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Work Extreme Unction
Department of Prints and Drawings: 17th century
Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN-Grand Palais - Photo S. Nagy
Prints and Drawings
From 1644 to 1648, Poussin, by then settled in Rome for good, painted a series of seven works on the theme of the Sacraments for his friend Fréart de Chantelou, who lived in Paris. This is a preparatory drawing for the painting depicting Extreme Unction, the last sacrament in a person's life, but the first in the series to be completed (1644). The paintings themselves are in the Duke of Sutherland's collection, on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.
A subject "worthy of an Apelles"
Poussin had already painted a series devoted to the Sacraments prior to his visit to Paris in 1640-42. The second series, commissioned by Chantelou and still intact to this day, was begun in 1644. In a letter to Chantelou relating his progress on the work, Poussin wrote that the subject of extreme unction, on which he had started to work in 1644, was "worthy of an Apelles," the Greek who was the most famous painter of antiquity. Poussin painted a man on his deathbed who is receiving the last sacrament in a setting reminiscent of the early Christians and the primitive Church.
A prestigious drawing
This is the only known preparatory study for the painting Extreme Unction from Poussin's second series devoted to the Sacraments. It is one of Poussin's most famous works, often copied and shown in exhibitions. It is particularly representative of his thinking on the art of drawing. What interested him were not the individual figures, but rather the overall composition and, through the composition, how the shadows and paler zones of the work are deployed. The use of brown wash thus played a key role in helping the artist to place the groups and light sources exactly as he wished.
A particular technique
Poussin used a special technique to perfect the layout of his paintings. He would place small wax or clay models draped in scraps of cloth in a perspective box to represent his figures, then moved them around until he was happy with their respective positions. He could change the lighting by moving the sides of the box to let in more or less light. This helps explain the remarkably beautiful nocturnal atmosphere in this impressive drawing.
BibliographyPrat Louis-Antoine, Rosenberg Pierre, Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665 : Catalogue raisonné des dessins, 1994, II, n 248.
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Pen and brown ink, brown wash on paper
H. 21.7 cm; L. 33.1 cm
Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.
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