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Fitzwilliam Museum appeals for £3.9m to buy Poussin masterpiece

Cambridge museum has until November to buy Extreme Unction, one of a series on the sacraments by 17th-century old master

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has launched a £3.9m appeal to buy a sombre masterpiece by Poussin with a tangled recent history that belies its calm grandeur.

The painting, Extreme Unction, is from a famous series depicting the seven sacraments by the 17th-century French artist, which has been in an aristocratic English collection for more than two centuries, but has been on and off the market in recent years.

This one is available as a tax deal with the government, in lieu of the inheritance tax owed by the trustees of the Dukes of Rutland from the sale of another painting in the series to the United States last year.

Timothy Potts, the director of the Fitzwilliam, said securing the work for Cambridge would be its most significant old master acquisition in a century. It would be a parting coup for Potts, who leaves next month to take over as director at the Getty museum in California, the wealthiest art museum in the world.

The Art Fund charity – its pockets almost emptied by the £850,000 it gave the university museum's great rival, the Ashmolean in Oxford, to buy a Manet – is giving £100,000. It is also appealing to all its members and supporters to back the appeal for a painting seen as a landmark in art history that has influenced generations of later artists.

When the seven paintings first came to England in the 18th century, Joshua Reynolds, then president of the Royal Academy – where George III came to see them – said: "I think upon the whole that this must be considered as the greatest work of Poussin, who was certainly one of the greatest painters that ever lived."

Poussin regarded Extreme Unction – the ashen figure of a man on his deathbed being anointed with oil, the final sacrament for a Christian – as one of his greatest. He wrote to his friend Fréart de Chantelou, who commissioned a second series, that the subject was "worthy of an Apelles", the most famous Greek painter of antiquity.

The paintings were bought by the Dukes of Rutland in 1785. One was destroyed in a fire at Belvoir Castle in the 19th century, and another was sold to the National Gallery in Washington in the early 20th century. The remaining five were on display for several years at the National Gallery in London.

Their sale was announced, the gallery began fundraising, and then the sale was cancelled. By the time the sale was confirmed again, the gallery was in the throes of fundraising to purchase, with the National Gallery in Scotland, the great Titian paintings – currently the subject of Metamorphosis, a multimedia arts project – and had no hope of raising the money to buy the Poussins as well. Ordination was duly sold last year to the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas for $24.3m (£15.5m).

Extreme Unction is regarded as of such outstanding importance that the government has accepted it in lieu of the tax owed on the American sale, but since it is valued at £14m, more than the tax owed, the Fitzwilliam has to raise the balance.

The future of the remaining three paintings in the series – Eucharist, Confirmation and Marriage – has not been announced.

The painting is already on display, free, at the Fitzwilliam. Potts called it "a national and international treasure" which would prove a "destination painting", drawing many new visitors to the museum. The museum has until November to raise the money. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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