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Visual arts: Poussin and the Dance at the National Gallery, London

12 November 2021

Nicholas Cranfield on Poussin, his patrons, and his influences

© RMN-Grand Palais 

The Borghese Dancers, sec­ond century CE, marble, on loan from the Département des Antiquités Grecques, Étrusques et Romaines, Musée du Louvre, Paris: inv. MA 1612. More works in the gallery

The Borghese Dancers, sec­ond century CE, marble, on loan from the Département des Antiquités Grecques, Étrusques et Romaines, Musée du Louvre, Paris:...

THE Lazian town of Gaeta served as the port for neighbouring Formia. It lies some 170km south of Rome on the route to Naples, a coastline that is rich in the remains of Roman villas from the Augustan age.

A visitor to the cathedral of St Erasmus and St Marzianus there, c.1620, would have been struck by the newly erected 1.3-metre-tall Parian marble font. The King of the Two Sicilies, Ferdinand IV of Naples (1751-1825), later added it to his museum collection that formed the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale in Naples.

It is the first object that gallery-goers see in this remarkable little exhibition of some two dozen works (paintings and preparatory drawings) of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), the father of French Classicism.

Five rooms close triumphantly with the celebrated painting of A Dance to the Music of Time (c.1634), the first loan allowed under the revised trust of the Wallace Collection.

The font was a krater (first century BC) excavated in the grounds of a villa near Formia. The swirling figures in relief, of dancing satyrs and maenads, sculpted by Salpion of Athens, influenced the young Poussin, who arrived in Rome in 1624.

Around 1628, he also painted the martyrdom of St Erasmus for St Peter’s in the Vatican. The bishop of Formia and Gaeta’s patron is better known to us as St Elmo, who is widely invoked by sailors. The church at Porto Ercole, where in 1610 Caravaggio died after his ill-fated journey at sea, is among many dedicated to him.

The impoverished French artist first shared his lodgings in the Eternal City with a younger compatriot, the sculptor François Dusquesnoy (1597-1643). One can imagine them touring Rome together to admire other antiquities, such as those housed at the Palazzo Borghese on the Tiber, or collected by Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), nephew of Pope Urban VIII (reg. 1623-44), and by the Marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564-1637), one of Caravaggio’s patrons.

Barberini employed Niccolò Menghini (1610-65) as his favourite “statuer”, who “restored” such finds, but was too young to be guilty of the ham-fisted restoration (c.1617) that we see in the second-century-AD “Borghese dancers” (The Louvre) that informed the Wallace Collection dancers. Poussin, after several sketches, changed one of the figures to a garlanded man, probably at the behest of his collaborator, the poet and librettist Giulio Rospigliosi (1600-69), the later Pope Clement IX.

At much the same time, Barberini’s secretary, Cassiano del Pozzo, who became one of Poussin’s most significant patrons (the first series of the Seven Sacraments), amassed drawings from the antique for a “Paper Museum” to which Poussin contributed. Not to be outdone, Giustiniani documented his own splendid collection, some of which is currently on show among the famed “Torlonia Marbles” (Capitoline Museums, Rome, to 9 January 2022), publishing two volumes of 330 engravings in 1636-37.

The fluidity of the swaying forms on the Gaeta vase finds expression in the Prado Bacchus and Ariadne (c.1625/26) and the slightly later The Realm of Flora, repatriated to Dresden in March 1955 after the Soviets stole it among seven hundred paintings in 1945. Both paintings also demonstrate the artist’s knowledge of Titian’s Bacchanals of the previous century and a love of Venetian colour. To capture movement, Poussin’s working method was to shape small wax figurines.

Another monumental krater, of the same date, found in the gardens of Sallust, had passed into the collection of the insatiable Cardinal Scipione Borghese by Poussin’s time, and this marble vase (1.75m x 1.35m) has “The Procession of Dionysus”.

This inspired the Bacchanals painted for Cardinal Richelieu (1635). The three celebrated groups surrounding Pan, Bacchus, and Silenus were commissioned for his château at Poitou to hang alongside paintings by Mantegna which he had acquired. The paintings, reunited here for the first time since his collection was sold, are shown next to the dramatic triple portrait of the patron by Philippe de Champaigne (c.1642). As well as Mantegna, Bellini and Titian come to mind, artists whom Poussin would know from a brief earlier stopover in Venice.

Gods behaving badly are here made respectable not by austerity (although some find Poussin’s stoicism too cerebral), but by the spirit of the age. The Roman Baroque demonstrated that Christianity had triumphed over Paganism and had no difficulty in appropriating classical imagery for its own ends. Those baptised at Gaeta were living sacraments to prove this, as Richelieu’s collection preached it.

Even in altarpieces, Poussin eloquently showed that the two could be combined; the one-way labyrinthine system currently in operation in the gallery brings departing visitors into Gallery 29 with his Adoration of the Shepherds (NG 6277).

In it, the scene-stealer is the stray figure of a girl who incongruously dances into the stable bearing a tray of fruit behind the nativity. Little wonder that the Duc de Richelieu (1585-1642) in Champaigne’s full-length portrait next to it (NG1449) looks ready to step out on to the dance floor.

“Poussin and the Dance” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 2 January 2022. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

The exhibition will be at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, from 15 February to 8 May 2022. www.getty.edu/museum

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