The judgement of Solomon by Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin

The Judgement of Solomon, 1649, Oil on canvas, 101 x 150 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris; Collection of Louis XIV (acquired in 1685), Inv. 7277, Photo: Stéphane Maréchalle, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

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Justice or Compassion?

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The drama, suspense, and anguish that lie at the heart of the biblical description of the first test of Solomon’s wisdom as he judges between the competing claims of two mothers (1 Kings 4:16–28) have proved irresistible to artists. Nicolas Poussin focusses the viewer’s attention on a shocking and very cruel moment in the story—immediately after Solomon’s first verdict that the living child be cut in two (v.25) but before his second verdict that he should be given to his real mother (v.27).

Apart from the false mother and the king’s adviser to Solomon’s left, whose expressions indicate that they agree with his verdict, all the other bystanders show varying degrees of rejection and horror. Poussin uses hand gestures to register shock and disapproval, most noticeably in the raised hands of the true mother and of the bystander mother in blue on the far right. Even the awkward angle of the soldier’s arm as he draws his sword to kill the child indicates his reluctance.

Solomon sits above the entire fray, cold, detached, and expressionless, his unbiased judgement underlined by the remarkable symmetry of the entire setting.

Poussin also includes an allusion to Solomon’s second verdict—that the child be given to his rightful mother—by the position of the two children. He places the dead child in the arms of the false mother (in contrast to iconographical convention which normally places him between the two women) while the living child looks ready to fall into his real mother’s open arms, once the harsh first judgement has been rescinded.

The story concludes that ‘all Israel stood in awe of the king’ (v.28) because of the wisdom of his judgement. But, in focussing on this precise moment in the story, Poussin asks us to reflect (like the bystanders in his painting) on how Solomon’s initial judgement appears indifferent, harsh, and inhuman, even though on the surface it seems impartial and fair, and how the real hero of the story is not, in fact, the wise king but rather the mother who, through her compassion and selflessness, has saved the child. The story—as expressed through Poussin’s painting—is not only about justice but also about mercy.



Bätschmann, Oskar. 1990. Nicholas Poussin: Dialectics of Painting (London Reakton), pp. 80–81

Cooke, Peter. 2016. Painting and Narrative in France from Poussin to Gauguin (Abingdon: Routledge), pp. 194–95

Plett, Heinrich F. 2004. Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture (Berlin: De Gruyter), pp. 334–46

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