Nicolas Poussin stands in 17th-century art as the anti-Caravaggio. Everything Caravaggio’s paintings are – dramatic, dark, visceral, up-close, scratch-and-sniff, demotic – Poussin’s are not. His work represents an older, stately and refined strand in art, more obviously cerebral and less emotional. If Caravaggio, a murderer and thug, is a creature of dark alleys, then Poussin’s realm is Arcadia.
Caravaggio and his followers have comprehensively won the battle for public attention, leaving Poussin (1594-1665) seeming a somewhat austere and distant figure, a painter of immaculate technique – all clear lines and gemstone colours – marooned among the classical gods with his eye on the past rather than the concerns of the present. “I who make a profession of mute things,” is how he once described himself.
The sumptuous new exhibition at the National Gallery, however, sets out to show that Poussin wasn’t always so buttoned-up, and that for a period of some 15 years, after arriving in Rome from Paris in 1624, his art throbbed with sensory energy. The way he expressed this was to return again and again to the motif of the dance. In moving limbs and bodies lost in music, he found a way to turn marble into hot flesh and show revelry, sex, drunkenness and abandon while still remaining an essentially academic artist.
It helped that he had a particular conception of beauty. As he wrote to a patron in 1642: “I’m sure the sight of the beautiful girls in Nîmes will have delighted your mind no less than the beautiful columns of the Maison Carrée, the latter being but old copies of the former.” Beauty, whether human or antiquarian, was stirring, and Poussin himself was no stranger to sensual pleasure – by 1625 the first symptoms of syphilis had started to show themselves.
[see also: Leon Dabo’s pictures of nothing]
His scenes of pagan debauchery with a scholarly twist appealed to his connoisseur clients too, and he received commissions from Philip IV of Spain, the future Pope Clement IX, and Cardinal Richelieu.
Poussin’s way into his theme were the paintings of Titian, which he first saw and copied in 1626. A picture such as the Venetian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-26) prefigures the images of fleshy goings on in the countryside that Poussin would soon begin to paint. He learnt from Roman sarcophagi and friezes how to organise his pictures as bands of action at the front of the picture plane. And he transformed the dancers he saw in Rome’s public festivities and at the theatre with ballets and intermezzi – masques with dancing performed between the acts of a play – into a ribbon of bodies that ripples across the pictures.
A painting such as The Triumph of Pan, one of three Triumphs painted for Richelieu in 1636 (they are reunited in the show), is as much about picture-making as licentious ecstasy. The devotees of the Greek god, although abandoned in their behaviour, are organised with exceptional clarity: the bare extended leg of a nymph points to the shaggy shin of a satyr whose head, in turn, almost touches the naked buttocks of a male acolyte grappling or aiding another fallen and drunken satyr. Flashes of brilliant blue are carefully placed to contrast with the dominant flesh tones. The poses of each of the figures are different and the picture is dotted with nods to antiquity: the postures of the subjects on the right are references to classical statuary such as The Wrestlers (discovered in 1583) and the Borghese Gladiator (unearthed in 1611). The whole is designed to flatter the mind of his patron while engaging his senses.
Poussin refined his complex compositions by making small wax figures that he dressed in scraps of cloth and placed in tableaux until he found the harmony he sought – and then drew it. None of his wax figures have survived, but the exhibition has reconstructions and numerous compositional drawings that elegantly demonstrate the genesis of his intricate and crowded paintings.
This extreme care meant that Poussin never fully let himself go; he was always more choreographer than participant. As the idolatrous dancers cavort in front of the statue of the golden calf, his real interest is in a near still life section, where their legs are concentrated; as naked and soon-to-be naked gyrators twist in front of a herm of the god Pan, his eyes are on the way their interlinked hands form a knot.
The last dance here is the celebrated A Dance to the Music of Time (1634-36) lent for the first time by the Wallace Collection and shown in a room of its own like an altarpiece – a dramatic finale to this beautiful exhibition. In the painting, Poussin has pared back his hoofers to just four figures, who represent both spring, summer, autumn and winter and poverty, labour, wealth and pleasure. While they go round and round for all eternity, led by the lyre of Father Time, Poussin’s own foot soon stopped tapping, and he left the dance behind.
Poussin and the Dance
National Gallery, London WC2, until 2 January 2022
[see also: How Paul Sandby painted Britain as he saw it]
This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm