Nicolas Poussin was born near Les Andelys, now in the Eure département, in Normandy on June 15, 1594. Early sketches attracted the notice of Quentin Varin, a local painter, whose pupil Poussin became, until he went to Paris, where he entered the studios of the Flemish painter Ferdinand Elle and then of Georges Lallemand, both minor masters now remembered for having tutored Poussin. He found French art in a stage of transition: the old apprenticeship system was disturbed, and the academic training destined to supplant it was not yet established by Simon Vouet; but having met Courtois the mathematician, Poussin was fired by the study of his collection of engravings after Italian masters.
After two abortive attempts to reach Rome, he fell in with Marini, the court poet to Marie de Medici at Lyon. Marini employed him on illustrations to his poems, took him into his household, and in 1624 enabled Poussin (who had been detained by commissions in Lyon and Paris) to rejoin him at Rome. There, his patron having died, Poussin fell into great distress. Falling ill, he was received into the house of his compatriot Gaspard Dughet and nursed by his daughter Anna Maria to whom, in 1629, Poussin was married.
He lodged with the sculptor François Duquesnoy, of an equally classicizing artistic temperament, befriended Domenichino and joined an informal academy of artists and patrons opposed to the current Baroque style that formed around Joachim von Sandrart.
Among his first patrons were: Maffeo Cardinal Barberini, for whom was painted the Death of Germanicus (Palazzo Barberini); Cardinal Omodei, for whom he produced, in 1627, the Triumphs of Flora (Louvre); Cardinal de Richelieu, who commissioned a Bacchanal (Louvre); Vincenzo Giustiniani, for whom was executed the Massacre of the Innocents, of which there is a first sketch in the British Museum; Cassiano dal Pozzo, who became the owner of the first series of the Seven Sacraments (Belvoir Castle); and Fréart de Chanteloup, with whom in 1640 Poussin, at the call of Sublet de Noyers, returned to France.
Louis XIII conferred on him the title of first painter in ordinary. In two years at Paris he produced several pictures for the royal chapels (the Last Supper, painted for Versailles, now in the Louvre), eight cartoons for the Gobelins, the series of the Labors of Hercules for the Louvre, the Triumph of Truth for Cardinal Richelieu (Louvre), and much minor work.
In 1643, disgusted by the intrigues of Simon Vouet, Fouquières and the architect Jacques Lemercier, Poussin withdrew to Rome. There, in 1648, he finished for De Chanteloup the second series of the Seven Sacraments (Bridgewater Gallery), and also his noble landscape with Diogenes throwing away his Scoop (Louvre). In 1649 he painted the Vision of St Paul (Louvre) for the comic poet Paul Scarron, and in 1651 the Holy Family (Louvre) for the duc de Créquy. Year by year he continued to produce an enormous variety of works, many of which are included in the list given by Félibien.
He died in Rome on November 19, 1665 and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, his wife having predeceased him. Chateaubriand in 1820 donated the monument to Poussin.
Poussin left no children, but he adopted as his son Gaspar Dughet (Gasparo Duche), his wife's brother, who took the name of Poussin.