portrait for Chantelou, this time without the stylus, in front of a stack of his own finished canvases. 


Poussin did not destroy his first self-portrait, but reworked it and gave it to Jean Pointel, a wealthy Lyonnaise silk trader and banker, who was also a friend and patron.  Around 1660, after Pointel’s death, the self-portrait and several of Poussin’s other paintings were acquired by Jacques Cérisier, another Lyonnaise merchant and the third of our trio of friends and patrons.  Cérisier’s collection of works by Poussin and other artists was widely admired, and his cabinet of paintings was visited by Gianlorenzo Bernini in 1665 during his stay in Paris. 


Jean Pesne was considered by his contemporaries to be the best engraver of Poussin’s paintings, capturing his taste and manner through a combination of diligent study of the master’s works and his own talents as an engraver and etcher.  He sought out the best collections of Poussin’s works and asked their owners if he could reproduce them.  It was around 1660, while the  self-portrait was in Cérisier’s collection, that Pesne created this etching. He added a dedication to Cérisier, Poussin’s ‘noble friend and most benevolent patron’, and signed his own name with a proud flourish.


Pesne’s etching was published by Girard Audran (1640-1703), another talented engraver who also published the works of his best contemporaries.  Audran set up his shop in 1677 at the sign of Les Deux Piliers d’Or in the Rue St Jacques, Paris.  The Poussin self-portrait proved to be a popular print, a testament to ‘the most celebrated painter of our age’. 





Jacques Thuillier, ‘Serisier collectioneur et la « Fuite en Egypte » de Poussin’, Revue de l’Art 105 (1994), pp. 33-42.

Philip Sohm, The Artist Grows Old (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2007), chapter 3: ‘Poussin’s Hands and Titian’s Eyes’.

Georges Wildenstein, Les graveurs de Poussin du XVIIe siècle (Paris, 1957), p. 9 & cat. 1.

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