THE COLLECTION
A Dance to the Music of Time
  • Date: c.1634 - c.1636
  • Object Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • Image size: 82.5 x 104 cm
  • Object size: 108.5 x 130 x 8 cm
  • Inv: P108
  • Location: Great Gallery
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Description
Provenance
Further Reading
  • Although trained in Paris, the French painter Nicholas Poussin spent most of his career in Rome. This painting was created for a Roman patron, Giulio Rospigliosi, later Pope Clement IX. A circle of figures who symbolise the Seasons dance to the music played by Father Time on his lyre. Autumn, usually represented by a woman, is here represented as Bacchus, the god of wine. Two putti, one blowing bubbles and the other holding an hour glass, allude to the transience of human life; the double-headed herm, depicting the youthful and mature Bacchus, points its old head towards the dance, while its young head looks out of the composition to the future. In the sky, the sun god Apollo rides across the morning sky in his chariot, preceded by Aurora (dawn) and followed by the Hours.

    The exact meaning of the composition is not known. The subject originally derived from a passage in Les Dionysiaques by Claude Boitet de Frauville, which describes how, following the complaints of Jupiter and the Seasons, Jupiter gave Bacchus and his gift of wine to alleviate human suffering. However, the dancing figures came to be more gener ally associated with the perpetual cycle of the human condition itself: from poverty to labour to riches and then to pleasure, which, if indulged to excess, reverts to poverty. The painting remained in Rospigliosi’s Roman residence, where it was last recorded in 1713. It was later bought by Cardinal Fesch, uncle of Napoleon Bonaparte, from whose sale it was bought by the 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1845.