The Joy of Museums

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A Dance to the Music of Time

The dance to the music of time c. 1640

“A Dance to the Music of Time” by Nicolas Poussin is a painting whose exact meaning is not known. One interpretation is that the painting represents the passing of time and the different stages of life. Its iconography depicts the revolving wheel of fortune: poverty, labour, wealth, and pleasure. Poussin’s paintings are based on a historical iconographic that was understood by his patrons of the 1600’s.

Poverty is the male figure at the very back of the circle. He dances with his back turned towards the viewer, barefoot and of humble status, looking towards Labour. Labour, represented as a strong young woman, dancing barefoot whose bare shoulders and hair cover represent hard work, she is eagerly trying to grasp Wealth’s hand. Wealth, is a young woman with paler skin who dances with golden sandals and robe, she is reluctantly reaching out to Labour’s hand. Pleasure, is the young woman in blue who gazes at the viewer with a smirk and a flushing face.

An earlier interpretation was that the circle of figures symbolises the Seasons Dance to the music played by Father Time on his lyre. Autumn is here represented as Bacchus, the god of wine. The other season follow in turn as Winter, Spring and Summer.

The two cherubs or cupids, one blowing bubbles and the other holding an hourglass, allude to the transience of life. The monument on the far left, consisting of a four-sided shaft tapering inward to the bottom and bearing a double-headed bust, which depicts the youthful and mature Bacchus.

The scene is set in the early morning, with Aurora, goddess of dawn, preceding the chariot of Apollo the sun-god in the sky. The Hours follow him as Apollo holds a ring representing the Zodiac.

As Poussin developed the painting, the theme appears to have transformed from the “Four Seasons Dance” into the concept of the “Cycle of Life and Fortune”. This painting was created for a Roman patron who later became Pope Clement IX. The future Pope may have been influential in the changing of the theme.

Nicolas Poussin - A Dance to the Music of Time - WGA18304

An early pen and brown ink on paper sketch by Nicolas Poussin shows how the painting was planned and has evolved. From the National Gallery of Scotland.

Nicolas Poussin was the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style. Although trained in Paris, Nicholas Poussin spent most of his career in Rome. He was a major influence for classical artists such as Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Paul Cézanne.

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My favourites Nicolas Poussin paintings include:

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Essential Facts:

  • Title:                         A Dance to the Music of Time
  • Artist:                       Nicolas Poussin
  • Year:                         1634-1635
  • Medium:                  Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions             82.5 cm × 104 cm (32.5 in × 41 in)
  • Museum:                  Wallace Collection, Moscow

Artist Essential Facts:

  • Name:                       Nicolas Poussin
  • Born:                         June 1594 – Les Andelys, Normandy, Kingdom of France
  • Died:                         1665 (aged 71) – Rome, Papal States (now Italy)
  • Nationality:             French
  • Movement:             Classicism, Baroque
  • Notable works:

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“To succeed, jump as quickly at opportunities as you do at conclusions.” Benjamin Franklin

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Photo Credit: 1) Nicolas Poussin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons