Art Fund To Secure Nicolas Poussin Masterpiece For Nation

The public has shown major support for the joint appeal by the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Art Fund to secure Poussin’s masterpiece Extreme Unction (c. 1638-40) for the nation. In the first few weeks the fundraising appeal has reached £550,000 thanks to significant donations from over 2,250 members of the general public, including £100,000 from the Art Fund’s museum-going supporters. Extreme Unction will go on display in Room 1 of the National Gallery from today, 20 September, until 11 November. Admission is free to all.

David Scrase, Acting Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, said, “We are extremely grateful to all of our supporters and friends for this remarkable response. It shows a real desire to keep this exceptional and beautiful painting in the country. Potentially the most important old master to be acquired by the Fitzwilliam in nearly a century, Extreme Unction would revolutionise the collections at the Museum: a national treasure for posterity. The Fitzwilliam has ambitious plans to create public programmes around the themes of the painting, for a wide public of all ages and backgrounds.”

Art Fund Director Stephen Deuchar, said, “The Fitzwilliam Museum is the perfect home for this masterpiece of French classicism and, thanks to the Acceptance-in-Lieu scheme, there is an exceptional opportunity to acquire it at a fraction of its value. The National Gallery’s support for the campaign and display of the painting emphasises its national importance, and I think anyone who goes to see this spellbinding work whilst it’s in London will feel compelled to support the campaign.”

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.

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.

It 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.

The National Gallery is delighted to be helping the Fitzwilliam and the Art Fund by displaying Extreme Unction in Room 1 of the National Gallery, enabling thousands of visitors to view and experience it at first hand. The National Gallery aims to promote the understanding, knowledge and appreciation of Old Master paintings throughout the UK and is working with the Art Fund on curatorial development in this area.

National Gallery Director Dr. Nicholas Penny commented: “There is no greater work by Poussin than Extreme Unction among the very many by him in the national collection. Indeed it is not controversial to claim that Poussin painted nothing greater than this picture. It epitomises his special genius for completely legible narrative and memorable clarity of composition. It is quite extraordinary in illustrating no particular people, but a timeless and anonymous episode of universal significance: solemn grief, tense solace, dignity and hope competing with despair. We hope the support for the acquisition will gain the momentum needed .”

The Museum continues to appeal 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. Organisations should contact Development Officer Sue Rhodes at the Museum directly on 01223 332939; individuals can send a contribution in the form of a cheque made payable to the ‘Fitzwilliam Museum Development Trust’ to: The Development Office, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1RB, or give online at

Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665) was the greatest French painter of the 17th century. He initially studied painting in Paris and then moved to Rome at the age of thirty. In the following decades his renown across Europe grew and, save for a brief spell in the service of the King of France, Poussin made his home in Rome permanently.

The Masterpiece
Commissioned in Rome by Poussin’s friend the renowned connoisseur Cassiano dal Pozzo, Extreme Unction (c. 1638-40) depicts a dying man being anointed with oil in accordance with the rites of the early Roman church. To enhance the realism of the scene, Poussin drew on his extensive study of the art and artefacts of classical antiquity to represent the costumes, setting, and the structure of the painting itself, with the figures disposed frieze-like across the composition. This classicising tendency went on to make an inestimable impact on Western art.

Today, the sobriety and control of Poussin’s paintings can seem difficult, or remote, to audiences. But in Extreme Unction subject and style are so perfectly aligned that Poussin’s stark, lyrical, line, and controlled play of light and shadow bring out the full depth of emotion that marks this momentous scene. Through the rhythmic beauty of the composition and passages of resplendent, often joyous, colour, Poussin allows us to contemplate and engage with the most natural and inevitable of

events in human existence: the passage from life to death.

The Public Appeal
Poussin initially painted for a relatively small, but hugely enthusiastic, group of patrons, but by
the 18th century collectors throughout Europe were clamouring to buy his pictures. Viscount Fitzwilliam himself was one, though later scholarship proved that his would-be Poussin was a
copy. The Duke of Rutland was more fortunate, and his purchase in 1785 of Poussin’s series of Seven Sacraments – then among his important works to be seen in Rome – caused a sensation in England. Their acquisition was heralded as a coup for the nation, and when the series was exhibited at the Royal Academy it was visited by King George III himself.

From the 18th century onwards, painters, scholars and connoisseurs have evaluated the importance of the Rutland series by comparison with a later group of the same subject, painted in 1644-48 and now in the collection of the Duke of Sutherland, on long-term loan to the National Galleries of Scotland. Most critics, from Sir Joshua Reynolds on, have consistently judged the first, Rutland, series to be the finer of the two; Extreme Unction, in particular, has been singled out as the most intelligently constructed and beautifully painted of all the Sacraments.

The set of Sacraments is no longer complete: one, Penance, was destroyed by fire in 1816, Baptism was sold around 1939 and is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington and Ordination was sold in 2011 to the Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth, Texas. As a result of this last sale, and consequent Inheritance Tax, the Fitzwilliam Museum has been offered through the Acceptance-in-Lieu scheme the unique opportunity to purchase the painting at a fraction of its agreed value, £14,000,000. It will only cost the Museum £3,875,917 to ensure that this masterpiece remains in Britain.

The Fitzwilliam Museum
Founded in 1816 the Fitzwilliam is the principal museum of the University of Cambridge, with collections exploring world history and art from antiquity to the present day. It houses over half a million objects from ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artefacts, to medieval illuminated manuscripts, masterpiece paintings from the Renaissance to the 21st century and outstanding collections of applied arts, ceramics, coins, and Asian arts.

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