- Museum number
The Death of the Virgin; the apostles and holy women gathered around the Virgin on her bed at centre, two putti in the upper left hand corner with an arched window beyond, and a bishop at right, beneath a canopy. 1623.
Red chalk, pen and brown ink and watercolour, squared in both black and white chalk
- Production date
Height: 393 millimetres
Width: 320 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- A modello for Poussin's "Death of the Virgin" (Saint-Pancrace, Sterrebeek, Belgium), long acknowledged as the artist's earliest known painting. The picture was commissioned from Poussin in 1623, shortly before his departure for Rome, by Jean François de Gondi (1584-1654), the first Archbishop of Paris.
Gondi's commission was inspired by the ecclesiastical elevation of the city of Paris, on 19 February 1623, from a mere bishopric (under the authority of the Archbishop of Sens) to an archbishopric in its own right. He had been invested as the city's first Archbishop and his commission speaks of both personal and civic pride. In its broadest sense, the painting celebrated the Virgin, who as Notre-Dame was the patron saint of the new archbishopric. The subject was taken from Jacques de Voragine's "Golden Legend", which related how the apostles were miraculously drawn from their preaching and reunited around the Virgin at the moment of her death. However, "The Death of the Virgin" was probably originally destined for the Gondi family's own chapel in Notre-Dame, and Poussin's daringly innovative composition placed the figure of a bishop standing among the grieving apostles at the right-hand side of the composition. In the exhibition "Poussin et Dieu" (Musée du Louvre, 2015), it was suggested that this figure represents Saint Denis, Paris's first bishop, but it must also implicitly represent the patron Gondi, even if it is not actually a portrait. He therefore becomes part of the scene, taking the usual place of Saint Peter at the head of the deathbed, rather than being separated from the holy figures, as patrons had been traditionally.
The painting remained at Notre-Dame until the Revolution. Its presence in the cathedral is most famously recorded in a thumbnail sketch from 1771 by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, drawn in the margin of his copy of C.P. Gueffier's "Description historique des curiositiés de l'Eglise de Paris" (Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris). In 1793 it was moved to the Dépôt national des Monuments français and, in 1797, to the Louvre. From here, it was transferred with a number of other pieces, in winter 1802, to the Musée de Bruxelles. At some point during this period it underwent invasive and damaging restoration and later, deprived of its Parisian context, its attribution began to be doubted. Considered a copy by one of Poussin's followers, it was removed from the Musée de Bruxelles at some point after 1814 and its location was unknown until its rediscovery in 2000 in the church of Sterrebeek near Brussels.
This watercolour was probably executed as a modello, submitted for the final approval of the patron before work began on the painting itself. It is an important record of Poussin's early style, given the damaged state of the finished picture in which many of the subtleties have been lost. The two works differ in only a handful of details, most notably in the angles of the heads and hands of the figures, showing Poussin's continuing refinement of the figures' attitudes. His changes are clearest in the disposition of heads around Saint John the Evangelist on the left of the painting, where the picture resolves the slightly crowded nature of the drawing. Beyond these minor differences, however, both compositions are very close. In both, the Virgin's deathbed acts as a pivot, forming a diagonal which begins with the standing bishop at upper right and descends to the lower left corner. A counter diagonal runs from the putti at upper left to the kneeling apostle at lower right. The figures' grief and the drama of the subject is articulated through gesture and expression, in a manner which foreshadows Poussin's later famous treatment of "The Death of Germanicus" in 1628.
In planning his composition, Poussin seems to have drawn on two recent depictions of the subject. The architectural setting with classical arches, and the motif of a pair of disembodied hands rising from the crowd, are comparable to those in Carlo Saraceni's "Death of the Virgin", painted for Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, and engraved by Jean Le Clerc in 1619 (see X,2.68). The baldacchino over the Virgin's bed may instead derive from Caravaggio's daring picture then in the Gonzaga Collection in Mantua (Louvre, inv. 54). Although Poussin had not seen the original Caravaggio when he painted his own "Death of the Virgin", he may have known the composition through prints and, perhaps, even through a copy thought to have been commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu in 1621. Blunt (1958) suggested another source in a wooden roundel on the north door of the church of Saint-Maclou at Rouen, which shows the same diagonal placement of the Virgin's bed that appears in Poussin's work. However, this diagonal arrangement may also point to two further influences which do not seem to have been discussed in the current literature. Quentin Varin, Poussin's first teacher, had painted a "Martyrdom of St Vincent" for the church of Notre-Dame at Le Grand Andely in 1612 (still in situ). It must have been one of the first pictures seen by the young Poussin, and shows the saint placed in a striking diagonal position. Similarly, at around the same date as Poussin's "Death of the Virgin", Varin was at work on an "Entombment" (Louvre, inv. RF 2830) in which the dead Christ is laid out diagonally, surrounded by a crowd of mourning angels and saints. These include two monumental figures in the foreground, seen from behind, in a motif similar to that found in Poussin's composition. Even though Poussin was no longer working with Varin at this date, he may still have been in contact with, and influenced by, his former teacher.
In comparison to the works Poussin executed after his arrival in Rome, the drawing has a distinctively Northern flavour. Poussin is known to have admired the work of Francis II Pourbus (1592-1622), who had worked in Paris as portrait painter to the Queen Mother, and he may also have come into contact with Rubens, who had visited Paris in 1622 to begin discussions about his "Marie de' Medici" cycle. However, these Flemish influences are blended with Poussin's knowledge of prints after Raphael, whose influence is clear in many of the heads, particularly that of St John the Evangelist beside the bed. There are stylistic similarities with Poussin's other known early drawings: the use of wash, which accentuates and models the volume of the draperies, is comparable to that in the Marino drawings at Windsor (Rosenberg and Prat 2-17), made at much the same date; while the striking use of blue accents creates a sense of unity through colour, which Poussin would replicate in his picture "The Virgin appearing to Saint James" (1628; Louvre, inv. 7285).
Lit: P. Rosenberg and L.-A. Prat, "Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665: Catalogue raisonné des dessins", Milan, 1994, vol. 1, no. 1 (with previous literature);M. Clayton, review of Prat and Rosenberg, "The Burlington Magazine", 138, July 1996, p. 468 (as a copy after the painting, 'the self-possessed penwork of this sheet is quiteb alien to early Poussin, and typical of a copyist'); P.-Y. Kairis, 'Poussin avant Poussin: la "Mort de la Vierge" retrouvée', "Revue de l'Art", 128, no. 2, 2000, pp. 62-67, fig. 4.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2016, July-Nov, London, BM, "French Recent Acquisitions".
2018-2019, Oct 4 – 27 Jan, London, BM G90, Recent Acquisitions: Gozzoli to Kara Walker
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number