Poussin and the Dance at the National Gallery, London

Poussin’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (1634-36) © The Wallace Collection, London.

Nicolas Poussin defined himself as “I who make a profession of mute things”. He painted the most famous tombstone in art — the one inscribed “Et in Arcadia ego” — and his figures can be as stony as the antique statuary that inspired them. How to bring this most refined, austerely beautiful, arcane painter alive?

The National Gallery’s show of early work, Poussin and the Dance, is a small marvel — a rarity and a revelation. It tells how, newly arrived in Rome after two failed attempts to get there, and stirred by the city’s luminosity, scenography and sources, the 30-year-old Frenchman painted movement, flesh and blood, fleeting pleasure, with an exuberance, free handling and poetic impulse that burst through Italian mannerism and set the agenda for a refreshed classicism. The exhibition invites us to see Poussin as Eugène Delacroix did: as “one of the greatest innovators”.

Eye-stopping as you enter the exhibition is a monumental Greek vase engraved with lilting relief figures of Hermes, nymphs, satyrs and maenads; visiting London from Naples’ National Archaeological Museum, it evokes the thrill that Poussin experienced on encountering antiquity first-hand in the 1620s.

Two ecstatic responses flank this gleaming marble. In the Prado’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” (1625-26), the wine-god scoops up the beleaguered princess into his chariot, drawn by lions, followed by a retinue of swirling women and mischievous fauns. It is noisy, frenzied, lustful — William Hazlitt thought Poussin’s sly satyrs “more secretly depraved” than those of the voluptuary Rubens — but underpinned by tight structure: controlled chaos.

‘The Realm of Flora’ (also known as ‘The Empire of Flora’) ‘The Realm of Flora’ (also known as ‘The Empire of Flora’) (1630-31) © BPK/ Dresden State Art Collections

Hanging opposite, “The Realm of Flora” (1630-31), from Dresden, is so delicately executed that it shocks to realise it is a waltz of death. The goddess, in her pergola-enclosed garden, dances insouciantly, sprinkling colour in glittery beady drops, while Ajax falls on his sword to turn into a hyacinth, Narcissus perishes admiring his reflection in a vase and Clytie, lovelorn for the sun god Apollo, pines away into a sunflower. The theme is mutability, mortals metamorphosing into flowers; the pathos is in the figures’ clarity and grace of movement, their unfathomable, almost decorous expressions, something like polite surprise crossed with grief, as they meet death. An ethereal golden atmosphere bathes everything in a calm, even glow, seeming to challenge the narrative of transience and decay.

Time, with its ambiguities and our struggle to understand it, is always Poussin’s subject. In “A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term” (1632), the statue of the horned fertility god Priapus grins down at the lecherous partygoers as if he were coming alive, abandoning his stony muteness. The effect is eerie — like Don Giovanni’s marble Commendatore suddenly uttering in the cemetery. Poussin similarly holds life and death in balance in “Revel”. Around the statue, the dancers’ linked arms mirror the overlapping tree trunks behind them — they are forces of nature and sex, the ruddy satyr brilliantly contrasted with the girls’ porcelain complexions.

Such assured, complex compositions brought Poussin prestigious patrons. In 1636, Cardinal Richelieu commissioned three lavishly detailed comedies, the “Triumph” paintings recounting the victories of playful Pan, elderly Silenus — naked, bald, drunk, slumping to rest his foot on a tiger — and exotic Bacchus, celebrating conquest in India in a raucous parade watched by a river god lounging on the banks of the Indus. The National Gallery owns the first two and has borrowed the third: a trio of worldly paintings of riotous energy harmonised.

‘The Borghese Vase’ (1st century CE), whose figures were a source of inspiration for Poussin

‘The Borghese Vase’ (1st century CE), whose figures were a source of inspiration for Poussin © On loan from the Louvre/ Hervé Lewandowski

They are shown alongside the antiquities, loaned by the Louvre, that fascinated Poussin’s generation: “The Borghese Vase”, decorated with a Dionysian procession, and the Roman relief known as “The Borghese Dancers”. The juxtapositions allow us to see how Poussin animated the Greco-Roman frieze, exploring the expressive potential of moving bodies in different media: in fluid ink drawings — the leaping energy of “A Dance Before a Herm of Pan”, the comic “Satyrs Dancing on a Wine Skin” — and also in tiny wax models exploring pose and gesture, then composing movement in chains of twisting painted figures as in the “Triumphs”.

The triumph is also of Poussin’s secular classicism, of ancien régime frivolity contained by order, of Richelieu’s state power. Richelieu brought Poussin back to France, with long-term impact on art history: the constructing line of Jacques-Louis David, Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Paul Cézanne (who wanted “to do Poussin from nature”) and the lyrical charge beloved by romantic modernisers from Delacroix to Cy Twombly, who said, “I would’ve liked to have been Poussin”.

Another cardinal, Giulio Rospigliosi, poet, librettist for the Barberini theatre and later Pope Clement IX, commissioned “A Dance to the Music of Time” (1634-36), and dictated its iconography of dance as metaphor for the circle of life. By the 1800s the picture was in France, and titled “La Danse des Saisons, ou l’image de la vie humaine”. Framed by Father Time with his lyre, and putti blowing bubbles and holding an hourglass, the tenderly erotic dancers are characterised as Poverty (a longing stare), Labour (grittily determined, in red), Wealth (haughty/serene, in gold) and Pleasure (a flushed, knowing glance), and together represent the progression of human life.

Poussin’s ‘A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term’Poussin’s ‘A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term’ (1632-33) © National Gallery, London

This rhythmic masterpiece, loaned for the first time ever by London’s Wallace Collection, is the exhibition’s climax, hanging splendid and alone in the final gallery. It forms a threshold between early and mature Poussin: in lightness of touch, elegant design, contemplative aspect, chromatic modulations and breaking dawn light, “Dance” brings to an apogee the style he developed in Rome, while a certain coolness, restraint and fatalism presages his later manner. The dance revolves, a continuum of joy against the inevitability of hours, days and seasons passing, and takes on its own momentum — the dancers, controlled by the melody rather than controlling it, form a pattern and spectacle beyond their own desires.

As he aged, Poussin distilled and stilled his lively orchestrations of movement into stoical, mysterious, cerebral paintings. Art historian Anthony Blunt (and one of the Cambridge Five spies) argued that for the older Poussin “the pure rhythm of the dance was not rational enough”. Yet the play of animation and frozen moments as mastered in the dance pictures informed everything to come.

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The arrested/vivacious postures of the shepherds stunned by the concept of death in the Louvre’s “Et in Arcadia Ego” (1637-38), also commissioned by Rospigliosi, followed “A Dance to the Music of Time”. And a coda to this show is “Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake” (1648), on display in the National Gallery’s permanent collection (room 29), where the zigzag of small figures — balletic fleeing man, washerwoman gesturing in alarm, in turn arousing astonished fishermen — transforms an idyllic pastoral into one of art’s defining images of dread. In choreographing motion, Poussin delineated emotion and the very texture of thought — understated, truthful and eloquent.

To January 2 2022, nationalgallery.co.uk

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