Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination

Unknown Artist Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination

c.1694 – c. 1724

Oil on Canvas 182.5cm x 127cm (in frame 202cm x 146cm)

 

 

 

 

Provenance

 

Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination was purchased by Artemisia from Belgravia, St. Julian’s, Malta in 2018. It is known that the painting formed part of a Maltese private collection prior to the auction however, the exact provenance before this point remains unknown therefore it is difficult to say for certain how the painting arrived to Malta.

Report Summary

 

The Sacrament of Ordination is a facsimile reproduction after the French Baroque artist Nicolas Poussin’s (1594 – 1665) work of the same subject, which was originally part of a series of

 

seven works depicting the seven sacraments. Albeit the artist being unknown, it is safe to infer that this artwork is a close contemporary of Poussin’s original work, as is evident upon further study of both the canvas’s technical preparation and the study of stylistic and artistic elements present in the artwork. It is also important to note that since Poussin did not have a workshop, it is more likely that this work was commissioned by a patron of the arts rather than being produced as a teaching exercise by a student. In fact, during the Baroque period in particular, copies were usually commissioned by patrons who were well informed about contemporary art; particularly those who wanted to show off their knowledge of current trends by commissioning reproductions of such important works of art. A working theory of how the work was copied can be ascertained through a comparative analysis between the copy, Poussin’s original and a reproductive engraving by Jean Pesne. Through comparison of the three works one is inclined to believe that the copyist used Pesne’s engraving as a reference for his work of art.

Fig.1 Nicolas Poussin, 1647, The Sacrament of Ordination

Figure 1 Nicolas Poussin, 1647, The Sacrament of Ordination, Oil on Canvas, 117 x 178cm, National Gallery Scotland


Fig.2 Jean Pesne, The Sacrament of Ordination

Figure 2 Jean Pesne, 1680-1694, The Sacrament of Ordination, Engraving, 63 x 86cm, Getty Institute of Research


Figure 3 Unknown Artist, Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination

Figure 3 Unknown Artist, Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination, c.1694 – c. 1724, Oil on Canvas, 182.5cm x 127cm (in frame 202cm x 146cm)


Fig.4 French School, 17th Century, Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination

Fig. 4 French School, 17th Century, Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination, 76 x 113cm

Sold by Cornette de Saint Cyr, Paris, France

 

Report

 

This version of The Sacrament of Ordination is a facsimile reproduction after the French Baroque artist Nicolas Poussin’s (1594 – 1665) work of the same theme (fig. 1). The original painting is part of a series of seven works produced from 1644 to 1648, which represent the seven sacraments. Poussin’s series includes Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Penance, Matrimony, Ordination and Extreme Unction which are all observed in the Catholic faith.

This series, which was the second version of the seven sacraments produced by Poussin, was commissioned by French patron of the arts Paul Fréart de Chantelou.1 The work was produced in Italy and sent to Paris in August of 1647 where it would remain till 1798 when the series was acquired by Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater.2 The series was eventually inherited by the Earls of Ellemere and all seven works are currently on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland as part of the Bridgewater Loan.3

The provenance of Poussin’s original series is important to note, as copies and reproductions of works of art were commonly commissioned as a means of owning a notable work of art during the Baroque period.4 Commissioning a copy, or asking artists to quote a particular work of art allowed the intellectual patron to show how well informed they were about the current trends in art. In fact, while the identity of the author of the copy remains unknown, it is well known that Poussin did not have a workshop and therefore, we can firmly say that this work was not produced as a teaching exercise (as was commonly done during the seventeenth century) but rather would have been independently commissioned. In fact, close analysis of the techniques used shows that it was produced around the same time as Poussin’s work. Our artwork still shows some signs of craquelure on the surface, despite the surface of the artwork having undergone a harsh and abrasive surface cleaning.

Fig. 5 Compositional analysis of Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination.

Christ indicates heaven and earth with his hands while the apostles to the left of Christ and right   of St. Peter, aide in the story-telling through their reaction. The picture displays order and harmony which one would expect from a copy of Poussin’s work.

The story of the Sacrament of Ordination comes from the book of Matthew 16:18-19 which reads:

‘…you are Peter and on this rock I will build My church… And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…’

It represents the story of Christ giving the keys of heaven and earth to St. Peter, a story which is used to symbolise the rite of ordination – when one is ordained as a priest – in the Catholic faith. Poussin’s composition represents Christ holding two keys; one in his right hand pointed upwards – an indication of the heavens above – while the other key is in his left hand pointed downwards indicating the earth (fig. 5). True to typical representations of this story the figure of the apostle Peter is seen kneeling before Christ, ready to accept responsibility. The two figures are placed in the centre of the work to indicate their prominence (fig. 5). Placing the key figures of the narrative in the centre of the work was a common compositional device used by artists which aimed to draw the attention of the audience to the most important characters in the story. The placement of Christ and St. Peter is complemented by the placement of the

 

other disciples who flank the central figures on either side, six on the left and five on the right (fig. 5). The other figures in the picture do not distract from the main event – they are there to draw attention to it. They are depicted reacting towards the scene in front of them through their gestures and various expressions; some can even be seen to be talking to one another while pointing towards the figures in front of them – once again leading the viewer’s eye towards the protagonists. Finally, their frieze-like representation reflects Poussin’s love for order and harmony which is associated with artists who favoured Classicism over the horror vacui and dramatic gestures which was preferred by others, during the Baroque period.

The figures who occupy the immediate foreground are set against an architectural background which reflects the eclectic taste of the time informed by the Grand Tour. An early preparatory sketch by Poussin reveals that his original plan for the work was an architectural background which was inspired exclusively by Ancient Rome.5 The influence of Ancient Rome is a common story-telling element found in the works of Baroque artists who preferred painting in the classical style. His interest in Classicism was also influenced by the work of Renaissance artists such as Titian as well as the work of Raphael.

In essence both Poussin’s original and Our work share the same compositional elements however, some differences are worth noting. Poussin’s work is slightly smaller, measuring at 178 x 117cm in contrast with Our copy which is 182.5 x 127cm, 4cm on the length and 10cm on the width. Changes of such proportions are to be expected in such situations. On the topic of dimensions, it is interesting to note that the size is not smaller. Upon combining the larger dimensions along with the uncompromised technical quality of Our work, it is safe to deduce that the patron was not entirely restrained by budgetary concerns. In the original, Poussin appears to have given equal importance to the architectural background, the figure of Christ and St. Peter and his disciples, while the copyist chose to represent fewer details in the background and instead focused on the story happening in the foreground.

The change in colour is one of the most significant changes which is evident in the copy. Poussin’s sky features yellow, blue and white hues which are reminiscent of a day break. Our copyist chose grey hues to represent his sky. Poussin’s bright colour palette (influenced by the work of Titian and Raphel) is not emulated by Our copyist however this could be due to the age and condition of the work. It is also likely that he did not have access (financial or logistical) to the same high quality pigments that Poussin would have used which could also account for the change in brightness of the artwork. However, it is not only the tone of colours used but also the hue as is represented in the disciples’ robes. Only three of the twelve disciples share the same colours as the original, namely the figure of St. Peter who wears his typical yellow and blue garb as well as two figures to the left of Christ. This could represent the copyist’s use of his artistic licence however it could indicate that he was not working from Poussin’s original but rather the contemporary engraving by Jean Pesne (1623-1700).

Fig. 6 Poussin’s original and Châtillon’s tower with the ‘E’ (left, centre-left respectively) Pesne’s Engraving and Copy’s tower without the ‘E’ (centre-right, right respectively)
Fig.6.4 Poussin’s original and Châtillon’s tower with the ‘E’

Fig. 6 Poussin’s original and Châtillon’s tower with the ‘E’ (left, centre-left respectively) Pesne’s Engraving and Copy’s tower without the ‘E’ (centre-right, right respectively)

The engraving, which bears close similarities to the copy, was produced in c.1680-1694 (fig. 2).6 A comparative analysis between the original, the copy and the engraving by Pesne is necessary in order to understand the extent to which the copyist took his own artistic licence (fig. 1, fig. 2, fig. 3). Historically, the dissemination of prints allowed artists to come into contact with works of art irrespective of geographical limitations partly of the ease to reproduce thanks to printing; this in turn encouraged artists around the world to build up their own collection. Whilst the engraving by Pesne remains very loyal to Poussin’s overall composition, it curiously is missing the enigmatic ‘E’ atop the tower (fig. 6). Instead of the ‘E’, the space is now occupied by a recessed rectangle which simply forms part of the decoration of the tower. In contrast, the ‘E’ has appeared in other reproductions of Poussin’s

Ordination as in by Louis de Châtillon’s (1639-1734) engraving.7 This engraving represents the figures from Poussin’s first version of The Sacrament of Ordination produced in c.1636- 1640.8 In Châtillon’s print the figures are superimposed over the background of Poussin’s second version, produced in 1647.

Fig.7.1 Poussin’s vague shrubbery
Fig.7.3 Poussin’s vague shrubbery

Fig. 7 Poussin’s vague shrubbery (left) Pesne’s Engraving and Copy’s with accentuated leaves (right, bottom respectively)

 

 

 

A far more subtle difference emerges upon examining the shrubbery in the central part of the lower register (fig. 7). Despite being renowned for his landscapes (amongst his other capabilities) Poussin pays little attention to identifying each leaf in the vegetation in the bottom left and centre of the picture. However, in Pesne’s print each leaf is clearly drawn. This attention to detail in the shrubbery also appears in Our copy.

One of the greatest curiosities raised by these subtle (yet present) differences is the reason for them. Was it Our copyist’s way of exercising his artistic license? Irrespective of this, the subtle differences indicated above should not be disregarded as being a fault of a second-rate artist but a different interpretation of Poussin’s original.

Equally it is clear that the patron had a good eye for talent and there are a number of academic theories which can be presented about who the patron was. These ideas are informed by following the patterns of the local art scene during the Baroque period. One of the possible options concerning this particular artwork is that Our copy was commissioned by a patron living in Malta and produced by a local artist who would have referred to the contemporary

 

 

engraving by Pesne. It is also possible that a foreign artist was commissioned by a local patron and the work was shipped to Malta.9 Finally, another alternative which is equally plausible is that, the work could have been produced outside Malta, and brought to the island more recently. It is important to note that if the copy being discussed at present was originally part of a series representing the seven sacraments, the current location of the other six copies is not known.

Condition:

 

The surface of the artwork seems to have undergone a poor restoration at some point in its life as can be seen from the abrasive cleaning techniques which has left most of the canvas lacking a solid paint layer. In a few locations one can even spot part of the preparatory layer of paint used by the artist. In some areas effort has been made to compensate for the damage through over painting which can be seen particularly with the dark blue colour added to the sky. There are three lacerations in the canvas which vary in size and prominence (fig. 8). A previous attempt to mend one of the lacerations has left the canvas suffering from a visually unappealing strip of stitching as can be seen in the centre of the art work, cutting through Christ’s right hand and St. Peter’s head.

Fig.8 The most prominent laceration in the canvas

Fig.8 The most prominent laceration in the canvas

An adhesive substance applied to the entire verso of the work might have been an attempt to fortify the canvas’ fibres against humidity issues, however this in turn has caused minor

deformations in the work. Otherwise, the canvas’ structure displays all the signs of an original period work, particularly in the fastenings used to stretch the canvas.

Artemisia’s Recommendation:

Whilst we always recommend minimal intervention where possible, this case is a definite exception. We recommend the intervention of an ethical and expert restorative approach for this work to once again reflect its original quality and appearance. In order to achieve this three key interventions need to take place beyond the routine restorative practices. This will include, the removal of the adhesive oil-based substance on the backside of the work to expose the original canvas followed by, the removal of later paint additions and then the removal of the previous stitching.

 

Artemisia strongly recommends preventative measures as part of proper conservation, where possible. This includes, retouching the canvas using reversible paint along with infilling of losses, repairing the original canvas, re-stretching the canvas, and disinfesting the strainer frame. In addition, we also recommend the application of a non-yellowing and reversible, protective layer. As a preventative measure we advise that the painting is exhibited inside a controlled environment. Cleaning of the artwork should be infrequent and if necessary only with the light ‘brushing’ of a dry feather duster.

Valuation

French Copy to go in valuation.

1 Chantelou is know to have supported other artists, including the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598- 1680), who visited Poussin’s Seven Sacraments in Paris. Clark, T. J. 2014 ‘Poussin’s Sacrament of Marriage: An Interpretation’ New Literary History 45, 2 (Spring 2014), 221-252; 230. There also exists correspondence via-letters which show that Chantelou was jealous of another commission which Poussin produced, representing The Finding of Moses, 1647 sent to Paris soon after his Sacrament of Ordination. He perceived the Moses as a far superior work, a finer painting to the Ordination. Rosenberg, Pierre, Christiansen, Keith 2007 Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions New York: Yale University Press; 222.

2 Thuillier, Jacques 1974 L’opera completa di Nicolas Poussin Milan, Rizzoli; 103.

3 https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/poussins-sacraments (Accessed on: 10.05.2018)

4 The context of copies, reproductions and quotations is discussed in further detail by Maria H. Loh. Loh, Maria

  1. 2004 ‘New and Improved: Repetition as Originality in Italian Baroque Practice and Theory’ The Art Bulletin

86, 3 (2004), 477-504.

5 Baer, Curtis O. 1963 ‘An Essay on Poussin’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 21, 3 (Spring, 1963), 251-261; 255.

6 The painting and its similarities to the engraving are discussed in further detail below. The original engraving now forms part of a special collection at Getty Research institute of reproductive prints. Marchesano, Louis 2004 http://rosettaapp.getty.edu:1801/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE178439 (Accessed on: 2.05.2018).

7 This engraving also forms part of the collection at the Getty Research Institute. Marchesano, Louis 2004 http://rosettaapp.getty.edu:1801/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE178434 (Accessed on: 10.05.2018)

8 The first version of The Sacrament of Ordination by Nicolas Poussin is now housed at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

9 It is also important to note that if the work was commissioned in Malta it is possible that the patron was a French Knight of St. John who resided here. Poussin’s original work was located in France, therefore, the Knight may have come into contact with the work in-person.

 

FigureDescription & Reference
Fig.1Nicolas Poussin, 1647, The Sacrament of Ordination, Oil on Canvas, 117 x 178cm, National Gallery Scotland
Fig.2Jean Pesne, 1680-1694, The Sacrament of Ordination, Engraving, 63 x 86cm, Getty Institute of Research
Fig.3Unknown Artist, Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination, c.1694 – c. 1724, Oil on Canvas, 182.5cm x 127cm (in frame 202cm x 146cm)
Fig.4French School, 17th Century, Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination, 76 x 113cm
Fig.5Compositional analysis of Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination.
Fig.6Poussin’s original and Châtillon’s tower with the ‘E’ (left, centre-left respectively) Pesne’s Engraving and Copy’s tower without the ‘E’ (centre-right, right respectively)
Fig.7Poussin’s vague shrubbery (left) Pesne’s Engraving and Copy’s with accentuated leaves (right, bottom respectively)
Fig.8The most prominent laceration in the canvas

Baer, Curtis O. 1963 ‘An Essay on Poussin’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 21, 3 (Spring, 1963), 251-261

Clark, T. J. 2014 ‘Poussin’s Sacrament of Marriage: An Interpretation’ New Literary History 45, 2 (Spring 2014), 221-252

Marchesano, Louis 2004 http://rosettaapp.getty.edu:1801/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE178439 (Accessed on: 2.05.2018)

Marchesano, Louis 2004 http://rosettaapp.getty.edu:1801/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE178434 (Accessed on: 10.05.2018)

Murray, Linda, Murray, Peter 2014 The Oxford Companion to Christian Art & Architecture

2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press National Gallery 2018 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/renaissance (Accessed on: 17.07.2018)

Loh, Maria H. 2004 ‘New and Improved: Repetition as Originality in Italian Baroque Practice and Theory’ The Art Bulletin 86, 3 (2004), 477-504

Rosenberg, Pierre, Christiansen, Keith 2007 Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions New York: Yale University Press

Thuillier, Jacques 1974 L’opera completa di Nicolas Poussin Milan, Rizzoli; 103.

Baroque: A term generally used to describe art in Europe between c.1600 and c.1750. Baroque is a term loosely applied to European art from the end of the 16th century to the mid- 18th century, with the latter part of this period falling under the alternative stylistic designation of Late Baroque. The painting of the Baroque period is so varied that no single set of stylistic criteria can be applied to it. However, it is often referred to as dramatic, triumphant and exuberant.

Classicism: a style of art which aimed to revive ancient Greek or Roman principles, generally associated with harmony, restraint, and order to recognized standards of form and craftsmanship, especially from the Renaissance to the 18th century.

Composition: is the placement or arrangement of visual elements in a work of art, particularly a painting.

Condition: A controlled environment usually is a space that buffers external environs, temperature fluctuations. Artworks in a controlled environment should be exhibited in stable humidity and temperatures and kept away from direct sunlight and high intensity lighting.

Controlled Environment: A controlled environment usually is a space that buffers external environs, temperature fluctuations. Artworks in a controlled environment should be exhibited in stable humidity and temperatures and kept away from direct sunlight and high intensity lighting.

Craquelure: is used to describe the network of fine cracks in the paint or varnish of a work of art. The cracks are not reversible and they appear over centuries as the paint dries.

Engraving: is the practice of incising a design onto a hard, usually flat surface by cutting grooves into it.

Facsimile Reproduction: is an exact copy of a work of art. Reproductions were sometimes produced as a teaching exercise in an artist’s workshop, or at the request of patrons who would like to own a work which is imitates another work of art.

Grand Tour: was a “rite of passage” usually undertaken by well off European men, across Europe as an education in culture, history and art. Started around 1660 and continued until the 1800s. Men of lesser means, could only undertake this educational itinerary if they could find a sponsor.

 

Horror Vacui: comes from Latin meaning ‘fear of empty space’. It is used in the context of art history to denotes works which are clustered with figures in contrast to works which are relatively austere and minimal.

Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665): Nicolas Poussin was a seventeenth century French Baroque artist who lived and worked primarily in Rome. He is known for his classical Baroque style which blends French and Roman sensibilities. His main inspiration includes Ancient Greek and Roman work as well as the work of Italian Renaissance artists, Raphael and Titian who favoured order and harmony in their work.

Jean Pesne (1623 – 1700): Jean Pesne was a French engraver and painter. He copied the work of Poussin, Van Dyck and the Carracci brothers among other aritsts.

Raphael Sanzio (1483 – 1520): Raphael Sanzio, more commonly referred to by his first name only, was an Italian High Renaissance artist. He is best known for his work at the Vatican, including the School of Athens. His work embodies classical principles of art, emphasising harmony and balance in his compositions.

Renaissance: Renaissance, a French word meaning rebirth, is applied to the rediscovery and revival of interest in the art, architecture and literary culture of Antiquity which took place in Italy from the 14th century onwards, and in Northern Europe a little later. It is broadly used to describe the historical period stretching from the 15th century to the end of the 16th century. It is also applied as a stylistic label to the art of these centuries. Two main phases of the Italian Renaissance are distinguished: the Early Renaissance and the High Renaissance.

St. Peter’s Keys: Christ gave the keys to heaven and earth to St. Peter. According to the gospel of Matthew 16:18-19 Christ says, ‘…you are Peter and on this rock I will build My church… And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…’ St. Peter is often depicted with a pair of keys in his hands. His keys are also used in ecclesiastical heraldry, including on the papal coat of arms.

Titian (1488/1490 – 1576): Titian was an Italian sixteenth century artist who was one of the major protagonists of the Venetian School. In his youth, Titian became an apprentice to the Venetian artist Sebastiano Zuccato. He eventually worked other leading artists including Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione. His early work is characterised by his classical tendencies.