A Dance to the Music of Time

A Dance to the Music of Time: Nicolas Poussin

A Dance to the Music of Time is a 1636 painting by French Baroque artist Nicolas Poussin who specialized in the classical style and worked for most of his life in Rome. This work is located in The Wallace Collection in London, United Kingdom.

Analysis of A Dance to the Music of Time

A classicist allegorical painting of doubtful interpretation, its common present-day title ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ evokes for many the homonymous ten-volume cycle of novels by Anthony Powell, begun in 1951.

There are four dancing figures in the center. An old man with wings is playing the lyre to the right — he is commonly identified as Time. We realize the scene is set at dawn because the flying figure of Aurora is scattering light followed by the gold chariot of Apollo. The god himself is seen upright in his vehicle upholding a golden circle representing the Zodiac. In his wake smaller female figures hold hands and rush forward; these are the Horae or Hours, the goddesses of time.

A Dance to the Music of Time is a peculiar, and still, mysterious composition that was, according to contemporary painter and writer Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1613-1696), commissioned by future Pope Clement XI when he was still a diplomat of the Papal State, thirty years prior to his election to the papacy. The painting came into existence towards the end of Poussin’s first period in Rome (1624-1640), when he had begun to receive regular commissions from wealthy patrons and to be known back in France as well.

According to Bellori again, it was his learned commissioner, an academic theologian as well as a Church officer, who instructed Poussin in great detail on how to arrange this painting. While we have no authoritative reading, the four dancing figures may be the personifications of (from the far right clockwise): Poverty, Labour, Wealth, Pleasure, and Luxury. As they all hold one another by the hand, they would in that case imply a circularity in the life of man: from poverty, through wealth, and back to poverty.

But it should be kept in mind that the title of the painting was recorded as The Dance of the Seasons, or the Image of the Human Life in the sale of 1845. And there are ostensibly other stylings too, all preceding today’s universal name A Dance to the Music Time, itself first recorded in the Wallace Collection of 1913.

In taking, then, the view that the four seasons may be the subject: Autumn or Winter instead of Poverty and so forth according to different interpretations (is Summer more properly the time of Luxury or Pleasure, or both?).

The art historian Sir Anthony Blunt is credited with the detection that the hindmost dancing figure in A Dance to the Music of Time, the one with his back to us, must be a male. The precise interpretation, adopted by the Wallace Collection, is that he is in fact Bacchus, the god of wine and merrymaking. This may be due to a 16th-century accretion to the myth whereby Jupiter sent Bacchus into the world to make it merrier after a petition from the god Time and the goddesses Horae had claimed the human world was too miserable as it was.

As elements of context, we observe two infants, one on the lower far right and the other on the opposite side. One is holding an hourglass while the other blows bubbles through a straw. Both attributes augment the painting’s evident intimation that time flies (tempus fugit, according to the classical trope) and all amusements are ephemeral, just like all human accomplishments.

On the herm standing in the central register on the left, decorated with two garlands, sits a two-faced head, according to some that of Bacchus again, young and old. There is a meager tree to the left and a much smaller one below it, but it is clear from its background distance and lack of elaboration that the non-human elements in this painting have secondary value. A larger tree to the right, which would have added to the strong symmetry of the main register, was eventually removed by Poussin.

A fascinating reinterpretation of the painting was put forward more recently by Art Professor Malcolm Bull, who has found a striking resemblance between the dancing figures in A Dance to the Music of Time and the Four Seasons as sung by the Greek poet Nonnus of Panoplis and popularised in French by Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585). This finding would clearly encourage the Four Seasons reading as primary, but not necessarily as the only one. The ultimate or intended meaning of this painting might owe its obscurity also to the fact that we do not know how much of his commissioner’s wishes Poussin actually realized in his end result. He might have personally had no strong interest in any coherent allegorical narrative.

In taking his inspiration from Poussin’s painting, Anthony Powell’s narrator at the beginning of the first novel of the cycle, A Question of Upbringing, synthesizes the vision of the Seasons dancing hand in hand in a circle with that of human life, ever passing and ever unstoppable. Thus the painting’s deep concern for the fate of man is reconfirmed.

The painting left Pope Clement XI’s descendants, the Rospigliosi family, only in 1806. It was later purchased, in 1845, by the Marquess of Hertford and through his heirs, it reached the wide public in 1857, at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester.

A Dance to the Music of Time is presently at the Wallace Collection in London, the United Kingdom where it is one of its masterworks.

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