A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term, by Nicolas Poussin
by Francesca Witlum-Cooper
The Myojin-Nadar Associate Curator of Paintings 1600-1800
Nicolas Poussin, A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term, 1632-3. Oil on canvas, 98 x 142.8 cm. Bought, 1826. NG62. 2021 © Copyright The National Gallery, London .
The French version is available here.
Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) is the most important French painter before Manet and the Impressionists. Known as the father of French classicism, his works have inspired generations of artists, from Jacques-Louis David in the age of Revolution, to Cezanne in the nineteenth century, to Picasso, Matisse and Francis Bacon in the twentieth. Yet for all the influence his art has had, Poussin is often perceived as a rather cold and austere, a purely intellectual painter. This is a perception that Poussin and the Dance – an exhibition on view at The National Gallery until 2nd January 2022 – seeks to counter.
Arriving in Rome in 1624, Poussin quickly responded to the great works of antiquity and the Renaissance that he saw around him. The dances and celebrations of the Ancient World were his greatest inspiration, and dancing satyrs and ecstatic nymphs quickly became the subjects of his paintings. With its joyful, light-hearted movement that, A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (1632–3) epitomises this moment in Poussin’s career.
In a sunlit glade, a group of revellers whirl around before a statue of Pan, the Roman god of shepherds, woodland and wild behaviour. This party certainly looks a little wild: one dancer is nude, the others scantily clad in drapery that slips aside as they move. Our eye follows the dancers across the canvas, from the nymph squeezing grapes into the bowl of the expectant putti, through the meticulously choreographed limbs of the central group, finally tumbling to the fallen nymph and amorous satyr at lower right, whose advances have been spurred on by the vigour of the dancing and the strength of the wine. In the background, one putto cheekily drinks wine from a large vase, while another – having overindulged – sleeps drunkenly on the ground.
Yet for all the wildness of his subject matter, Poussin’s dance is extremely precise. Look how the toes of the nymph pressing grapes intersect with the sleeping putto’s buttock, or the way the raised foot of the faun in yellow aligns with the nymph’s leg. It is likely that Poussin modelled his dancing figures in three dimensions as part of the painting process: we know from visitors to his studio that he made small figures out of wax, which he could pose and use to capture this “snapshot” of movement in his compositions. The crisp draperies and frieze-like arrangement of figures are indebted to the antique bas-reliefs that Poussin studied in Rome. In paintings such as the Bacchanalian Revel, he sought to equal the beauty of these ancient marbles in oil paint.