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Dulwich Picture Gallery Presents Nicolas Poussin’s first series of the Seven Sacraments

Dulwich Picture Gallery is displaying four of the first series of the Seven Sacraments by Nicholas Poussin (1594–1665): Confirmation, Eucharist, Marriage and Extreme Unction. Housing one of the UK’s finest collections of Poussin’s work, Dulwich Picture Gallery is a most fitting venue in which to see these exquisite masterpieces of religious painting.

Nicholas Poussin, The Triumph Of David (detail), Dulwich Picture Gallery

Painted between 1637 and 1642, the first series of the Sacraments was commissioned by Poussin’s friend and patron Cassiano dal Pozzo. As a set, Poussin’s Sacraments represent a high point in Western European art. They make reference to classical tradition and great masters of the past, such as Raphael, and anticipate the formal experiments of the future from David to Picasso.

Poussin at Dulwich Picture Gallery
This special display of Poussin’s Sacraments, on loan from the collection of the Duke of Rutland, provides us with an occasion to consider anew Dulwich Picture Gallery’s own celebrated examples of the French painter’s work. The Gallery’s founders, Nöel Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois, were avid collectors of his paintings and bought a total of 14 paintings by him. Although half of these are regarded today as by his workshop or copies, the remaining seven are considered by today’s scholars to be some of his great masterpieces.

The seven Poussins in Dulwich’s collection span the length of his career, allowing us to see his development as an artist. Venus and Mercury (DPG 481) and Rinaldo and Armida (DPG 238), for example, date from the 1620s soon after Poussin had settled in Rome. They show him experimenting with Titian’s palette of rich blues, oranges and reds and the realistic classicism exemplified by artists such as Domenichino and Guido Reni. The Triumph of David (DPG 236) presents Poussin at his most theatrical, placing his procession of figures, alive with movement, against a backdrop of classical architecture; this composition precurses the sober architecture of the four Sacraments.

Also at Dulwich are two excellent religious pieces that compare well with the Sacraments in representing Poussin’s great endeavour to fuse the Christian and Classical traditions. The Return of the Holy Family from Egypt (DPG 240), a rare subject in itself, shows the Holy Family boarding a boat to cross a river. Here, Poussin is purposely echoing the classical story of Charon transporting souls across the River Styx to the underworld, a parallel that prompts us to meditate on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. On a much more intimate scale The Translation of Saint Rita of Cascia (DPG 263) combines Poussin’s interest in nature- which he studied at length by drawing and sketching in the open air- with the remarkable miracle of Saint Rita levitating across a landscape. –

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