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Art Fund backs Fitzwilliam Museum’s bid to save major Poussin

— August 2012

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Nicolas Poussin, Extreme Unction (c.1638-40), commissioned in Rome by renowned connoisseur Cassiano dal Pozzo,  depicts a dying man being anointed with oil. Poussin drew on his extensive study of the art & artefacts of classical antiquity

The Art Fund is supporting a public appeal by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England 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 HM Government’s Acceptance-in-Lieu-of-Tax scheme. So far, nearly 10% of this target has been pledged, and the Art Fund and the Fitzwilliam Museum have today begun their 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 Roman Catholic 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.

Today, the sobriety and control of Poussin’s paintings can seem difficult, or remote 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.

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 the 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 due from the sale of Ordination, a net payment of £3,875,917 to the Trustees must be made by the Fitzwilliam, if the acquisition is to proceed. The Fitzwilliam has only until early November 2012 to raise the necessary funds.
Dr Timothy Potts, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, said:

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.

Extreme Unction
is currently on display in Gallery 3 at the Fitzwilliam Museum for all to see. Admission to the Museum is free. 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 Fitzwilliam Museum and the Art Fund are appealing to supporters to help in raising funds. Organisations that want to support the appeal 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

Membership of the Art Fund costs £50 per year and gives entry to over 200 museums, galleries and other places of interest, and reductions in the cost of exhibition tickets.

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