Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Pleasure's Poise: Classicism and Baroque Allegory in Poussin's 'Dance to the Music of Time'

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Pleasure's Poise: Classicism and Baroque Allegory in Poussin's 'Dance to the Music of Time'

Article excerpt

'Like all artists of his period, Poussin placed great weight on the clarity and legibility of an allegory.'1 Thus the verdict of Otto Grautoff, in his 1914 monograph on Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), describing specifically the artist's portrayal of earthly transience and vanity, 'The Dance of Human Life'. Clarity was already a catchphrase in Poussin scholarship in Grautoff's day, used most often in response to the artist's technical precision and eye for compositional balance, as if his paintings' classical symmetry and limpid light indicated a correspondingly lucid meaning. Classical transparency and rationality as an antidote to Baroque convolution and obscurity - this neat formulation breaks down before an intricate allegorical invention like 'A Dance to the Music of Time', as 'The Dance of Human Life' is now known (Fig. 1).2 Confusion, not clarity, best characterizes the litany of responses to this picture over the last three and a half centuries, and there are no letters or recorded dialogues that shed light on the artist's intentions or programme. But this confusion is not primarily due to a lack of such sources, or to a growing distance from the time of the picture's creation. It was there from the very beginning, for central to the painting's conception is the mystery of life's liminal stages, in all their persistent changeableness. The work's resonance derives, and derived, from its resistance to legibility - from the complex circuit of meaning it stages for the viewer. Poussin's allegory, I will argue, is riddled with paradox and ambiguity, hinging on the provocative and elusive figure of earthly Pleasure.

'A Dance to the Music of Time' was commissioned in Rome by the learned Catholic prelate Giulio Rospigliosi (1600-69), the future Pope Clement IX (1667-69).3 Its date has been debated, but scholars most often opt for the mid-late 1630s, before Poussin's brief interlude in Paris (1640-42).4 Four figures personifying different phases in the drama of human fortune - Poverty, Labour, Wealth, and Pleasure - dance in a circle to the music of Father Time's lyre. The conceit seems to be a unique blending of two sources: the Wheel of Fortune, represented in medieval and Renaissance art with four or more people attached to its spokes, all subject to the rise-and-fall of the goddess Fortuna's spins;5 and the Cosmic Dance, a classical metaphor for the harmonic revolutions of the heavenly spheres and the cyclical stages of time.6 Framing the dance are two putti: one blithely blows bubbles symbolic of earthly transience while the other watches intently as the sand in life's hourglass funnels away. A Janus term draped in garlands stands stolid at the left, its two heads, young and old, marking the edge of the painting as a temporal threshold, conflating past and future. The Janus is considerably more than a decorative piece of garden statuary; it stands for fortification and vigilance, as well as life's forming dualities. As the god of gateways, Janus also oversees the yearly cycle, and is memorialized in the name of its first month. The term is cast in a cool, purplish light streaming in from the left that tells us dawn is breaking, as does the presence of Aurora in the sky, sprinkling her rain of morning flowers as she leads Apollo and his entourage over a thick mass of rain clouds.7 Trailing behind the Sun God's golden chariot is a dance of the Hours that miniaturizes and enlivens the round-dance below.

According to Giovanni Bellori, Poussin's first biographer and contemporary in Rome, the painting was conceived as a 'moral poesy' ('morale poesia').8 This implies an intended moral message, but Bellori does not rehearse a specific interpretation, offering only a summation of the figural composition and an acknowledgement that the changing fortune of humanity is represented.9 André Félibien, Poussin's other seventeenth-century biographer, writes a very similar account of the painting - a narrative summary with no overall interpretation of tone. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.