Nicholas Poussin was a French classical painter who spent most of his life studying and creating art in Rome. Poussin was greatly influenced by ancient roman art and other Renaissance artists such as Domenichino. In 1627, Poussin painted the masterpiece titled The Death of Germanicus which became his most recognizable work.
Following is an in-depth analysis of “The Death of Germanicus” painting by Nicholas Poussin.
About the Artist
Poussin was born in France in 1594 and showed an inclination toward art from a young age. He worked for several years in France where he pioneered the Classical French Baroque movement. However, he soon moved to Rome to study the great masters like Titian, Raphael, and Romano. Just like his inspirations Poussin too focused his work on important. biblical and historical scenes.
While at first Poussin’s style was characterized by vibrancy, dramaticism, and sensuality, during the 1630s, his work became much more sophisticated. During this time his style moved from French Baroque to idealized classicism.
In his later life, Poussin explored his versatility as an artist through the landscape and allegorical paintings. Even in the last years of his life, he created masterpieces such as The Birth of Bacchus and Orion Blinded Searching for the Sun.
The Death of Germanicus – Background
Nicholas Poussin’s “The Death of Germanicus” was commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, an important member of the Vatican administration. At the time, Poussin was barely known in the art community, however, Barberini was acquainted with his talent.
The painting was a gift for Barberini’s nephew and stayed in their family for several generations. In 1958 the painting was acquired by the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Today “The Death of Germanicus” is displayed in Gallery 313 of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Inspirations for the Painting
The Death of Germanicus is an excerpt from the Annals of Tacitus, a history of the Roman Empire by one of the greatest roman historians, Tacitus. The painting was created during the early years of Poussin’s career, and hence it has his characteristic vibrancy, dramaticism, and movement.
The painting shares several common features with the ancient roman sarcophagi, a decorative stone tomb. In the painting, we may see a roman hero Germanicus on his deathbed surrounded by his family and other mourners. All the figures are crowded in one corner in the front of the painting, a common theme in stone and marble sarcophagus reliefs.
Apart from the ancient roman sarcophagus, the different elements of the painting have been inspired by earlier masterpieces. For instance, the curtain behind Germanicus is inspired by the curtains behind Jesus in The Last Supper by Pourbus.
The Tale of Germanicus
While Poussin’s painting only shows us the end of Germanicus, a series of events lead to the scene depicted in the painting. “Germanicus” was a nickname given to Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus a heroic Roman general who was known for his successful endeavors in Germany.
In 18 C.E, the Roman emperor Tiberius sent Germanicus to the eastern roman empire where he was supposed to make several administrative changes. During his time there he met Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso who was also employed by Tiberius for the same duties as Germanicus.
Piso and Germanicus soon found that they have vastly different ideologies. Germanicus also took some decisions that were against the wishes of Tiberius. Piso used this as a way to turn Tiberius against Germanicus.
Soon after, Germanicus fell ill under mysterious circumstances and died at the young age of 33 on 10th October, 19 C.E.
Subjects in the Painting
In the painting Germanicus may be seen on his deathbed, revealing to his wife Agrippina his last wish and the theory behind his sickness. Due to the timing of his strange illness, Germanicus believed that he had been poisoned by Piso. His last wish was for his family and soldiers to avenge his murder and be strong after his death.
Germanicus had six children in all, of which three are visible on the far right of the painting. His wife may be seen sobbing beside his lifeless body while their young children are unaware of the situation.
The other men in the scene are probably his friends and soldiers mourning his death. One of these men may be seen dressed in rich golden armor with one of his hands raised. He seems to be announcing Germanicus’ death.
“Soon after he died, in the deep mourning of the province and all the neighboring peoples. Foreign peoples and kings grieved, so great were his humanity towards his allies, his meekness towards his enemies, the reverence he inspired in seeing him and in the ‘hearing it, he who, while maintaining the dignified gravity of his high position, was able to escape envy and arrogance.”(Tacitus, Annales, II, 72, 2)
An analysis of the Painting
The Death of Germanicus is a seminal work in western art history. The painting is an artistic masterpiece not only due to its beautiful technique but also its narrative strength.
Through just a glimpse of Germanicus’ life, the painter presents several lessons such as those of heroism, dignity, bravery, and loyalty. It is almost absurd how Poussin imagined the reaction of people to Germanicus’ death and how perfectly he chose those people who deserved to be included in the scene.
Poussin’s rich imagination may be seen in the emotional restraint of the soldier depicted on the left edge of the frame. In the centre, he gives us space to look at Germanicus and his lifeless white eyes turned upward.
Poussin chose to depict four of Germanicus’ family members. While his wife and one son on the extreme right may be seen sobbing, the other two are only children and therefore unaware of what has occurred.
The people huddled in the center represent soldiers who are showing almost no signs of mourning and friends looking at Germanicus with sorrowful eyes.
Poussin’s masterpiece was around for a while before people recognized its virtues. After the 17th century, “The Death of Germanicus” became an inspirational icon for many artists. Over the course of the following two centuries, innumerable deathbed scenarios were modeled after this piece.
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