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Early opera and Nicholas Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time

January 5, 2008
Dance to the Music of Time by Nicholas Poussin

Dance to the Music of Time by Nicholas Poussin


An extract from Richard Beresford’s A Dance to the Music of Time by Nicholas Poussin, 1995.

Omissions and my comments are indicated by square brackets. Beresford’s references to figures and endnotes are omitted.

Subject and Meaning

Fortunately, in their biographies of Poussin, both Bellori and Félibien explain the subject of A Dance to the Music of Time. The four dancing figures represent Human Life, or rather the cycle of the human condition. In the background is Poverty, on the right Labour, in the foreground Wealth, and on the left Pleasure……The implication of the round dance seems evident. Through labour man acquires Wealth, Wealth permits Pleasure, and Pleasure indulged to excess ends in Poverty. And so the dance expresses a perpetual cycle.

Poussin ……… faced the problem of incorporating attributes sufficient to express his meaning without encumbering the dance. For Poverty he suggested Ripa’s description of Povertà, as invented by Doni, a woman lying on dried branches, but he used the branches as a wreath on Poverty’s head. The symbolism is at one level straight forward, since the poorest of Italian shepherds have been observed making their beds of dried branches even in quite recent times……….. The fact that Poverty is male, while the other dancers are female, remains unexplained.

The figure of Labour, on the right of the group, is taken from Ripa’s [Cesare Ripa, author of a reference work on visual symbols, Rome, 1603] Fatica Estiva (Summer Labour)…Poussin represents Labour simply as a muscular young woman, with bare arms and shoulders. And following Ripa’s suggestion, he expresses in her pose and the turn of her head a sense of her bodily fatigue.

Ripa describes Wealth as a woman in rich garments decked with jewels holding a crown and a sceptre, with a golden vase at her feet. Again Poussin retains only the attributes of dress, showing the figure with pearls in her hair, with white and gold draperies, and an arm-band of gold and pearls.

[Beresford identifies the fourth dancer as Pleasure.]

Poussin …needed to characterise the figures in terms of dress, pose and facial expression. Thus Poverty and Labour go barefoot while Wealth and Pleasure wear sandals of gold and white respectively. Pleasure is dressed in the primary colours blue and red, while Wealth is in gold and silver. Poverty and Labour are in earthier colours. The latter’s dull brick-red is daringly close in hue to the gold of Wealth, but lacks its lustre. The poses and facial expressions are also telling. Poverty gazes longingly at Labour, while Labour strains to catch a glimpse of Wealth. Wealth seems to disdain the hand of Labour, and her own self-conscious dignity contrasts with the glowing face of Pleasure. This last suggests a rather wild hedonism reminiscent of certain figures in Poussin’s earlier bacchanals.

Besides the dancing figures, Poussin introduced several references to the passage of time, the the cyclical nature of its divisions, and also to the brevity and vanity of human life. The elderly, bearded, nude, winged figure of Time is easily recognisable. But it is very unusual to see him playing the lyre rather than wielding a scythe……….He bears a resemblance , inevitable but perhaps not entirely coincidental, to Orpheus, whose role he in some sense usurps.

[Beresford discusses other figures in the painting and the idea that the picture is a depiction of The Wheel of Fortune and The Cosmic Dance.]

This may lead us to further speculation about Rospigliosi’s thoughts in commissioning the picture, though it is no more than conjecture. The emergence of opera in the seventeenth century…was a product of theoretical speculations on the music of the ancients, and its relation to poetry and dance. In the first place poetry was deemed to have not only literal meaning, but meaning dependent on the sounds of words. Music too must have had these sound meanings and, in the drama of the ancients, the sound meanings of music and words must have been equivalent and mutually reinforcing. Moreover, since the poetry of the ancients scanned in regular patterns of long and short feet, it was clear that music and dance were united in their adherence to the same universal laws of harmony, and the practical outcome of this was the emergence of opera.

The union of the arts arose from…the notion of universal laws of harmony. These laws were the subject of intensive study at precisely the time that A Dance to the Music of Time was painted. They were expounded in that massive treatise, Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle, which appeared in 1636. Mersenne did not apply his laws to the art of painting, but he did suggest that they were applicable to all the arts (and sciences), not only music and dance. At the same time, theorists of painting consulted classical writings on poetry and music not only because there was no real theory of painting to be derived from classical authors, but also because the theory of poetry and the theory of music were part of a universal law which must also be applicable to painting.

Engaged as he was in the union of poetry and music in opera, and being a vigorous and imaginative patron of painters, it is difficult to believe that Rospigliosi was not interested in such questions. Indeed, in 1642, he devised a prologue to Il Palazzo Incantato in which he put on stage four sopranos: Painting, Music, Poetry and Magic. It is pure conjecture, but A Dance to the Music of Time could obviously be seen as a corollary in which Music, Poetry and Dance were brought together not on stage, but in Painting.

Beresford, Richard, A Dance to the Music of Time by NIcholas Poussin, The Trustees of the Wallace Collection, 1995, ISBN 0 900785 46 2, pp. 24-31.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2010 4:21 am

    I have recently come across your blog in my search for a deeper understanding of Poussin’s painting. Wonderful – especially as I enjoy opera, too.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    July 21, 2011 4:00 pm

    This is sooooo helpful!! Thank you!!!

  3. Anonymous permalink
    April 29, 2015 12:08 am

    This has been very helpful. Thank you.
    Lindsey Bergin


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