by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Gallery, London
A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term by Nicolas Poussin, 1632-3

Lord of the Dance

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 4 December 2021


By the time of Nicolas Poussin's birth in 1594, Rome had become the artistic epicentre of the West, to which aspiring painters and sculptors flocked from from all over Europe.

It took the French artist three attempts to get there, the first in 1617, when he got as far as Florence and the second in 1622, when he only made it to Lyon before running out of funds. He finally arrived in 1624 and spent most of the rest of his life there until his death in 1665.

During Poussin's first decade or so in Rome he managed to rise from total obscurity to artistic celebrity, above all in his native land. This was achieved in large part by his remarkable images of mythological bacchanals and dancers, which have now been brought together for the first time from widely dispersed collections on both sides of the Atlantic, for 'Poussin and the Dance', at the National Gallery, curated by Emily A. Beeny and Francesca Whitlum-Cooper.

Poussin was born in Les Andelys in Normandy into a noble family, which had fallen on hard times. But, exceptionally for an artist, he received a first-class classical education - probably at the Jesuit College in Rouen - which would profoundly affect his art throughout his career. His first known drawings were scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, executed for the Italian poet Giambattista Marino, who had become a favourite of the queen, Catherine de' Medici. In these he already revealed a talent for translating pagan mythology and poetry into expressive visual form. Marino was almost certainly influential in encouraging Poussin to go to Rome. The Italian poet returned home in 1623 and the artist managed to follow in his footsteps the following spring.

Unfortunately, Marino's health was failing and he departed for Naples a month after Poussin arrived - but not before introducing the artist to some members of elite circles in the city. In due course, through these, Poussin met the antiquarian and connoisseur Cassiano dal Pozzo, who would become his most important Italian patron. Dal Pozzo had built up an extraordinary archive of over 10,000 drawings, watercolours and prints of ancient sculptures and scientific materials, called the Museo Cartaceo (Paper Museum). He also commissioned artists to add to the collection and almost certainly employed Poussin in this capacity.

It was probably through dal Pozzo that the Frenchman also got to see the celebrated Bacchanals of Giovanni Bellini and Titian, in the Aldobrandini and Ludovisi collections. At first the influence of these Venetian painters was almost overwhelming, as can be seen from Poussin's 'Bacchus and Ariadne' of around 1625-26, which opens the exhibition.

No less significant in the longer term were the 'bas-reliefs, columns, vases and other ancient memorials, of which he was always the most diligent investigator', in the words of Poussin's biographer Giovanni Battista Passeri. The artist shared a house with the Flemish sculptor François Duquesnoy and the two friends spent months together seeking out, drawing and measuring such antiquities. It is one of the delights of the exhibition that several of the wonderful marbles featuring the dancers that directly inspired Poussin's painted versions are juxtaposed with his canvases, notably the magnificent 'Borghese Vase' and 'Borghese Dancers' bas-relief (from the Louvre) and the 'Salpion of Athens Krater' (from Naples).

Duquesnoy taught Poussin how to model in clay and the French artist developed a method of meticulously planning each painting by moulding the figures in clay in miniature and arranging them in a kind of shadow box or theatre, varying the lighting and observing them through a small aperture.

This was wildly different from the working practices of Caravaggio, his followers and other leading Baroque artists of the period, who insisted on painting from live models. The low-life revels in paintings and drawings by some of these contemporaries of Poussin were faithful records of real life, and one of the principal organizers of the debauches they depicted were the artists themselves, especially the Bentvueghels (Birds of a Feather), whose Flemish name reflected the fact this club was dominated by artists from the Low Countries, but artists of all nations were welcome.

Their elaborate, wine-sodden initiation rites would end in a solemn procession at dawn to the 'Tomb of Bacchus', an ancient porphyry sarcophagus in Santa Costanza, where further imbibing and libations took place, along with the carving of the name of the new member on the walls of the church (some of the names are still legible today). Surviving sketches of the so-called 'Bent' members include Claude Lorrain, capacious wine glass in hand, and the Caravaggesque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, dressed as a man and sporting a false moustache.

Meanwhile, Poussin developed his own vision of the ecstatic frolics of antiquity in the solitude of his studio. Then in 1630 he married Anne-Marie Dughet, the daughter of a French restaurateur, whose dowry enabled the couple to take a life-long lease on a modest house where the artist could devote himself in tranquillity to the painstaking processes of his art.

The prototype of his full-blown Bacchanals can be found in a lively drawing of 1628-30, 'Dance Before a Herm of Pan' (on loan from the Royal Collection). A couple of years later, reversing the layout of the composition, he fully realized this idea in the lovely oil, 'A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term'. At this time the ability to dance well and the patronage of ballet were highly regarded at Europe's royal courts and Poussin may well have thought that, apart from the popularity of mythological subjects, this theme might well appeal in particular to such milieux, which proved resoundingly the case.

In 1633-34 the poet, opera librettist and dance amateur Giulio Rospigliosi (later Pope Clement IX) commissioned Poussin to paint three allegorical canvases, including 'Dance to the Music of Time' (on loan from the Wallace Collection). At around the same time, the artist painted his only religious work containing dancing figures, 'The Adoration of the Golden Calf'. In this dramatic, tenebrous, brilliantly executed image the dancers are no longer hedonistic Arcadian devotees of a bibulous, life-enhancing ancient deity but deluded idolaters, inviting the wrath of God.

And in 1635 France's most powerful churchman and minister Cardinal Richelieu commissioned three Bacchanals: 'The Triumph of Bacchus', 'The Triumph of Pan' and 'The Triumph of Silenus'. Since the early 1630s Richelieu had been transforming his family's manor house south-west of Paris into a vast chateau, importing quantities of ancient marbles from Rome and Renaissance masterpieces by the likes of Mantegna, Costa and Perugino to adorn it. The Triumphs were destined to appear with the cream of Richlieu's collection in the Cabinet du Roi, the chateau's largest and most impressive space. They remained there until the eighteenth century when they were replaced by copies. A 'Triumph of Silenus' entered the National Gallery in 1824, but was dubbed 'after Poussin'. However, recent scientific analysis of pigments and the discovery that the canvas on which Silenus is painted was from the same bolt as the other Triumphs, now indicate it must also be an autograph Poussin.

The fame of Poussin's dance pictures and the prestige that accrued from Cardinal Richelieu's commission proved to be a mixed blessing for the artist himself. Both Richlieu, who was the most important patron of French court ballets, and Louis XIII, a keen dancer and also patron of annual ballets, were clearly delighted with the artist's works revolving around this theme.

In 1639 Louis summoned Poussin back to Paris. For eighteen months Poussin delayed, clearly fearing that life at court would disrupt his solitary routines and would demand large decorative schemes he had no desire to undertake. Eventually, an emissary was dispatched to Rome to issue an ultimatum. Poussin's recall to Paris by royal command and the increasing appreciation of the canvases depicting Roman historical and Old and New Testament stories that he was painting in parallel, set the seal on the artist's status as the father of a new French classicism.

His influence on painting in France was surprisingly enduring in the face of changing fashions, as he cast his spell over painters as diverse as David, Ingres, Delacroix, Degas - who spent months copying Poussin's 'The Rape of the Sabine Women' at the Louvre - Cézanne and Picasso.

However, Poussin's career as Louis XIII's First Painter was spectacularly unproductive. He found it impossible to work with the large team of assistants required to decorate the Grand Gallerie at the Louvre, the King's first pet project and despite his diligent efforts, nothing of what he contributed in terms of design survived. Private commissions proffered were also on a scale that he felt were unsuited to his style and talents.

In September 1642, Poussin sought temporary absence to return to Rome to fetch his wife. And although most of his work thereafter was bought by French collectors, he never set foot in France again.

Poussin and the Dance; National Gallery, London; 9 October 2021 - 2 January 2022

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023