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Death of Germanicus:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
This painting is one of the foremost works in the Institute's collection and is of great significance for many reasons: It is acknowledged to be the first masterpiece of Nicolas Poussin's career, in which he manifests his mastery of artistic objectives and moral ideals he was striving to attain in his early years.

As the masterpiece of the antiquarian phase of the Baroque style, it is one of the key paintings in the history of European art. Its enduring influence on subsequent art would culminate in the evolution of the neo-classical style in the latter 18th century. Over the years this painting has been studied and copied by numerous artists, among them Mignard (1720) and Gericault (1811).

This work has an extraordinarily well-documented provenance: we know its history and locations where it has been from the delivery to its first owner in 1628 to the present. We are well-informed about the patron and the circumstances of the painting's commission.

This is a history painting, that is, it portrays the artist's conception of a notable event in the past, taken from literature or mythology. In the 17th century, history painting was considered to be one of the most esteemed categories of subject matter, a position it held in European art until the mid-19th century. It was thus the ambition of every painter to produce distinguished history paintings, without which one could not hope to achieve eminence and future commissions. In a history painting, the subject plays a principal role: the composition, the color scheme and execution all contribute to the illustration of the story.

The subject is drawn from The Annals of Tacitus, Books II, LXXI, LXXII:
Germanicus (15 B.C.­A.D. 19), the son of Nero Claudius Drusus, was a famous and extremely popular Roman general who carried out several successful military campaigns in Germany. He was named commander of the eight legions of the Rhine by his uncle Tiberius, who was then Emperor. Recalled to Rome in A.D. 16, his warm reception by the populace inflamed the jealousy and fear of Tiberius who immediately sent him to the East to remove him from the public eye. In the meantime, Tiberius also made Piso, an ambitious member of the Roman nobility, the governor of Syria and ordered him to spy on Germanicus' movements. When Germanicus unexpectedly died while in Syria, Piso and his wife Plancina were accused of poisoning him, supposedly at Tiberius' instigation. Although the prosecution was unable to prove that Germanicus had, in fact, been poisoned, Piso's subsequent suicide was construed as a cover-up. This gave further credence to the widespread suspicion that Tiberius, or even his mother Livia, was behind the murder.
Germanicus left a widow, Agrippina the Elder, mother of his six children, among them the future emperor Caligula. On his deathbed, Germanicus asks his friends to avenge his death and charges his wife, Agrippina, to bear her sorrow with dignity.

The Roman historian Tacitus, who lived between 54/56 and ca. 120 A.D. was writing about an event that had taken place earlier in his own century.

Poussin, who did not read Latin but who had access to classical texts in translation, must have made use of an Italian translation. On the basis of Tacitus' text, the artist had to transcribe the text into a clear image that would summarize the episode, but would also be evocative.

Around the dying Germanicus Poussin places figures in various responses to the event. The densely packed family group on the right expresses intimate but strong emotion. A passionate response to the words of the dying leader is expressed in the official gathering of soldiers to the left. The dying man himself serves as the link between the two groups.

The rhythmic sequence of three standing men constitute the pivotal element of the composition; their verticality is reiterated by the massive pilasters in the immediate background. The movement created by the horizontal gestures of the two left figures is halted by the figure in imperial armor, who raises his arm in an oath of allegiance. According to Tacitus, the soldiers confirmed their oath by touching the right hand of the dying man, and although Poussin shows them with hands upraised in the traditional gesture of swearing an oath, Germanicus' right hand lies conspicuously on the sheet, as if the second action were to follow. This hand indeed forms the focal point of the composition.

The auxiliary background figures expand and comment on the story. The dramatic event takes place in a public setting. Monumental architecture is used to construct a clearly defined interior space, and gives grandeur to the scene. The curtain behind the bed unites the principal figures and provides a relief-like quality that evokes antique frieze sculpture. The severity of the whole is mitigated by the warmth of the colors of the cloth garments, curtain and armor. The noble virtues of the ancient Romans are here presented in unequivocal visual terms, with dignity and resolution.

Poussin has articulated this composition according to a system of principles that for him represented a complete and ideal artistic vision, one that furthermore embodied his own moral and intellectual values.

These recurring principles can be distinguished as:

  • Control of both the formal elements and of the emotions inherent in the subject;
  • Clarity of the individual forms and of the thematic message conveyed;
  • Unity of structure and theme;
  • Rational Order: all elements are contained within and focused upon a legible scheme of organization; extraneous or distracting details are suppressed.

Poussin conceived of and formulated this consistent and intensely intellectual vision within the three short years between his arrival in Rome in 1624 and the execution of this epic work. To understand this, we must look at both the theoretical basis and stylistic sources he drew upon.

The theoretical basis for Poussin's vision is crucial and requires some analysis. Available documentation about Poussin's life during these early years indicates that he spent most of his time within the colony of foreign artists in Rome. However, through his connection with the Barberini family, he gravitated to the intellectual circle of Cassiano del Pozzo, who fostered Poussin's interest in archeological research and study of antique monuments. Poussin also had access to del Pozzo's incomparable library and to the private collections of Rome's prominent patrons. The Venetian Bacchanals by Bellini and Titian, which Poussin saw in the Aldobrandini and Ludovisi collections, became a major influence on his style during the 1620s.

Poussin clearly adhered to the philosophy of Stoicism: his letters contain so many phrases directly taken from Stoic writers that we can conclude that not only was he well versed in their ideas but regarded Stoicism as a guide to the conduct of his life. The Stoics were members of a Greek school of philosophy holding that humanity should be free from passion and accept all occurrences as the unavoidable result of divine will. In addition to the Stoic ideal of restraint so clearly manifested in Poussin's Germanicus, the grandeur of his later landscapes would illustrate the avowed aim of the Stoics "to live consistently with nature."

In order to learn to accurately portray the ideal forms he envisioned, he applied himself to the studies of anatomy, geometry and perspective, and to life drawing. Most importantly, he remained open to the myriad of works of art he saw around him ­ there was antiquity, there were the works of Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian among the great masters of the Renaissance, there were Caracci and Caravaggio among the recently dead, and the completely new style that was arising, the Baroque practices by such artists as Bernini and Pietro da Cortona.

Many of Poussin's early Roman paintings reflect the all of these influences: the art and literature of the antique world; the coloristic freedom and romantic atmosphere of the Venetian Renaissance, and the close observation of nature. His course of development may be traced in a growing skill and mastery of those Italian and classical elements of art that he chose to absorb and mold into his own unique idiom. In the Germanicus, Titianesque color is combined with mastery of spatial composition. The full impact of Poussin's fully matured style is displayed for the first time in the depiction of one of those heroic stories from ancient history which were to inspire him so frequently in the middle period of his life.

It has long been recognized that Poussin borrowed the basic motif of the composition of the Germanicus, that of a recumbent dying hero seen in profile, from a Roman sarcophagus depicting the myth of the death of Meleager. Poussin might have seen any one of several versions extant at the time. Another important source was a tapestry, one of a set of tapestries illustrating the story of Constantine that Cardinal Francesco Barberini had received from Louis XIII at the end of his long stay in France. This series of tapestries was woven after drawings and sketches by Rubens. The composition of one of them, the Death of Constantine, is the reverse of that of Poussin's painting. It is very probable that Poussin saw this tapestry when the set arrived in Rome, at the very time the cardinal was about to commission the Germanicus.

Two preparatory drawings for the composition survive, in Frankfurt and in the British Museum in London. The latter comes closest to the final design.

When Nicolas Poussin arrived in Rome in 1624, very likely in March, he was an unknown, at least in Italy. He spent the first three years struggling to establish himself in Rome, the undisputed capital of the arts in its time. Although Poussin's first influential patron in Paris, G. B. Marino, was in Rome in 1624, he soon left for Naples, where he died the following year. However, before his departure Marino introduced the painter to Marcello Sacchetti, one of the most active arts patrons in Rome, by whom he was recommended to Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679). In this way Poussin was put into contact with the most important source of patronage in Rome at that time. Francesco was the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, and as the papal nephew wielded great political power. He was one of the key figures in Roman cultural life in the first half of the 17th century. With his uncle's death in 1644 and the advent of a new pope, Francesco's role was greatly diminished. It is interesting to note that Francesco was 2 or 3 years younger than , and that both he and Poussin were close in age to the Roman hero Germanicus at the time of his death in his early 30s.

In December of 1525 Cardinal Francesco returned from a diplomatic mission in France with an enthusiasm for French culture. Poussin's first commissions for him were two battle scenes and a small Agony in the Garden. The success of these more modest works lead to the commission of the Death of Germanicus as early as October of 1626. From documents in the still extant archives of the Barberini family, we learn that the painting was delivered on January 21, 1628 to the Cardinal's residence, the Barberini Palace. Poussin received payment of 60 scudi two days later.

The painting remained in the Barberini Palace until January of 1633, when Cardinal Francesco, now Vice-Chancellor of the Holy See, transferred his collection to the Palace of the Chancellery (known as the Cancelleria). Another painting was moved with the Germanicus, which may have served as its companion piece. This is assumed to be The Capture of Jerusalem by Titus (now lost), which was given in November of 1633 to the French ambassador in Rome as a political gesture.

In this new context of a companion piece, one scholar has postulated that the Germanicus may have had a significant political and ecclesiastical meaning. During these years the Barberini pope Urban VIII was attempting diplomatic efforts on several fronts to overcome the Protestant threat in Germany. Germanicus was a hero of a Roman war in Germany that involved a border situation similar to that of the contemporary conflict between Catholic and Protestant provinces. Titus and Germanicus, both heroic personages known for their virtue, clemency and popularity, may have been considered by the Barberini as symbolic leaders in the battle for the faith, which they were waging both on the official and personal fronts. The longed-for reconversion of the Protestants would clearly auger a victory for Urban's papacy.

At a later, undetermined date the Germanicus was returned to the Barberini Palace, where its presence is cited in several inventories of the collection and where it is described in 18th and 19th century letters and guidebooks. For example, Stendahl, the French critic, saw it in a visit to the palace in 1827. In the early 20th century the painting came into the possession of a Barberini descendent, Prince Tomaso Corsini, living in Florence, possibly when the Barberini palace was purchased by the Italian government. The Germanicus was apparently offered for sale in 1938, when it was considered for purchase by the Louvre. It was not sold until 1958, when Tomaso
Corsini sold it to Wildenstein Gallery in New York, from whom the MIA acquired it in the same year.

Although like all his contemporaries, Poussin must have aspired to an attachment to a noble house, such as the Barberini, no permanent relationship seems to have developed. However, the successful outcome of the Germanicus no doubt paved his way for future commissions, including the papal commission for an altarpiece in St. Peter's Basilica in 1628.

Blunt, Anthony. Nicolas Poussin. (The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) New York: Pantheon Books, 1967 (2 volumes; text and plates)

Cropper, Elizabeth and Dempsey, Charles. Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Oberhuber, Konrad. Poussin: The Early Years in Rome. New York: Hudson Hills Press, Inc., 1988.

Rosenberg, Pierre and Butor, Nathalie, eds. Poussin's "Death of Germanicus" Paris: Éditions des Musées Nationaux, 1973.

Use on the following tours:
  • Highlights of the Museum's Collection
  • European Art (14th to 18th centuries)
  • Visual Elements
  • Heroes and Heroines
  • Literature and Art
  • People and Places
  • Classics and the Classical Influence

Compare the architectural space Poussin has portrayed with that in El Greco's Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple.

Compare the painting to Roman works which may be on view at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, such as the Tondo (there is one in the Poussin), or to Renaissance works which were looking at classic models, such as the Aldobrandini Tazza.

Compare Poussin's depiction of a hero with Sully's.

Compare Poussin's use of classical subject matter to Rembrandt's.

When discussing classical composition, compare Poussin's use of primary colors to stabilize the picture to Lorenzo Costa's use of them in Portrait of a Cardinal in His Study.

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Source: Docent Manual entry for Nicolas Poussin, <i>Death of Germanicus,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009