Nicolas Poussin at the National Gallery

While museums are reopening across Europe, a major French exhibition is held in the National Gallery. “Poussin and the Dance” explores a new aspect of Nicolas Poussin’s work. Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, The Myojin-Nadar Associate Curator of Paintings 1600-1800 and curator of the exhibition, gives us a few explanations about this event.

The French version is available here.

Dear Francesca, you are The Myojin-Nadar Associate Curator of Paintings 1600-1800 at the National Gallery. First of all, could you explain us what it means?
It means that I am the Associate Curator for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings at the National Gallery, so I work with three senior curators to look after all the paintings made between 1600 and 1800. My post is funded by two families, the Myojins and the Nadars, with whom the Gallery has a close relationship. My job title reflects this relationship and their generosity.

Who was Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)?
Nicolas Poussin is arguably the most important French artists before Manet and the Impressionists in the nineteenth century. Born in Normandy, he spent his working life in Rome, where he was greatly inspired by the masterpieces of the Renaissance and the Ancient World that he saw around him. His works were eagerly collected by French art lovers during his lifetime. Back in France, the King and his court were keen to make Paris the “New Rome”, for example founding the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Poussin became a figurehead for French painting, and has been celebrated as one of the fathers of French painting ever since.

This exhibition focuses on a particular aspect of his work: dance and dancers. Why was he interested in this theme?
Poussin arrived in Rome in 1624 and threw himself into the study of the classical antiquities he saw around him. Many of these ancient vases and reliefs depicted dance, and Poussin himself began to incorporate drunken dancers and whirling festivities into his compositions. Dance presented him with a unique challenge: how to capture movement in a still artwork; how to evoke three-dimensional bodies in two-dimensional form. Taking classical dances as his subject matter, it was also his way to equal – and even rival – the ancient masters.

In the exhibition, you recreated some of the model figures he was using to choregraph his compositions. Could you tell us about this?
We know from visitors to Poussin’s studio that he made wax figurines about the size of his hand with which he choreographed his compositions. Built of beeswax around a metal armature, he was able to model these figures into the exact poses he desired and to paint from them. Although none of Poussin’s original figures survive, they were an extremely important part of his process, and we have commissioned replicas from modern artists in order to bring this part of Poussin’s working practice to life.

The centrepiece of “Poussin and the Dance” is a painting from the Wallace Collection. Why is it so important in this exhibition?
A Dance to the Music of Time is Poussin’s most celebrated dance picture. It’s an extremely beautiful work, and an extremely moving one, for this dance – unlike Poussin’s other dance paintings – is allegorical. The four dancers symbolise the human condition: Poverty, leading to Labour, which brings us to Wealth, who then squanders everything in Pleasure, leading around to Poverty again. This is a dance of human behaviour, in which we all take part. The painting has been on view at The Wallace Collection for over a hundred years, and this is the very first time it has been lent to an exhibition, so we are very excited to have it in the show.

You’ve also chosen work of arts from many museums around the world, including two sculptures from the Louvre. Could you say a few words about them? 
We have been fortunate in being able to assemble almost all of Poussin’s depictions of dance for this show. For the first time, we have brought his paintings and drawings alongside the antiquities that inspired them. So visitors can look at the Borghese Dancers – one of the most celebrated Roman reliefs, during Poussin’s lifetime – and then look at the drawings and paintings of his which were directly inspired by this work.

What about the National Gallery? How is Poussin represented in its collection?
Outside the Louvre, we have the greatest collection of Poussin’s paintings in the world. We have early works, dancing pictures, religious scenes and late landscapes. This is the place to come and see Poussin!

More generally, what is the importance of French painting in the collection of the National Gallery?
French painting has always played an important role at the National Gallery. When the National Gallery was founded in 1824, paintings by the seventeenth-century greats – Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Gaspard Dughet – were among its founding collection. These artists are not so fashionable now, but they were during the Gallery’s early years and thanks to those collectors and donors we have one of the world’s outstanding collections of seventeenth-century French masterpieces. Not to mention our amazing Impressionist collection…!

You wrote that “Nicolas Poussin is the most important French artist before Manet and the Impressionists”. Why is he a kind of exception amongst such artists as Le Brun, Watteau, Boucher or David?
For me, Poussin is the most important French artist because of his legacy; because every generation of artists since Poussin has looked back to his work. That’s true in the seventeenth century, the eighteenth, the nineteenth, the twentieth… Even today, contemporary artists still look at Poussin. So while I love the eighteenth-century artists you mention, they haven’t had the same impact on art that Poussin has. He’s an artist’s artist, and his legacy is tremendous.

All our Portraits are finishing with a selection of three images. Could you explain your choice?

Nicolas Poussin, A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term, 1632-3. Oil on canvas,
98 x 142.8 cm.  NG62. 2021 © Copyright The National Gallery, London.

The first is Poussin’s Bacchanalian Revel before a Term. This is, in my opinion, one of the secret masterpieces of the National Gallery. I love the contrast between the light-hearted subject matter (a group of people dancing and drinking on a sunny afternoon) and the rigour with which Poussin has composed his composition, arranging every limb with such care and making fantastically abstract shapes out of the sky and background between the dancers’ limbs. [For more information, see Francesca’s text on]

Wax figures created by Andrew Lacey and Sian Lewis
for the Poussin and the Dance Exhibition.
2021 © Copyright The National Gallery, London.

The second is a photograph of the wax figurines we commissioned for the exhibition from the contemporary artists Andrew Lacey and Sîan Lewis. Although none of Poussin’s original figurines survive, we know from visitors to his studio in the 17th century that he made models out of beeswax, about the size of his palm, which he used to choreograph his compositions.

Poussin and the Dance exhibition. 2021 © Copyright The National Gallery, London.
Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time, c. 1634-6. 2021

© The Trustees of the Wallace Collection, P108.

The third is an installation shot of A Dance to the Music of Time very generously lent to the show by the Wallace Collection, London. This is only the second time the Wallace Collection has lent a painting, so we are extremely fortunate to have the painting as the climax of the exhibition. It is Poussin’s most famous dance painting and one of his most beautiful works.

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