Poussin and the Dance

Until January 2022, visitors to the National Gallery in London have the opportunity to view several paintings by the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style, Nicolas Poussin. Each artwork demonstrates Poussin’s unique methods of depicting the movement of dance whilst also bringing to life the classical world of the Olympian gods. Contemporary wax-work models attempt to replicate the evolution of Poussin’s ideas and provide an insight into his love of ancient marble sculptures.

Before the advent of Impressionism in the 19th century, Poussin was the most important artist in French history. Born near Les Andelys in Normandy in 1594, Poussin grew up learning Latin but spent much of his schooling drawing in his sketchbooks. Although his parents disapproved of a painting career, Poussin ran away to Paris in 1612 to search for work as an artist. At first, Poussin could not get a job as a painter because he did not belong to the guild of master painters and sculptors. Fortunately, his early work caught the attention of the Flemish painter Ferdinand Elle (1570-1637), who invited Poussin into his studio for three months.

After leaving Elle’s studio, Poussin found a position in the workshop of the French artist Georges Lallemand (c.1575–1636). Here, he studied anatomy and perspective but preferred to work alone and at his own pace rather than follow Lallemand’s instruction. While in Paris, Poussin had the opportunity to visit the Royal Collection, which introduced him to paintings by the Italian artists Giulio Romano (1499-1546) and Raphael (1483-1520). This sparked within Poussin the longing to visit the Italian capital, Rome.

Poussin attempted to travel to Rome in 1617 but only made it as far as Florence. He thus returned to France and made another attempt in 1622, this time not even making it out of the country. Back in Paris, Poussin received his first major commission from the Order of Jesuits to paint a series of paintings to honour the canonization of the order’s founder, Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552). Now making a name for himself, Poussin received further commissions, including illustrating Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the court poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) and decorations for Marie de Medici’s (1575-1642) residence, the Luxembourg Palace.

At the age of 30, Poussin finally made it to Rome, the artistic capital of Europe, in 1624. He joined the Academy of Domenichino and the Academy of St Luke to study the art of painting nudes and took many opportunities to visit churches to examine the works of Raphael, Caravaggio (1571-1610), whose work Poussin hated, and other well-known Italian painters. Poussin fell in love with the architecture and statues around Rome, particularly the figures on ancient marble friezes.

One of the antiquities Poussin most admired was The Borghese Vase, also known as Krater with a Procession of Dionysus (1st century BCE). Sculpted in Athens from marble, the monumental vase became a garden ornament in Rome. A procession of dancers winds around the vase, overseen by the Greek god Dionysus. Many of the movements and fluidity of the characters are replicated in Poussin’s work, as are other ancient sculptures and friezes.

In 1626, Poussin found lodgings with the French sculptor François Duquesnoy (1597-1643), whose work also inspired Poussin. Before his death, Giambattista Marino, Poussin’s patron, frequently found him commissions from notable Italians, including Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), the nephew of Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644). Yet, after Marino died, Poussin found it difficult to establish himself in the city.

Not only did Poussin lose Marino, but the Cardinal also moved to Spain as a papal legate, taking with him some of Poussin’s other sponsors. Poussin fell ill with syphilis and could not paint for several months. He survived by selling some of his old paintings until the French Dughet family took Poussin in and cared for him until he recovered. Poussin regained most of his health by 1629 and married Anne-Marie Dughet the following year. Her brother, Gaspard Dughet (1615-75), became Poussin’s pupil and signed his paintings “Gaspard Poussin”.

During the latter stages of his illness, Poussin completed a few commissions, which helped him afford to purchase a small house on Via Paolina. The Cardinal returned to Rome and Poussin painted several artworks for him, starting with The Death of Germanicus in 1627. Following the success of this work, Poussin gained many patrons, including the art dealer Fabrizio Valguarnera for whom he painted The Realm of Flora between 1630 and 1631.

The National Gallery displayed The Realm of Flora, which usually resides at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, next to Poussin’s pen-and-ink study for the painting. Both painting and drawing show Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, holding her skirts and dancing with putti (winged infants). Within her kingdom are several characters from Roman mythology, including Narcissus, who gazes at his reflection in a vase while Echo sits beside him. According to the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – 18 AD), the handsome youth Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and rejected the amorous advances of anyone else. This was his punishment for spurning the nymph Echo, who attempted to talk to Narcissus but could only repeat the words he said. 

Other characters in The Realm of Flora include the warrior Ajax falling on his sword, the athletic Hyacinthus, the beautiful Adonis, the mortal Crocus, the nymph Smilax, and the water nymph Clytia gazing at the sun. According to the myths, all these figures turned into flowers after their deaths. The physiology of each mythological person resembles the style of sculpture from the first century BCE that Poussin so admired.

As well as studying ancient sculptures, Poussin fashioned figurines out of wax, moulding them into the desired pose. While lodging with Duquesnoy in 1626, Poussin learnt a lot about modelling and frequently used wax figures when live models or classical sculptures were unavailable. Later in his career, Poussin modelled entire scenes from wax, placing the figures in a grande machine, a large box that resembled a toy theatre. Holes in the box allowed Poussin to control the lighting, which helped him choreograph his painted outcome. 

Unfortunately, none of Poussin’s wax models survive, but the National Gallery commissioned modern reproductions for the exhibition. These examples demonstrate how Poussin studied the movement of the body, proportions and the effects of lighting. Other artists also used this technique, but historical evidence suggests Poussin was devoted to using wax figures more than anyone else.

Evidence of Poussin’s studies of wax models and Borghese sculptures are in his preparatory sketches for many of his paintings. Several of Poussin’s paintings feature dancing figures, such as The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-4), which depicts an Old Testament scene. The Israelites are dancing around and worshipping the golden calf made by Aaron in chapter 32 of the Book of Exodus. Moses went up Mount Sinai, and the people feared he would not return, so Aaron made them a new idol to worship. In the distance, a furious Moses smashes the tablets containing the Ten Commandments he has just received from God.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf was one of two paintings commissioned by the Marchese di Voghera of Turin. The other painting, The Crossing of the Red Sea, was separated from its pair in 1945 when it was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. The National Gallery in London bought the Golden Calf for £10,000 and it has remained in the collection ever since.

Another example of Poussin’s study of classical sculpture and wax figures is A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (1632-3), which the National Gallery purchased in 1826. The term is a carved bust of a bearded and horned man around which wild men and women dance. Dancing revellers were often depicted in classical art concerning the rites of Bacchus, the god of wine. Poussin was familiar with the ancient Roman symbols for the god and festivals, including grapes and dancing.

Poussin’s painting can almost be read from left to right, as though a sculpted frieze. On the left, a woman squeezes juice from a bunch of grapes into a small dish held by a putto, and on the right, a woman has stumbled, presumably intoxicated with wine. A lustful satyr draws the woman into an embrace. Whilst these figures resemble classical art, the landscape contains similarities to other artists Poussin admired, such as Titian (1488-1576) and Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516).

As Poussin’s reputation grew, he gained patrons and admirers, including from his home country, France. One of his most prestigious clients, Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642), worked for Louis XIII (1601-43), who was one of the most powerful people in Europe. In 1635, Richelieu commissioned Poussin to paint three TriumphsThe Triumph of PanThe Triumph of Bacchus and The Triumph of Silenus. Several preparatory drawings exist for The Triumph of Pan, which reveal Poussin experimented with different poses, presumably manipulating wax models until happy with the composition. Many of his figures also resemble characters on The Borghese Vase.

Although titled The Triumph of Pan, there is some discussion whether the red-faced statue represents Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and herdsmen, or Priapus, the god of gardens. The shepherd’s crook and musical pipes attributed to Pan are in the foreground, but the statue wears a floral garland and exposes its genitalia, which usually symbolise Priapus. Nevertheless, both gods were followers of Bacchus, and the painting depicts a traditional Bacchanalian festival.

The muscular figures and draped garments recall ancient statues and the frieze-like arrangement make the scene look like actors on a stage. The painting is similar to the work of Renaissance artists studied by Poussin, particularly the tranquil landscape and distant mountains that may represent Pan’s native land of Arcadia.

Of Poussin’s surviving sketches, his preparatory drawing for The Triumph of Pan is his most detailed. Unlike other sketches that reveal the bare bones of the final painting, Poussin tried out the full effect of the composition with the figures in their final positions. There are a few minor differences between the sketch and the painting. The proportions of the artwork also changed, forcing Poussin to compress the group into a tighter huddle.

Whereas the figures dance around a statue in The Triumph of Pan, the rowdy revellers form part of a procession in The Triumph of Bacchus. Half-human-half-horse creatures called centaurs pull Bacchus’ chariot as he makes his way back to Rome after his triumphant victory in India, where he successfully taught the people of Asia how to cultivate the vine and make wine.

Poussin conveyed as much dynamic movement as possible in The Triumph of Bacchus with rearing centaurs, dancing women and other mythological characters playing instruments. Amongst the figures is Pan playing his pipes, and the muscular Hercules. In the background, Apollo, the sun god, drives the sun across the sky. In the bottom right corner, a river god lounges on the ground, watching the procession. He is a representation of India and the River Indus.

With one leg slung over a tiger, the naked Silenus partakes in a drunken celebration in Poussin’s The Triumph of Silenus. Silenus, the old god of wine-making and drunkenness, was the foster-father of Bacchus. Silenus was once captured by King Midas, but instead of being used as a slave, Midas treated the old man with hospitality. Bacchus rewarded the king by granting him the ability to turn everything he touched into gold. Poussin depicted Silenus as described in Greek and Roman myths: bald and naked.

Many of the dancers are naked or in the process of removing their clothes. Their muscular bodies are similar to those of Greek statues, and the setting is similar to works by Titian. Parts of the scene, such as the wreath lowered onto Silenus’ head, are mentioned in the Eclogues, a series of poems by Latin poet Virgil (70-90 BCE).

The highlight and final artwork in the National Gallery exhibition is Poussin’s painting A Dance to the Music of Time (1634). It is on loan from the Wallace Collection for the first time and is Poussin’s most celebrated dance scene. It was commissioned by Giulio Rospigliosi (1600-69), who later became Pope Clement IX. Rospigliosi requested a painting containing four dancers representing Poverty, Labour, Wealth and Pleasure. The four allegorical figures are dancing to the music of the lyre played by Time in the right-hand corner.

Each of the four dancers is dressed appropriately for their station in life. Poverty, the only male dancer, is barefoot and dressed in green. Labour wears a simple orange gown, whereas Wealth wears pearls in her hair and golden sandals. Finally, Pleasure wears luxurious blue silk and a floral crown. Time, on the other hand, wears nothing, revealing his elderly but muscular body. Beside him, a putto holds an hourglass, and on the other side of the painting, another putto blows bubbles, representing the fleeting nature of life.

As well as the figures in the foreground, Poussin includes mythological characters in the sky, including the sun god Apollo. Before Apollo’s carriage flies the goddess Dawn, and behind the carriage are the Hours or Horae, who represent the seasons. Some interpretations of the painting mistook the four dancing figures as Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer. As a result, when it was sold to Sir Richard Wallace’s (1818-90) father in 1845, it had the title La Danse des Saisons, ou l’Image de la vie humaine (The Dance of the Seasons, or the Image of Human Life).

Although A Dance to the Music of Time does not depict a Bacchanalian revel like Poussin’s other paintings of dancers, his figures still resemble those on Greek friezes and statues. His preparatory drawings look similar to his other sketches, and infrared reflectography has revealed the same style of figures under the layers of paint. Poussin tended to draw naked figures from marble sculptures then add clothing and draperies during the painting process, presumably after studying his wax models. As well as using wax, Poussin wrapped his models in silk cloth to examine the way the fabric draped over the body.

The National Gallery does not venture into Poussin’s later years, during which time he stopped painting Bacchanalian scenes in favour of religious themes. In December 1640, he briefly returned to Paris to take up the position of First Painter to the King. He soon found himself inundated with commissions, which he struggled to complete. Poussin preferred to paint slowly and carefully, so he found life in the royal court overwhelming. In 1642, he returned to Rome.

With fewer patrons, Poussin lived a comfortable life, working at his preferred pace. French painter Charles Le Brun (1619-90) joined Poussin in his study for three years, learning and adapting Poussin’s style. In 1650, Poussin’s health began to decline, and his drawings suggest he had a tremor in his hand. Nevertheless, Poussin continued painting, returning to mythological themes. He continued working until 1664, the same year his wife died. The following year, on 19th November, Poussin passed away and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, Rome.

The exhibition Poussin and the Dance focuses on Poussin’s ability to depict dancing figures, expertly demonstrating movement and revelry. Today, cameras allow artists and photographers to capture physical actions, but artists during the 17th century did not have access to futuristic technology. Studying sculptures, friezes and wax models was Poussin’s only option, and it certainly paid off. Whilst all his figures may appear to have stepped out of ancient Greek and Roman art, Poussin’s paintings are delicate, precise and beautiful.

Poussin and the Dance is open until January 2022. Standard admission tickets cost £12, but members of the National Gallery can visit for free. Tickets must be booked in advance. 


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3 thoughts on “Poussin and the Dance

  1. Another master class from Hazel and thank you for all the additional research ensuring your writing accurate and entertaining. A real joy to read. Poussin attention to detail and hating to be rushed is clearly seen in his works. You have kindly told us so much more about the paintings that they seen to come to life. Thank you for sharing your skills

  2. Another exhibition brought to life for those of us unable to visit it so much so that one almost feels one did get to see it. Well done Hazel for bringing it to life so well.

  3. Pingback: Another Year Over | Hazel Stainer

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