The Kimbell Art Museum has added to its European collection one of the most important acquisitions in its history: French painter Nicolas Poussin's Sacrament of Ordination (Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter). The painting is from Poussin's famous first set of the Seven Sacraments, which has been universally acclaimed, virtually since its creation, as a landmark in the history of art. The series was commissioned by the prominent Roman collector Cassiano dal Pozzo between 1636 and 1642. In 1785, the 4th Duke of Rutland purchased the paintings and brought them to England, after which Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy of Arts, declared: "I think upon the whole that this must be considered as the greatest work of Poussin, who was certainly one of the greatest Painters that ever lived."
Click on the image to learn more.
"This is among the most significant old master paintings to have become available in decades," commented Eric M. Lee, the Museum's director. "I'm thrilled about the acquisition. Poussin's harmonious painting, with its frieze of colorfully dressed figures set against a landscape, beautifully complements the serene Louis Kahn-designed galleries of the Kimbell, and vice-versa—a perfect union of painting and architecture. The classical sense of restraint in this work makes for an interesting contrast to the Poussin already in our collection, the earlier, more sensuous, Venetian-inspired Venus and Adonis."
Cassiano dal Pozzo, who commissioned the Sacrament series, was secretary to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, and is often referred to as the father of modern archaeology. Cassiano immersed himself in the study of natural sciences and the philosophy, customs, and monuments of antiquity, to which end he amassed a "Paper Museum," an encyclopedic collection of drawings and prints that recorded the material evidence of the life and works of the ancients. He met Poussin soon after the artist's arrival in Rome from France, in 1624, and became one of his most important patrons. Eventually he owned (along with his brother) some 50 Poussin paintings. Cassiano's learned interests undoubtedly inspired the unprecedented subject of the sacraments as individual scenes—a theme that explored the core rites of Christian life leading to salvation. Poussin created narratives with an extraordinary attention to historical accuracy, bringing to life rituals of the early Christians and infusing each picture with a profound yet powerful pictorial structure. Cassiano's Sacraments were admired by scores of artists and connoisseurs, including Paul Fréart de Chantelou, for whom Poussin created a second set of Sacraments between 1644 and 1648; these paintings are currently in the collection of the Duke of Sutherland, on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.
To illustrate the sacrament of ordination—the taking of Holy Orders to become a priest, deacon, or bishop—Poussin depicted the gospel account of Christ giving the keys of heaven and earth to the kneeling apostle Peter, showing the authority vested in him as head of the Roman church: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church...I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 16:18–19). Poussin charges his magisterial composition with the varied emotional reactions and gestures of each apostle, setting the figures against an airy landscape. Probably among the earliest completed in the series, the painting is in excellent condition.
Sir Robert Walpole, the early 18th-century British prime minister whose extensive art collection was later acquired by Catherine the Great of Russia and would become the nucleus of the Hermitage Museum, attempted to acquire Poussin's Sacraments from the heirs of Cassiano dal Pozzo, but the pope at that time, Benedict XIV, considered them too important to the cultural patrimony of Rome to leave the city and stopped their export. It was in 1785 that James Byres, agent in Rome of Charles Manners, 4th Duke of Rutland, finally succeeded in securing the series, which the Duke had some years earlier expressed a desire to purchase. The Duke consulted Sir Joshua Reynolds, who enthusiastically endorsed the purchase as "a great object of art...perhaps a greater than any we have at present in this nation. Poussin certainly ranks amongst the first of the first rank of Painters, and to have a set of Pictures of such an artist will really and truly enrich the nation." When the paintings arrived in London, Reynolds attended to the cleaning of the paintings and arranged for them to be exhibited with great fanfare at the Royal Academy in 1787 before their installation at the Duke of Rutland's Belvoir Castle, in new frames—ordered by Reynolds himself—which remain on the paintings to this day.
The Dal Pozzo Sacraments were on display at Belvoir Castle for over 200 years and from 2003 until 2010 on loan to the National Gallery, London. Of the original seven works, the Duke of Rutland retains Confirmation, Eucharist, Extreme Unction, and Marriage. Penance was destroyed in a fire, and Baptism was acquired by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in 1946. The Sacrament of Ordination was offered for sale by the trustees of the Belvoir Estate, and the proceeds will support the renovation and long-term preservation of Belvoir Castle and Estate.
The Kimbell Art Foundation was represented in the negotiation of the painting's purchase by Robert Holden Ltd. and Sotheby's. The Kimbell secured an export license in August of 2011. In documents made public, the expert advisor for the British Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest wrote, "Poussin's depictions of these sacred ceremonies represent one of the supreme artistic, intellectual and spiritual achievements in Western art and thought."
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) occupies a central place in the history of art. Born in France, he spent most of his career in Rome. Esteemed as both a painter-poet and painter-philosopher, Poussin was an artist whose work encompassed the full range of human expression, imaginative, and intellectual. He attracted a number of important patrons, including Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII, who recalled him to France as First Painter in Ordinary to the King, though the artist soon chose to return to Rome. He was admired by Bernini as an incomparable storyteller. Poussin's works range from youthful mythological paintings and sensuous bacchanals to austerely rigorous history paintings and devotional works, from bucolic pastoral landscapes to the epic, pantheistic landscapes of his old age. His paintings provided the foundation for the great French tradition of classical art, in turn nurturing the neoclassicism of the 18th and 19th centuries. Generations of artists, from David to Delacroix to Cézanne and beyond, have drawn inspiration and measured their own achievements in relation to the towering art of Poussin.