Besides classical literature and myth, he drew often from works of the romantic and heroic literature of his own time, usually subjects decided in advance with his patrons. He painted scenes from the epic poem Jerusalem Delivered by Torquato Tasso (1544–1595), published in 1581, and one of the most popular books in Poussin's lifetime. His painting Renaud and Armide illustrated the death of the Christian knight Arnaud at the hands of the Magician Armide. who, when she saw his face, saw her hatred turn to love. Another poem by Tasso with a similar theme inspired Tancred and Hermiene; a woman finds a wounded knight on the road, breaks down in tears, then finds the strength through love to heal him.
Nicolas Poussin's early biographer was his friend Giovanni Pietro Bellori, who relates that Poussin was born near Les Andelys in Normandy and that he received an education that included some Latin, which would stand him in good stead. Another early friend and biographer, André Félibien, reported that "He was busy without cease filling his sketchbooks with an infinite number of different figures which only his imagination could produce." His early sketches attracted the notice of Quentin Varin, who passed some time in Andelys, but there is no mention by his biographers that he had a formal training in Varin's studio, though his later works showed the influence of Varin, particularly by their storytelling, accuracy of facial expression, finely painted drapery and rich colors. His parents apparently opposed a painting career for him, and In or around 1612, at the age of eighteen, he ran away to Paris.
He first tried to travel to Rome in 1617 or 1618, but made it only as far as Florence, where, as his biographer Bellori reported, "as a result of some sort of accident, he returned to France." On his return, he began making paintings for Paris churches and convents. In 1622 made another attempt to go to Rome, but went only as far as Lyon before returning. In the summer of the same year, he received his first important commission: the Order of Jesuits requested a series of six large paintings to honor the canonization of their founder, Saint Francis Xavier. The originality and Energy of these paintings (since lost) brought him a series of important commissions.
During the late 1620s and 1630s, he experimented and formulated his own style. He studied the Antique as well as works such as Titian’s Bacchanals (The Bacchanal of the Andrians, Bacchus and Ariadne, and The Worship of Venus) at the Casino Ludovisi and the paintings of Domenichino and Guido Reni.
Giambattista Marino, the court poet to Marie de Medici, employed him to make a series of fifteen drawings, eleven illustrating Ovid's Metamorphoses and four illustrating battle scenes from Roman history. The "Marino drawings", now at Windsor Castle, are among the earliest identifiable works of Poussin. Marino's influence led to a commission for some decoration of Marie de Medici's residence, the Luxembourg Palace, then a commission from the first Archbishop of Paris, Jean-François de Gondi, for a painting of the death of the Virgin (since lost) for the Archibishop's family chapel at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Marino took him into his household, and, when he returned to Rome in 1623, invited Poussin to join him. Poussin remained in Paris to finish his earlier commissions, then arrived to Rome in the spring of 1624.
The early years of Poussin in Rome were difficult. His patron Marino departed Rome for Naples in May 1624, shortly after Poussin arrived, and died there in 1625. His other major sponsor, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, was named a papal legate to Spain and also departed soon afterwards, taking Cassiano dal Pozzo with him. Poussin became ill with syphilis, but refused to go to the hospital, where the care was extremely poor, and he was unable to paint for months. He survived by selling the paintings he had for a few ecus. Thanks to the assistance of a chef, Jacques Dughet, whose family took him in and cared for him, he largely recovered by 1629, and in 1630 he married Anne-Marie Dughet, the daughter of Dughet. His two brothers-in-law were artists, and Gaspard Dughet later took Poussin’s surname.
Cardinal Barberini and Cassiano dal Pozzo returned to Rome in 1626, and by their patronage Poussin received two major commissions. In 1628, with a commission from Cardinal Barberini, he completed his first masterwork, The Death of Germanicus (Minneapolis Institute of Arts). It was partly inspired by the reliefs of the Meleager sarcophagus. In February 1628 he received an even more prestigious commission to paint an altarpiece, the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, for the Erasmus Chapel of the Vatican (now in the Vatican Pinacoteca). This commission was originally given to Pietro da Cortona, but when negotiations broke down between the Vatican and Guido Reni for another painting in the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, da Cortona replaced Reni and Poussin was given Holy Sacrament commission. Poussin drew upon the original design of Pietro da Cortona but painted the work in his own style.
The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus was the only Vatican commission Poussin received, but it established his reputation as a major Painter. With the departure of Vouet from Rome in 1627, Poussin became the most prominent French Painter in Rome. Until 1630, he had painted rapidly ("with the fury of a demon", Marino recorded) and produced large numbers of pictures of variable quality. Thereafter, he renounced seeking commissions for large decorative works, which were prestigious but required competitions and came with many restrictions, and concentrated instead on painting for art patrons and Collectors, for whom he could work more slowly and develop his own subjects and style. In 1632 he bought a life interest in a small house on Via Paolina for his wife and himself and entered his most productive period.
In contrast to the warm and atmospheric style of his early paintings, Poussin by the 1630s developed a cooler palette, a drier touch, and a more stage-like presentation of figures dispersed within a well defined space. In The Triumph of David (c. 1633–34; Dulwich College Picture Gallery), the figures enacting the scene are arranged in rows that, like the architectural facade that serves as the background, are parallel to the picture plane. The violence of The Rape of the Sabine Women (c. 1638; Louvre) has the same abstract, choreographed quality seen in A Dance to the Music of Time (1639–40).
Another of his early major themes was the Rape of the Sabine Women, recounting how the King of Rome, Romulus, wanting wives for his Soldiers, invited the members of the neighboring Sabine tribe tribe for a festival, and then, on his signal, kidnapped all of the women. He painted two versions, one in 1634, now in the Metropolitan Museum, and the other in 1637, now in the Louvre. He also painted two versions illustrating a story of Ovid in the Metamorphoses in which Venus mourning the death of Adonis after a hunting accident, transforms his blood into the color of the anemone flower.
As the work of Poussin became well-known in Rome, he received invitations to return to Paris for important royal commissions, proposed by Sublet de Noyers, the Superintendent of buildings for Louis XIII. When Poussin declined, Noyers sent his cousins, Roland Fréart de Chambray and Paul Fréart, to Rome to persuade Poussin to come home, offering him the title of First Painter to the King, plus a substantial residence at the Tuileries Palace. Poussin yielded, and in December 1640 he was back in Paris.
The most famous of his religious works were the two series called The Seven Sacraments, representing the meaning of the moral laws behind each of the principal ceremonies of the church, illustrated by incidents in the life of Christ. The first series was painted in Rome by his major early patron, Cassiano dal Pozzo, and was finished in 1642. It was viewed by his later patron, Paul Fréart de Chantelou, who asked for a copy. Instead of making copies, Poussin painted an entirely new series of paintings, which was finished by 1647. The new series had less of the freshness and originality of the first series, but was striking for its simplicity and austerity in achieving its effects; the second series illustrated his mastery of the balance of the figures, the variety of expressions, and the juxtaposition of colors.
Another important French patron of Poussin in this period was Paul Fréart de Chantelou, who came to Rome in 1643 and stayed there for several months. He commissioned from Poussin some of his most important works, including the second series of the Seven Sacraments, painted between 1644 and 1648, and his Landscape with Diogenes. In 1649 he painted the Vision of St Paul for the comic poet Paul Scarron, and in 1651 the Holy Family for the duc de Créquy. Landscapes had been a secondary feature of his early work; in his later work nature and the landscape was frequently the central element of the painting.
He lived an austere and comfortable life, working slowly and apparently without assistants. The Painter Charles Le Brun joined him in Rome for three years, and Poussin's work had a major influence on Le Brun's style. In 1647, his patrons Chantelou and Pointel requested portraits of Poussin. He responded by making two self-portraits, completed together in 1649.
Religion was the most Common subject of his paintings, as the church was the most important art patron in Rome and because there was a growing demand by wealthy patrons for devotional paintings at home. He took a large part of his themes from the Old Testament, which offered more variety and the stories were often more vague and gave him more freedom to invent. He painted different versions of the stories of Eliazer and Rebecca from the Book of Genesis and made three versions of Moses saved from the waters. The New Testament provided the subject of one of his most dramatic paintings, "The Massacre of the Innocents", where the general slaughter was reduced to a single brutal incident. In his Judgement of Solomon (1649), the story can be read in the varied facial expressions of the participants.
Between 1650 and 1655, Poussin also painted a series of paintings now often called "townscapes", where classical architecture replaces trees and mountains in the background. The painting The Death of Saphire uses this setting to illustrate two stories simultaneously; in the foreground, the wife of a wealthy merchant dies after being chastised by St. Peter for not giving more money to the poor; while in the background another man, more generous, gives alms to a beggar.
Throughout his career, Poussin frequently achieved what the art Historian Willibald Sauerländer terms a "consonance ... between the pagan and the Christian world". An Example is The Four Seasons (1660–64), in which Christian and pagan themes are mingled: Spring, traditionally personified by the Roman goddess Flora, instead features Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden; Summer is symbolized not by Ceres but by the biblical Ruth.
In his later years, his mythological paintings became more somber, and often introduced the symbols of mortality and death. The last painting he was working on before his death was Apollo in love with Daphne, which he presented to his patron, the Future Cardinal Massimi, in 1665. The figures on the left of the canvas, around Apollo, largely represented vitality and life, while those on the right, around Daphne, were symbols of sterility and death. He was unable to complete the painting because of the trembling of his hand, and the figures on the right are unfinished.
Another 19th-century admirer of Poussin was Ingres' great rival, Eugene Delacroix; he wrote in 1853: "The life of Poussin is reflected in his works; it is in perfect harmony with the beauty and nobility of his inventions...Poussin was one of the greatest innovators found in the history of painting. He arrived in the middle of the school of mannerism, where the craft was preferred to the intellectual role of art. He broke with all of that falseness".
Cézanne appreciated Poussin's version of classicism. "Imagine how Poussin entirely redid nature, that is the classicism that I mean. What I don't accept is the classicism that limits you. I want that a visit to a master will help me find myself. Every time I leave a Poussin, I know better who I am." Cézanne was described in 1907 by Maurice Denis as "the Poussin of Impressionism". Georges Seurat was another Post-Impressionist Artist who admired the formal qualities of Poussin's work.
In the 20th century, some art critics suggested that the analytic Cubist experiments of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were also founded upon Poussin's Example. In 1963 Picasso based a series of paintings on Poussin's The Rape of the Sabine Women. André Derain, Jean Hélion, Balthus, and Jean Hugo were other modern artists who acknowledged the influence of Poussin. Markus Lüpertz made a series of paintings in 1989–90 based on Poussin's works.
In the years following Poussin's death, his style had a strong influence on French art, thanks in particular to Charles LeBrun, who had studied briefly with Poussin in Rome, and who, like Poussin, became a court Painter for the King and later the head of the French Academy in Rome. Poussin's work had an important influence on the 17th-century paintings of Jacques Stella and Sébastien Bourdon, the Italian Painter Pier Francesco Mola, and the Dutch Painter Gerard de Lairesse. A debate emerged in the art world between the advocates of Poussin's style, who said the drawing was the most important element of a painting, and the advocates of Rubens, who placed color above the drawing.
During the French Revolution, Poussin's style was championed by Jacques-Louis David in part because the Leaders of the Revolution looked to replace the frivolity of French court art with Republican severity and civic-mindedness. The influence of Poussin was evident in paintings such as Brutus and Death of Marat. Benjamin West, an American Painter of the 18th century who worked in Britain, found inspiration for his canvas of The Death of General Wolfe in Poussin's The Death of Germanicus.
The 19th century brought a resurgence of enthusiasm for Poussin. One of his greatest admirers was Ingres, who studied in Rome and became Director of the French Academy there. Ingres wrote, "Only great Painters of history can paint a beautiful landscape. He (Poussin) was the first, and only, to capture the nature of Italy. By the character and taste of his compositions, he proved that such nature belonged to him; so much so that when facing a beautiful site, one says, and says correctly, that it is "Poussinesque".