Your pocket-sized guide to… French art: Nicolas Poussin


French master-painter Nicolas Poussin created scores of chef d’oeuvres in both Classic and Baroque styles. His ‘Self Portrait’, a work of a genre not typically associated with Poussin, reveals itself as a work of artistic genius. So what is it that makes Poussin’s ‘Self Portrait’ so intriguing?

France’s own Nicolas Poussin painted many a masterpiece during his lifetime. From ‘Les Bergers d’Arcadie’ (The Shepherds of Arcadia) to his series, ‘Quatre Saisons’ (Four Seasons). Many treasure troves of art information can be gleaned from Poussin’s ‘Self Portrait’. Let’s find the hidden gems.


First, without reading ahead, scrutinize the painting above for a few minutes. In your head or on a piece of paper, see how many details jump out at you and guess what they might symbolize. Once you’re done, read ahead to see if any of your conclusions are correct!

The hard-working Frenchman

As a ‘first painter’ to the king of France, Poussin would have labored at length to produce works of art. How is his work ethic presented in his portrait? Look closely at his eyes: they are rimmed in red, a clear indicator of intense work.

French subjects?

Where are the elaborately dressed ladies and noblemen of the French court? Poussin did not include his Baroque subjects within this painting, instead including  a woman of Grecian dress in reference to his penchant for Classicism.

The scholar français


One can see Latin writing on the back of one of the paintings behind Poussin. The use of Latin (instead of French) demonstrates the artist’s intellect. Knowledge of Latin was a sign of advanced learning during Poussin’s lifetime.


Over the centuries, many painters, sculptors, and even architects have put their individual marks on or within their creations.

Do you know of any artists who insert subtle hints about their lives or interests into their works?

1. ‘Nicolas Poussin’, the National Gallery
2. ‘Nicolas Poussin’ (detail), A World History of ArtImage credits:
1. ‘The Shepherds of Arcadia‘, by Nicolas Poussin, via Wikipedia
2. ‘Nicolas Poussin, by Nicolas Poussin, via the National Gallery, London
3. ‘Nicolas Poussin, detail, by Nicolas Poussin, via
4. Spring‘, by Nicolas Poussin, via Wikipedia.

About the Contributor

Lindsey Reinstrom

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