Poussin and the Dance

Milady, you promised me this dance

The Poussin on display at a new National Gallery Exhibition seems peculiarly suited for the times. The austere and inwardly focused artist has given way to reveal a more sensual man, with a great love of music, movement and the human body. 

Poussin is often called a Stoic painter. A learned scholar of classical antiquities: who, on setting out to paint a subject, read all he could from the ancient authors: who used the ancient remains in Rome as his models; and, whose paintings were taken after his death as the exemplars of classicism. 

In terms of art, he was a late bloomer and the great works of his maturity are those more thoughtful and famous works which created this reputation.

In his younger days he was more wild. Arriving in Rome at the age of 30, he was caught up in the heady intellectual and artistic excitement of the metropolis, after spending his twenties in the then relative cultural backwater of Paris. 

It was in this decade that Poussin’s art and life was transformed. The great Poussiniste Anthony Blunt wrote that he found his vocation at 35. 

The artist blossomed. Brought under the patronage and influence of important Roman intellectuals like Cassiano dal Pozzo, who aimed to create a paper museum of the different specimens of antiquity, arts and sciences.

The Realm of Flora, Nicholas Poussin

This period is perhaps best summed up by the Realm of Flora

The painting centres of the goddess Flora, dancing and handing out flowers as around her figures from Greek mythology die in various ways. Each death created a specific flower. Ajax’s death brought forth carnations, Clytile sunflowers, Adonis anemone blossom, Smilax bindweed and Narcissus and Hyacinth their own eponymous blooms.

The painting is also noticeable for the architectural details. A trellised walkway creates a visual focus but is cut off at the edge. Whilst a herm on the left watches mutely, in front of antique ruins whose masonry merge imperceptibly into geology.

“Her awarding hands can pluck for each their fragile prize.”

David Jones, In Parenthesis

In the foreground, the bodies writhe with physicality –  painful or pleasurable depending on the myth. 

It is the contrast between Flora’s light moves, the languid bodies and the solidity of the setting which drives the dramatic tension of the painting.

Triumph of Bacchus by Nicolas Poussin, Public Doman Google Cultural Institute

One of the triumphs of the exhibition is the reunion of three paintings commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu: The Triumph of Silenus, The Triumph of Pan and The Triumph of Bacchus. These sensuous, luxurious, sexy paintings were hung in the same room before being sold. The Triumph of Bacchus is now held by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and the other two by the National Gallery. 

The Triumph of Silenus was the first painting of Poussin purchased by the gallery in 1824. In the twentieth century it was wrongly identified as a copy of a lost original. Only recently has conservation and modern technical analysis revealed that it is almost certainly the work of Poussin.

Although the paintings are similar in colour and broad theme, the treatment is completely different. The almost imperial majesty of Bacchus sitting on a chariot in his Triumph painting contrasts with the Silenus, whose followers struggle to hold him up in his drunken stupor. 

Following the removal of discoloured varnish during restoration, the Silenus painting is brighter and richer with a subtle early autumnal light. Absolutely gorgeous.

Triumph of Silenus about 1636, Nicolas Poussin (Oil on canvas, 142.9 x 120.5 cm) ©The National Gallery, London

The exhibition is well designed for the times, with large spaces to help avoid crowds and allow people time to linger and study the works. The walls are painted in bright energetic primary colours which remain sympathetic to Poussin’s palette however, the lighting tends to shine off the protective glass and make it hard to see the details.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, the great dramatic painting of almost volcanic reds and sombre dark clouds, portending the presence of G-d on Sinai, is blanched in the place yellow room. It looks much more dramatic in its usual space in the Gallery.

Dance to Music of Time, Nicolas Poussin, Public Domain

However, the effect comes to a stunning conclusion with a final room dedicated to Dance to Music of Time. Perhaps Poussin’s masterpiece, the one work which sums up his entire oeuvre. The room is painted in cerulean blue with well placed spot lighting, which picks out details without the glare in other rooms.

This painting shows four individuals dancing round to the tune of an old man playing a lyre. Around them are symbols of time’s impermanence. A janus herm, one child (putti) blowing bubbles and another child with an hour glass. Above them the sun’s chariot raises from the east. 

It is a painting which demands interpretation but also eludes it. 

The captions say that the painting is Poverty, Labour, Riches, and Pleasure. Each stage leads to the other in an endless cycle. Other interpretations identify them as the seasons. Most telling is the suggestive look of Pleasure (or Autumn) caught in the decisive moment before she turns to continue her dance.

It is this gap between intellectualism and understanding that is perhaps Poussin’s great achievement, something which many later artists have forgotten. The need for deep thought and engagement and the uncanny sense of understanding things on different levels.

Dance does the same thing. It is both a bodily act but an intellectual one, at a level deep within the souls – collective and individual – of its participants. Dancing to music, thinking deep questions or seeing great art we get deeper to the great question of what it means to ‘be’.

Poussin and the Dance, National Gallery (9 October 2021 – 2 January 2022)