Poussin Masterpiece Fitzwilliam Museum Announces Acquisition Appeal

The Fitzwilliam Museum announced today the launch of a Public Appeal to acquire Nicolas Poussin’s masterpiece Extreme Unction (c. 1638-40). The painting, the value of which has been agreed at £14m, has been made available to the Fitzwilliam for just under £3.9m, thanks to H.M. Government’s Acceptance-in-Lieu scheme. Thus far, nearly 10% of this target has been pledged, and the Museum and the Art Fund have begun a joint campaign to raise the rest of the money.

One of the surviving Seven Sacraments painted in Rome for the renowned scholar and connoisseur Cassiano dal Pozzo, Extreme Unction (‘Final Anointing’) has long been considered by critics to be the finest work from one of the most remarkable series of paintings ever conceived. It depicts a dying man being anointed with oil in accordance with the rites of the early Church. The painting is of critical importance to the study of western art. Poussin’s work has influenced many great painters from David and Ingres to Cézanne and even Picasso, and continues to inspire artists to this day.

Extreme Unction is currently owned by The 11th Duke of Rutland’s 2000 Settlement. As a result of the sale in 2011 for £15m of Poussin’s Ordination to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Trustees incurred inheritance tax. To pay for this the Trustees have offered Extreme Unction through H.M. Government’s Acceptance-in-Lieu system, with a condition that it be allocated to the Fitzwilliam Museum. As the painting’s value is greater than the tax which arises from the sale of Ordination, a net payment is due to the Trustees from the Fitzwilliam of £3,875,917 if the acquisition is to proceed. The Fitzwilliam has only until early November 2012 to raise the necessary funds to acquire the painting.

This would be the most significant old master painting acquired by the Museum in nearly a century and would transform our representation of French art and of the classical tradition through a masterpiece by the greatest French painter of the seventeenth-century. It is a “destination painting” that will both benefit from the context of our great European collections and add greatly to the experience and programmes that we can offer the public. It will be a uniquely rich resource for teaching at all levels, drawing as it does in style and subject matter from ancient Roman art, the rituals of the early Christian church, and Poussin’s own artistic grounding in France and Rome. A national and international treasure, it would be very much at home at the Fitzwilliam, and we are delighted that the Art Fund has joined with us in seeking to acquire it for Cambridge.

In early September, Extreme Unction will continue to be on display in Gallery 3 at the Museum for all to see. The Fitzwilliam also has ambitious plans to create wide-ranging public programmes around the themes of the painting, for a wide public of all ages and backgrounds.

The Museum is appealing to all of its supporters to help in raising funds, including the Friends of the Fitzwilliam. The Museum has also applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund and together with the Art Fund will approach various other charitable institutions to contribute to the Appeal.

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