Fitzwilliam Museum in public appeal to buy Nicolas Poussin's £14 million Extreme Unction

By Culture24 Reporter | 14 August 2012
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An image of an Old Master oil painting of various robed biblical figures helping a figure on a deathbed
Nicolas Poussin, Extreme Unction (1638-1640)© Jerry Hardman-Jones
Nicolas Poussin’s Extreme Unction, made in the Seven Sacrements series for Rome scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo, will light up the incredible collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge if organisers can raise the asking price of almost £4 million to buy the 17th century masterpiece.

The depiction of a dying man, anointed with oil under the guidance of the early Church, is on offer to the museum at a knockdown price under the government’s Acceptance-in-Lieu scheme.

The painting is worth £14 million, but the 11th Duke of Rutland’s tax settlement bill, following the £15 million sale of Poussin’s Ordination last year, has given the Fitzwilliam until early November 2012 to secure it for Cambridge.

“This would be the most significant old master painting acquired by the Museum in nearly a century,” announced Dr Timothy Potts, the Director of the museum, who said the fundraising campaign had raised nearly 10% of the price so far.

“It would transform our representation of French art and of the classical tradition through a masterpiece by the greatest French painter of the 17th 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.”

The title of the work, which has gone on display in Gallery 3 at the museum, translates as Final Anointing.

Poussin is said to have drawn on his extensive study of the art and artefacts of classical antiquity to enhance the realism of the costumes, settings and structure of the paintings, leaving an enduring stylistic influence on European art which informed the likes of Pablo Picasso.

Viscount Fitzwilliam, who founded the museum in 1816, was among the small but passionate group of patrons Poussin painted for, although the example of the artist's work he was thought to have owned turned out to be a copy under later scholarly examination.
The Duke of Rutland’s purchase of the Seven Sacrements series, in 1785, was seen as a coup in Britain, receiving a visit from King George II when the series was exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Many experts believe Extreme Unction is the finest of the Sacrements. Of the others, two are in America – Baptism, at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, and Ordination, at the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas. Another, Penance, was destroyed by fire in 1816.

The Art Fund is backing the campaign. “Even for a museum collection as fine as the Fitzwilliam’s, this great Poussin would be a transformative acquisition,” suggested Dr Stephen Deuchar, the group’s Director, calling it a “truly unique opportunity” to buy “a painting of immense importance.”

“We salute the determined efforts of the Museum to acquire it for the public, and we urge anyone who cares about art to dig into their pockets and pay what they can to help us reach our target.”

Organisers have applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for help, and are planning to appeal to other charitable institutions.

  • Visit to donate. Cheques, made payable to the Fitzwilliam Museum Development Trust, can be sent to The Development Office, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1RB. Organisations should contact the museum Development Officer, Sue Rhodes, on 01223 332939.
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