Poussin and the Dance at the National Gallery, London

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) 

A thought-provoking exhibition which offers a different view of Poussin’s early work in Rome and displays his paintings in a sympathetic and joyous environment. 

Guest review by Sarah Mulvey

Detail from a Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term, ca.1632-33, London, National Gallery 

I am spellbound before Poussin’s painting of the Adoration of the Golden Calf in the National Gallery exhibition Poussin and the Dance. I have been transported to another world, one in which the Israelites, fearing that Moses will not return from Mount Sinai, have created an idol in the form of a bull. I have joined the throng of onlookers, seduced by the warm, sensual jewel-like colours of the robes of the cavorting bodies as a group of figures dances around the altar. The scene is lit by a reddish glow that forms a backdrop to the vibrant colours of the crowd. But there is an ominous darkness descending from the sky above the hills of Mount Sinai that portends a terrible happening. I notice the figure of Moses coming down from the mountain, about to throw down, in anger, the stone tablets holding the ten commandments. The painting conveys, in heightened visual form, the frailty of earthly beings and their lack of faith in God, undone by the sensual pleasures of bacchanalian revel. It demonstrates Poussin’s commitment to the austere moral values that underlie the ecstatic scenes he represents. I have been captivated many times by this painting’s dramatic composition, glowing evening light and dynamic figures, as it is part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection of paintings by Poussin. This exhibition has allowed me to understand it in the context of Poussin’s working methods, his patrons, and his general interest in dancing figures from antique sources. 

Detail of The Adoration of the Golden Calf, 1633-34, London, National Gallery

The Adoration of the Golden Calf is one of the classically inspired paintings that Poussin executed during his career in Rome, lured there by the paintings of Titian and Raphael and its classical friezes and sarcophagi. It was painted for one of his Roman patrons, Amedeo dal Pozzo, in about 1633-34, and alludes to the biblical story, whilst, at the same time, including antique references that his learned patron would have admired. Inspired by antique models, Raphael and by Titian’s bacchanals, Poussin uses a classical frieze-like composition to articulate the foreground space and to show the complicated movement of dancing figures in flowing drapery in the crowd that worship the idol. At the same time these moving figures are concisely frozen in their poses showing their debt to the bas reliefs Poussin studied.  

Detail from the Borghese Dancers, second century, ce. Paris, Louvre 

This painting and others from both the National Gallery and other collections show Poussin’s work in the early years of his career in Rome. It is a beautifully staged display in a carefully lit series of rooms. The exhibition lighting, in particular, transports me to the private interiors of the palaces where these paintings were hung. The exhibition proposes that in those early years in Rome Poussin was interested in dance both as it was represented in antique examples and by his lifestyle in Rome. By mentioning his suffering from syphilis, it suggests that Poussin enjoyed the lascivious pleasures of Rome which he celebrated in these early Roman paintings of the dance. This is conjecture. That he devotedly studied and used classical art’s stylistic device of the relief to contain his dancers in a shallow space in the foreground is without doubt in these early Roman paintings. He was a serious student of antiquity and he painted for a learned academic audience. Throughout the 16th century Roman antiquity was being discovered through excavations and it is this promise that drew him to Rome.  

The Triumph of Pan, 1636, London, National Gallery 

Poussin’s patrons were cognoscenti who shared his passion for classical remains in Rome and had a sophisticated grasp of the moral complexities of his scenes of pagan hedonism. For these collectors he painted speculative small works destined for private homes. A year after he finished the Adoration of the Golden Calf he received a commission for a series of bacchanalian scenes from the powerful Cardinal de Richelieu, who shared his appetite for classical Rome. He was to paint three paintings for Richelieu’s new chateau in Poitou which are shown together in this exhibition. Known collectively as the Triumph of Bacchus, two of these paintings: the Triumph of Pan, and the Triumph of Silenus (once thought to be a copy and now accepted as the original) are part of the National Gallery collection. The third, the Triumph of Bacchus, has been lent. And, so, we can imagine what these paintings might have looked like in the Cabinet du Roi where the cardinal displayed them. 

Poussin’s work, especially his later landscapes, is often described as austere and formal. This exhibition hints at a more light-hearted artist, the human side of Poussin who was interested in the joys of mayhem and dance. I am unconvinced. His paintings of dancers are clearly conceptual, meant to be read as allegories or representations of biblical stories or myths with moral purpose. They were planned in a controlled, precise, logical sequence.  

Wax models reconstructed for the exhibition

He made wax models (reconstructed for the exhibition) so that he could test different poses and positions of his figures and work out which view would work best in the overall composition. 

Triumph of Pan, ca. 1635-36, Windsor, Collection/HM Queen Elizabeth 

His drawings are copies of the poses and gestures of figures and drapery from ancient bas-reliefs of dancers, and he uses brown ink to show the shallow space of a relief. We can see the similarity between these reliefs and his drawing, as some of them, such as the Borghese Dancers, are included in the exhibition. Poussin’s compositions are tightly controlled; negative and positive space articulated by the almost abstract meshing of limbs in geometric patterns against the landscape. Colour is used to enhance this rhythmic iteration of figures in space. He may well have watched dancers in Rome and made observations from real life of them; his figures seem to oscillate, in my mind, between human naturalism and sculptural motionlessness. He seemed to revel in the complexity of his compositions and the challenge of creating a tension between the potential for movement within the constraints of the stillness of the bas-relief.  

This is a thought-provoking exhibition which offers a different view of Poussin’s early work in Rome and displays his paintings in a sympathetic and joyous environment. 

Poussin and the Dance.  Until 2 January 2022 

Sarah Mulvey is an art history graduate and has worked in education for over twenty-five years, teaching art and photography. She has also written on art and fashion. Her passion is visiting galleries and museums. When not working she tries to find time to draw and paint and to take photos on her strolls around London.

Image credits: Sarah Mulvey

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