Saturday, 31 October 2009

Nicholas Poussin

The Dance to the Music of Time 1634-6
Oil on Canvas 82 x 104cm
The Wallace Collection, London
29th October 2009

Hung in a corner of the great gallery on the first floor this modestly sized painting is easy to miss amongst the competition from the numerous Old Master Paintings, French and Italian furniture and bronzes.  This decorous but powerful painting is said to depict the perpetual cycle of the human condition: from poverty, labour leads to riches and then pleasure, which if in excess reverts back to poverty.

Poverty is the only male dancer and he is seen from the back wearing a wreath of withered branches and leaves. Labour, the female dancer on the right of the group has bare sunburnt shoulders and feet; Poussin expresses in the turn of her head weariness and fatigue and seems to be straining to glimpse at the figure of wealth over her shoulder. Riches wears a golden coloured skirt, gold sandals and has gold and pearl jewellery in her hair; her pose is one of self conscious dignity and she gazes at Saturn, the God of Time playing his lyre. Pleasure, the last of the dancers, is the only one to make eye contact with the viewer, she wears a blue robe, white sandals and has a crown made of roses.

The inclusion of Saturn isn’t the only reference to the passage of time and the brevity and futility of life. Apollo, the Sun God rides in his chariot, high in the sky above the dancers carrying the wheel of the zodiac. He is preceded in his journey by Aurora, the Goddess of the dawn driving away the clouds of night. The daylight it brings falls only indirectly on the figures below and lights up a few of the remaining Autumnal leaves on the trees. Either side of the dancers is a putto, one blowing ephemeral soap bubbles and another watching sand trickle through an hourglass. The Janus (double) headed statue is of Bacchus; his old head watching the dancing whilst the young head looks out of the side of the canvas at the unpainted future coming with the new day. Saturn himself is playing the music and is therefore not watching, but activating the dance.

Much has been written about the structure of this painting, including the placing of figures, background and subsidiary elements, and balance of colour and light being dependent on the geometrical expression of ratios. These in turn are shown to relate to musical intervals and the painting demonstrates Poussin’s adherence to classical models, reinforcing the concept of logic and order as an expression of beauty.

Seeing the painting for the first time I was surprised at just how muted the colours and brushwork are, but not as amazed as I discovered by looking closely that Poussin had used his left thumb to texture the entire primed surface of the canvas by pressing it into the wet primer. This seems to have no relation to the subject of the painting and is perhaps the first instance the artist immortalising his “self” in the artwork.

©blackdog 2009


  1. A very interesting allegorical painting, full of deep thoughts about our life ("La Dance de la Vie humaine" as French title)- and you have given us a very detailled, understanding analysis of every detail! This painting reminds me of the "Wheel of the "Fortuna" showing the eternal change of rise and decline- an experience we might agree in our times with, too! I'm surprised that 'Poverty' has been symbolized by a male figure whereas 'Labour' (in a German translation: "Mühe" - trouble, effort; which word used Poussin himself?) is a female figure! I find very interesting the allegory of the 'Saturn'/"Father Time" playing a lyra (I know that music is the most transitory art, tones are flying away in a minute!) and ornated by wings symbolizing the transitoriness, flightiness of all things, too! Sadly, I couldn't discover your observation you mentioned in your last sentence! We can see Saturn only on the greater copy. A very inspiring example of "painting of melancholy"!

  2. Thanks for pointing out the absence of Saturn - he must have gone for a coffee break. All is corrected now ;o)

  3. There seem to be some different interpreatations of this painting- this polyvalent character may be a sign of its high quality (Poussin as the "peintre philosophe") !
    4 figures: Poverty, Labour (Travail), Riches, Pleasure or
    4 seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (???) or
    4 passions a la Cicero (Tusculanae disputationes): desire, fear, pleasure, and sorrow (translating the German terms I only found)

    Saturn= Chronos/Kronos (Time)

    I tend to follow your analysis!

  4. Greetings! I just stumbled across your blog. It looks quite fun - I intend to visit it often.

    I wanted to echo Philine Kleinknect's comment about how the inclusion of the lyre emphasizes the transitory nature of music. It's interesting to think about how this theme of musical transience is visually emphasized through Poussin's ratios and their relationship to musical intervals. We may not know whether Poussin meant to intentionally emphasize musical transience through this reference to intervals, but it's fun to think about, nonetheless.

    I like that your blog revolves around melancholy and art. That's a really interesting theme. You may be interested in visiting my art history blog, even though my posts aren't necessarily directed toward melancholia:


  5. Nice to meet you M (Alberti) and popped over to have a look at your art history blog. Looks interesting and will pop back for a deeper trawl ;o)

    It is always interesting to see what scholars read into paintings and Poussin's "Arcadia" is probably a classic example. I always imagine these long dead artists laughing their heads off - but the search for meaning goes on!

    I try to see the paintings I write about (rather than a reproduction) and base my selection on what makes me feel melancholic. Obviously this makes for a subjective collection of work, but hopefully interesting and varied. I have to confess to getting drawn into the background stories though, as often these help explain the melancholic aura I sense.

    Hope you find time to visit again and look forward to reading your comments/suggestions.


  6. "The transitory nature of music" has been reflected often in many Dutch still lives (stilleven)- music instruments are depictured as symbols of vanity but also of joy of life.
    The Janus double headed statue shows a female and a male face, I'm not sure if the female, younger looking head is glancing at the future, I think more of the past (while looking at the chariot of Helios, the Sun God).