Saturday, November 8, 2014

Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time

Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time, 1634-36
32.5x41 in.

This is a famous painting by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).  Poussin was the leading classical painter of the French Baroque style of the seventeenth century and was the exemplar for the Neoclassical style that dominated French painting throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries.  Poussin was influenced by Classical art in every respect; he drew and painted with clear, precise lines that emulated Classical sculpture and he routinely drew on Classical themes and subjects.  A Dance to the Music of Time was commissioned by Giulio Rospigliosi (later Pope Clement IX) who is thought to have dictated much of the iconography, however the painting and its themes are believed to have changed significantly from its original design.  The initial intent was a depiction of the four seasons, an element preserved in this final version, with the male dancer representing Autumn, followed by Winter, Spring, and Summer in the blue.  What changed is that the theme expanded to the passage of time and cycle of life in general.  The four dancers thus additionally represent the four stages of life on the wheel of fortune.  Autumn is now also Poverty, dancing barefoot connote his humble position.  He looks toward Labor, the continual lot of the impoverished, whose muscular build, bare shoulders, and attire suggest hard work.  Labor twists and reaches to grasp the hand of Wealth, who is reluctant to hold her hand.  Wealth wears golden skirt and sandals and a headpiece trimmed with pearls. Finally, Pleasure completes the circle.  She is adorned with flowers and looks out at the viewer warmly, knowingly, and a bit slyly.

The other elements of the painting further these themes.  Time himself plays the lyre (literally the music of time), depicted, as is customary, as an old man, while the baby at his feet holds an hourglass.  On the left stands a statue of Janus, the two-headed Roman god of the calendar. Janus has one old face looking to the past and one young, looking to the future.  In the clouds, the chariot of Apollo follows the goddess Aurora, the rising sun succeeding the dawn.  Apollo is accompanied by allegories of the hours.  The presence of all of these gods and allegories illustrates the inevitable passage of time and the brevity of life.  In this painting, an hour, a day, a year, or a lifetime, are all transient and in motion to the same dance.

The painting gained further notoriety when Anthony Powell chose it as the title and central motif of his twelve-volume cycle of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time, about coming of age and the people and events that shape a life.

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