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Poussin and the Dance

Issued July 2021

9 October 2021 – 3 January 2022
Ground Floor Galleries
Admission charge

The National Gallery’s new exhibition Poussin and the Dance, co-organised with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, will include wild, raucous and surprisingly joyous scenes, showing whirling, cavorting figures. It will cast the French Classical artist in a completely new light, showing how he grappled with the challenges of arresting movement and capturing the expressive potential of the body.

For the first time in its 121-year history, the Wallace Collection will lend Nicolas Poussin’s painting 'Dance to the Music of Time' (about 1634–6). His most celebrated dance picture will be included in 'Poussin and the Dance', the National Gallery’s landmark exhibition of works by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) – the first ever to focus on his pictures of dancers and revellers – opening in autumn 2021.

Image: Nicolas Poussin, 'A Dance to the Music of Time', about 1634–6. By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London (P108) © The Trustees of the Wallace Collection

The group in 'Dance to the Music of Time' represents the perpetual cycle of the human condition: Poverty, Labour, Wealth and Pleasure which, if indulged to excess, reverts to Poverty. The dancers are accompanied on the lyre by the winged figure of Time. The bubbles and hourglass are symbols for the brevity of life. Poussin’s painting famously inspired Anthony Powell’s universally acclaimed 12-novel sequence of the same name, published between 1951 and 1975. This major loan is the latest feature of the Wallace Collection and the National Gallery’s close collaboration. The Wallace Collection’s first-ever loan was of 'Perseus and Andromeda', (1554–6) to the National Gallery’s Titian: Love Desire Death exhibition in 2020.

Over twenty paintings and drawings from public and private collections in Europe and the USA, including the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden ('The Empire of Flora', 1630–31); The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City ('The Triumph of Bacchus', 1635–36); Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid ('Bacchus and Ariadne', 1625–26); the National Galleries of Scotland ('Study for A Dance to the Music of Time', about1634) and a series of drawings generously lent by Her Majesty the Queen, will be shown for the first time alongside some of the celebrated Classical antiquities that inspired them: 'The Borghese Vase', first century CE and 'The Borghese Dancers', second century CE, both from the Musée du Louvre, Paris. These works are being seen together for the first time in a generation and will allow visitors to trace Poussin’s influences and the sophisticated translations he made between marble, paint and paper.

The exhibition will also include four paintings from the National Gallery Collection including The Triumph of Silenus (about 1636), which has recently been cleaned, restored and reattributed to Poussin.

Nicolas Poussin is an artist’s artist. For centuries, his works have been hugely influential, inspiring artists as diverse as David and Cézanne, Picasso and Bacon. Yet Poussin is sometimes overlooked by the public who often find his paintings cold, difficult or overly erudite. Art historians have tended to characterise him as a philosopher, rather than a painter, and his pictures are rarely presented in a warm or approachable way. 'Poussin and the Dance' intends to challenge this perception, exploring a part of the artist’s production that has never been examined before: his depictions of dance.

The exhibition focuses on Poussin’s early career in Rome, from his arrival in the city in 1624 until about 1640 when he was called back to France to serve as First Painter to the King under Louis XIII.

As a young man, Poussin was desperate to get to Rome. Finally arriving in the city on his third attempt – having had two thwarted journeys take him as far as Florence and Lyon – he threw himself into the Classical world he saw around him, drawing inspiration from antique sculptures and bas reliefs as well as the works of artists such as Titian and Raphael. Many of the most celebrated antiquities he knew depicted dancers, and soon Poussin himself, grappling with the concepts of both arresting and representing motion, took on the challenge of capturing dance on paper, in paint, and even in clay. When choreographing his compositions, he created wax figurines which he arranged in a kind of model theatre (or ‘grande machine’). Key to bringing Poussin and his working methods to life in the exhibition will be not only the juxtaposition of antiquities, drawings and paintings, but also a reconstruction of some of these wax figurines.

This exhibition offers visitors the opportunity to rediscover Poussin in a fresh light, to appreciate the paradox between his diligent working process and the joyful, carefree scenes he created, as well as the ingenious solutions he found to bring the dances and riotous movement of the ancient world to life.

Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, The Myojin-Nadar Associate Curator of Paintings1600–1800, says:

‘Nicolas Poussin is the most important French artist before Manet and the Impressionists, and it’s extremely exciting to present him to the public in the new and exciting light of his obsession with movement. After the events of the last 18 months, it feels particularly special to bring together these exuberant depictions of people gathering together to dance and celebrate.’

Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, says:

‘Poussin was inspired by dance throughout his career and looked for inspiration to the world of Antiquity and the Renaissance masters. The exhibition explores the subject with a remarkable group of loans culminating in his masterwork, 'Dance to the Music of Time.'

Dr Xavier Bray, Director of the Wallace Collection, says:

‘Dance to the Music of Time is one of the Wallace Collection’s most beloved masterpieces. Its rhythmic composition and enigmatic allegory have enchanted visitors for decades. We are delighted to be collaborating with the National Gallery and to be making our most important loan to date.’

Exhibition organised by the National Gallery, London, and J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, in collaboration with the Wallace Collection, London.

After London, the exhibition will travel to the J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (15 February – 8 May 2022).

Alongside the London exhibition a programme of events entitled 'Dance to the Music of Our Time' will present a series of film screenings, talks and performances by three London-based contemporary artists: Zadie Xa & Benito Mayor-Vallejo, Hetain Patel and Florence Peake. Taking place across the Gallery, these ‘live’ art works explore themes found in the work of Nicolas Poussin and explored in this exhibition. The artists explore the relationship of storytelling and contemporary art, using movement, dance, and choreography.

These explorations form parallels with Poussin’s practice of interpreting and representing myths through his study and knowledge of the moving figure. Each of the artists is interested in how the moving body could be used to convey stories that relate to broader themes in society, such as politics or the environment.

The events will take place during Friday Lates and weekends between 15 October and 12 December.

Exhibition supported by

Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, GRoW @ Annenberg

Graham and Joanna Barker
Mr and Mrs Shigeru Myojin
Mr and Mrs Sherif Nadar
Marco Voena
And other donors

Notes to editors

Nicolas Poussin was born at Les Andelys in Normandy and first trained in Rouen. From 1612 he lived in Paris and in 1624 travelled via Venice to Rome, where he stayed for most of his life.

His sensuous early canvases such as The Nurture of Bacchus reflect 16th-century Venetian art, especially that of Titian. He studied antique remains and his art reflects both this and an appreciation of Raphael.

Poussin read ancient writers such as Ovid and attempted to recreate ancient myth and history in his works.

Poussin mainly painted easel paintings for private patrons. His larger works for Louis XIII, made from 1640 to 1642 on his return to Paris, were less successful. His scholarly patrons in Rome and Paris included the antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo and the notable art collector, Cardinal de Richelieu.

Poussin sketched in the Campagna, the countryside around Rome, with Claude, and from the late 1630s began to paint landscapes. He brought a powerful discipline to the composition of his paintings, which enhanced the solemnity of their subjects. In his later years he developed an intensely personal style in his religious and allegorical works.


Nicolas Poussin
'A Dance to the Music of Time', about 1634–6
Oil on canvas
82.5 x 104 cm
By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London (P108) 
© The Trustees of the Wallace Collection

Press view: Thursday 7 October 2021

Opening hours

Open to public: Saturday 9 October 2021
Daily 10am–6pm (last admission 5pm)
Fridays 10am–9pm (last admission 8.15pm)

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Title: 'Poussin and the Dance'

Authors: Emily A. Beeny and Francesca Whitlum-Cooper

144 pages, 71 illustrations, 280 x 240 mm Portrait

Paperback: £25; special Gallery price: £20

Published by National Gallery Company Ltd. Distributed by Yale University Press.

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