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Poussin masterpiece goes on tour

In 2012 the Fitzwilliam Museum made headlines after raising £3.9 million to acquire Nicolas Poussin’s masterpiece Extreme Unction (c. 1638-40). Now this majestic painting will be going on tour to three collections so it can be seen and enjoyed across the nation.

The painting will be on show in 2015 from 6 March - 7 June at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 12 June - 13 September at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, and 18 September - 13 December at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. All of the collections are free to enter and all have other works by this artist in their collection.

The acquisition was made in 2012 when HM Government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme allowed the painting to be purchased for £3.9m instead of its market value of £14m. The purchase was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and numerous charities and public donations.

Extreme Unction (or ‘Final Anointing’) depicts a powerful and moving scene, as a family gathers at the bedside of a dying man as he is administered his last rites.

The painting is one of a set of seven scenes representing the sacraments of the Catholic Church; Baptism, Penance, Ordination, Marriage, Eucharist, Confirmation and Extreme Unction. They were painted between 1636 and 1642 by the French artist Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), one of the greatest artists of the 17th century. He spent most of his career in Rome, the art capital of Europe, attracting the patronage of wealthy and influential collectors. The set was commissioned by the renowned collector and scholar, Cassiano dal Pozzo, and hung in a room named after them, the Stanza de’ Sagramenti, in his palace in Rome.

Poussin imagined each scene taking place in ancient Roman times either as an event from the Bible, or a ritual associated with the early church. He drew on his extensive study of the art and artefacts of classical antiquity to represent the costumes, setting, and the structure of the paintings themselves.

The set is of particular importance to the UK as it has long been in British collections and a part of our national heritage. In 1785, the series was sold for £2,000 to Charles Manners, 4th Duke of Rutland and brought to England. Shortly after, they were publicly exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London; King George III was amongst those who visited, accompanied by the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The series is no longer complete: 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, Fort Worth, Texas. Further information can be found in our online exhibition, Painting in Focus: Nicolas Poussin’s Extreme Unction.

5 March 2015

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