Born in Normandy and having studied in Paris, in 1624, by the age of thirty, Poussin had become resident in Rome. During his early years in Rome, as well as seeking patronage from the Roman ecclesiastical elite, he also mixed with other French expatriate artists, making sketching sorties into the countryside around Rome with Claude Lorrain and his brother in law Gaspard Dughet.
This picture has a strong claim to be thought of as the artist’s masterpiece. It was painted at some time between 1634 and 1636 for Cardinal Giulio Rospigliosi who later became Pope Clement XI. Rospigliosi was also a poet and a librettist for the newly emerging art form of opera and it is therefore probable that the subject of the painting was devised by him.
The dancing quartet represent the seasons. Spring wears a white tunic; Summer, clad in blue, has her hair decorated with roses; Bacchus personifying Autumn has his back to us; to his right Winter is wearing a head scarf. They are dancing to music played by Saturn on his lyre. The Roman god Saturn is associated with the Greek god of time, Kronos and to emphasise the point a small child plays with an hour glass at Saturn’s feet and another infant, in the opposite corner of the picture, blows bubbles, alluding to the ephemeral nature of human life. This child sits near a term, a pedestal which supports two heads, one youthful the other older. Above, Apollo, the god of light, makes his daily journey across the sky in his chariot, another reference to the passing of time.
There is a parallel interpretation for the identity of the dancers which encapsulates the human condition. Poverty (Autumn) triggers the need for Labour (Winter) which generates Wealth (Spring) leading to Pleasure (Summer). But too much pleasure may lead to excess which in turn leads back to poverty and the cycle starts again.
Rather than a flowing dance to music, the dancers look more as though they are somewhat frozen in time but Poussin is not striving to create a naturalistic simulacrum; rather he invents a self-contained universe ordered with mathematical precision — a pastoral idyll inhabited by gods set against the landscape of the Roman Campagnia.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1635 Georges de la Tour: The Card Cheat, Paris, Musée du Louvre
1635 Peter Paul Rubens: Portrait of Charles I Hunting, Paris, Musée du Louvre
1636 Francisco de Zurbarán: St Lawrence, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum