Nicolas Poussin was born at Les Andelys near Rouen. His early history is obscure; his father had been a soldier, his mother was a peasant. In 1612, Varin, a wandering painter, brought him to Paris, where he experienced great distress. In despair he tried his fortune in the provinces but nothing remains of what he did at that time. He studied under Varin, Lallemand, and Ferdinand Elle, but they had no share in his development. The French school was then in a languid condition. The religious wars of the time rendered abortive the attempt of Francis I to inaugurate the Renaissance.
Poussin learned of some engravings by Marc Antonio after Giulio Romano and Raphael. Antique beauty was revealed to him and all modern civilization seemed barbarous to him. His experience was an illumination, a veritable conversion. Henceforth he had no rest until he found the fatherland of his heart and his ideas.
At the time of his arrival at Rome the school was divided into two parties, that of the mannerists who followed Guido, and that of the brutal naturalists who followed Caravaggio. In Poussin's opinion, both equally dishonest and remote from reality. He detested the affected airs of the fashionable painters, their sentimentality, their insipidity, their ecstasy. Nor was he less hard on the affectation of the "naturalists and their partiality for ugliness and vulgarity".
Poussin sought to imitate the antique. For this he became an archeologist, a scholar. He used scientific methods, measuring statues, consulting bas-reliefs, studying painted vases, sarcophagi, and mosaics. Every point was based on an authentic document.
His works are very numerous. The main group contains subjects borrowed from sacred and profane antiquity. This historical portion of his work seems to have been most in favor with his contemporaries. It immediately became classic and it is certainly filled with the highest beauty.
Nicolas Poussin died in Rome, 19 November, 1666.
Benjamin West, an American painter of the 18th century who worked in Britain, based his canvas of the death of General Wolfe at Quebec on Poussin's example. In 1963 Picasso based a series of paintings on Poussin's "The Rape of the Sabine Women". Today, Poussin's paintings at the Louvre reside in a gallery dedicated to him.