The Wild Side of Poussin

LONDON — Try as one might, it is not easy to love the paintings of the 17th-century French artist Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). 

Admiration, yes. Love, no. 

Staring at his arcadian scenes, peopled by gods of antiquity on a relatively small scale, who often seem to be playing hide and seek across such calculatedly fabricated landscapes …. Well, they certainly bedazzle by their very virtuosity, but can they really move us in the way that, say, a portrait by Rembrandt may move us? 

Why do audiences so often feel a little cool, if not chastened, in their presence? Is this man not a little severe and humorless? Why do we so often feel that a great Poussin really deserves to belong in the collection of some tweedy connoisseur of the old school?

An exhibition such as Poussin and the Dance at London’s National Gallery is a reminder that such a judgment is not quite fair. In fact, quite a bit of wildness hides beneath the cloak of scholarship and respectability. 

Nicolas Poussin, “The Rape of the Sabines” (about 1633-34), black chalk pen and brown ink brown wash, 11.3 x 19.4 cm, The Royal Collection / HM Queen Elizabeth II (RCIN 911903) (© Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021)

In fact, it reminds us that once upon a time Poussin was a fresh-faced young provincial from Normandy, setting off, at the tender age of 29, in the direction of Rome, that fabled Eternal City, which would ultimately prove to be the source of his enlightenment as a painter.

To digress for a moment: In fact, there have been two great Poussin exhibitions since the start of the millennium. The first one was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2007. What it showed off, in a way that had never quite been shown off before, was what a great painter of trees he was. Forget about all those frolicsome, peek-a-boo nymphs and satyrs. Shoo them all offstage. Just look up into those tree limbs set against the sky, how he created such variegated massings of light-shot, shadow-flecked green. Claude Lorrain is a rank amateur by comparison. And, toward the end of his life, what pathos there was in seeing how Poussin’s old hand shook and dithered, how, in short, he had lost his brilliant touch. Decrepitude had claimed him in the end.

This show, located in the basement of the National Gallery, is a different Poussin story altogether, but it is just as humanly interesting and affecting as the Met’s. And thanks to the sheer depths of its research, and the quality and range of the works that it has brought together (from Naples, Rome, Paris, and elsewhere in this building), viewers can meditate on one particular and fascinating aspect of Poussin that really does deserve a great deal of attention: how he learnt to paint figures, often several figures, doing intricate dance movements.

“The Borghese Dancers” (First Century CE), marble, 71.9 x 187 cm1.9 x 187 cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités Grecques, Étrusques et Romaines, inv. MA 1612 (© RMN-Grand Palais)

He looked at the way that friezes were painted on classical urns, often quoting directly (and, at first, quite clumsily) from classical sources, how they flitted and free-floated around a surface, hands often linked. Such light-stepping revelers! Some of these urns, magnificently large and amazingly well preserved, have been shipped over from the Louvre or the Museum of Archeology in Naples, the best museum of its kind in the world. (It is worth braving the terrifying experience of the old streets of Naples with its scooter-driving maniacs for this museum alone.) Later on, Poussin made waxworks figures of individual dancers, and inserted them inside a small theater of his own making. The originals of all these figures are now lost, but an interweaving pair has been re-created especially for this exhibition to show the scale and intricate movement.

Poussin spent most of his later life in Rome, returning to Paris just once. Cardinal de Richelieu, chief minister to Louis XIII, commissioned a series of paintings from him, which helped to cement his ever-growing reputation. Richelieu hung the paintings in his chateau not far from Paris, in a room known as the Cabinet du Roi. Ah, such admirable sycophancy! These three Triumphs have been reunited again in London. While they demonstrate how brilliant Poussin became in organizing scenes that involved multitudes of twisting, cavorting, dancing, churning bodies, they also remind us once again what a dazzling colorist he could be. 

Nicolas Poussin, “Dancing Votary of Bacchus” (about 1630-35), ink and wash over black chalk, 15.5 x 13.5 cm, Switzerland, Fondation Jan Krugier, inv. FJK100 (© Fondation Jan Krugier, Lausanne – Switzerland)

Did Howard Hodgkin not once remark that he could swoon over the color of Rinaldo’s orange shorts every time he saw them in Poussin’s “Rinaldo and Armida” at the Dulwich Picture Gallery? 

These Triumphs are positively riotous, but the fact that they are the gods of antiquity helps to keep their immorality safely tucked away inside a gilded box. What a clever little ruse! It was to be used again and again by artists. Preparatory drawings, often highly finished variants upon a slightly different final work, show us what lengths he went to in order to accommodate the problems of who goes where. These drawings, frequently in pen and brown ink, are works of the highest quality in their own right. In one of them, from 1636, three satyrs take turns squashing a big fat wineskin underfoot. Pure delight.

Nicolas Poussin, “A Dance to the Music of Time” (about 1634-36), oil on canvas, 82.5 x 104 cm (By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London (P108) © The Trustees of the Wallace Collection)

The exhibition concludes on a much quieter and more philosophical note altogether, although Poussin’s fascination with rendering dancers in movement has not left him. “A Dance to the Music of Time” (1634) belongs to the Wallace Collection, a mile or so from the National Gallery. He shows us four dancers, linking hands once again, playing out the eternal cycle of the seasons. It is grave and slow. It lacks the roaring lubriciousness of so many of the earlier works. It also inspired a great cycle of 12 irresistibly readable novels, in fact a comic masterpiece, of the same title, by the British author Anthony Powell, which is full of the japes and tomfoolery of this island’s ruling classes. Powell used the title ironically, tongue-in-cheek. There is nothing either ironic or tongue-in-cheek about Poussin’s original. It is calm and stately in its mood, the very model of neoclassical restraint. Later in this decade Poussin moved away from hilarity to sobriety. This painting seems to presage that shift.

Poussin and the Dance continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, England) through January 2, 2022. It then travels to the J. Paul Getty Museum, where it will run from February 15-May 8, 2022. The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery, London and the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

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