“A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME”October 10, 2006 at 5:44 pm | Posted in Art, Books, Literary, United Kingdom | Leave a comment
A Dance to the Music of Time
A Dance to the Music of Time
A Dance to the Music of Time (1639-40)
Poussin painting (Wallace Collection, London)
A Dance to the Music of Time is a twelve-volume roman à clef by Anthony Powell, published between 1951 and 1975. Critically acclaimed
on its publication, its satire on English political and cultural life in the mid 20th century seems to have fallen rapidly into public neglect, despite being adapted by Hugh Whitemore for a TV mini-series in 1997, starring Simon Russell Beale, James Purefoy and Miranda Richardson.
The sequence takes the form of the reminiscences of the narrator Nick Jenkins who falls into a reverie at the beginning of the first volume (A Question of Upbringing, 1951) while watching snow descending on a
coal fire. This reminds him of “the ancient world – legionaries (…) mountain altars (…) centaurs (….)”. These classical projections bring back to him his days at school which open A Question of Upbringing. Over the course of the following twelve volumes, he recalls the people he met over the previous half a century. Little is told of Jenkins’ personal life outside his encounters with the great and the good, with events, such as his wife’s miscarriage, only being related in conversation with the principal characters.
The title is taken from a painting by Nicolas
Poussin, on which Jenkins reflects in Chapter 2 of A Question of Upbringing:
These classical projections, and something from
the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing
outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard
plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward
like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure, stepping slowly, methodically
sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognizable shape: or breaking into
seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once
more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to
control the steps of the dance.
|Nick Jenkins||Narrator||A cypher, everyman; Powell himself|
|A mediocre student who goes on to
|Any number of Labour MPs
who rose to senior positions in World War II and
were elected in the landslide UK general
election, 1945 such as Robert Maxwell and Denis Healey. Many soon lost their seats and became
|Sillery||An Oxford don||F.R.
|Howard Craggs||Left-wing publisher||Victor
|The Field Marshal||Leader of desert warfare||Bernard Law
Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein
|The C.I.G.S.||General in charge of the defence of
|Alan Francis Brooke, 1st
|X. Trapnel||Novelist and parodist||Julian Maclaren-Ross|
|St John Clarke||Author||John
|Erridge (Earl of Warminster)||Socialist peer; Jenkins’s brother-in-law
||The Earl of Longford,
A Dance to the Music of Time (1639-40)
(Wallace Collection, London)
Poussin was the founder and greatest practitioner of 17th century French classical painting. His work symbolizes the virtues of clarity, logic, and order. It has influenced the course of French art up to the present day.
He was born near Les Andelys, now in the Eure dÃ©partement,
in Normandy. Early sketches attracted the notice of Quentin Varin, a local painter, whose pupil Poussin became, till he went to Paris, where he entered the studio of Ferdinand Elle, a Fleming, and then of the Lorrainer L’Allemand.
He found French art in a stage of transition: the old
apprenticeship system was disturbed, and the academical
schools destined to supplant it were not yet established; but, having met Courtois the mathematician,
Poussin was fired by the study of his collection of engravings
after Italian masters.
After two abortive attempts to reach Rome, he fell in with
the chevalier Marini at Lyon. Marini employed him on
illustrations to his poems, took him into his household, and in 1624
enabled Poussin (who had been detained by commissions in Lyon and Paris) to rejoin him at
Rome. There, his patron having died, Poussin fell into great distress. Falling ill he was
received into the house of his compatriot Dughet and nursed by his daughter Anna Maria to whom, in 1629, Poussin was married.
|Poussin’s Tancred and Erminia
(Hermitage Museum) nicely illustrates his preoccupation
with geometrical composition.
Among his first patrons were: Cardinal
Barberini, for whom was painted the Death of Germanicus (Barberini Palace); Cardinal Omodei, for whom he produced, in 1630, the Triumphs of Flora (Louvre);
Cardinal de Richelieu, who commissioned a Bacchanal
(Louvre); Vicenzo Giustiniani, for whom was executed the Massacre of the Innocents, of which there is a first sketch in the British Museum; Cassiano dal Pozzo, who became the owner of the
first series of the Seven Sacraments (Belvoir
Castle); and Fiart de Chanteloup, with
whom in 1640 Poussin, at the call of Sublet de Noyers, returned to France.
Louis XIII conferred on him the title of first
painter in ordinary, and in two years at Paris he produced several pictures for the royal
chapels (the Last Supper, painted for Versailles,
now in the Louvre) and eight cartoons for the Gobelins,
the series of the Labors of Hercules for the Louvre, the Triumph of Truth
for Cardinal Richelieu (Louvre), and much minor work.
In 1643, disgusted by the intrigues of Simon Vouet, Feuquires
and the architect Lemercier, Poussin withdrew
to Rome. There, in 1648, he finished for De Chanteloup the second series of the Seven Sacraments (Bridgewater Gallery), and
also his noble landscape with Diogenes throwing away his Scoop (Louvre). In 1649 he painted the Vision of St Paul (Louvre) for the
comic poet Scarron, and in 1651 the Holy Family (Louvre) for the Duke of Crqui.
Year by year he continued to produce an enormous variety of works, many of which are
included in the list given by Flibien. He died in Rome
on November 19, 1665 and was buried in the church of St Lawrence in Lucina, his wife having predeceased him.
Poussin left no children, but he adopted as his son Gaspar
Dughet (Gasparo Duche), his wife’s brother, who took the name of Poussin.
The finest collection of Poussin’s paintings as well as of his drawings is possessed by
the Louvre; but, besides the pictures in the National Gallery and at Dulwich, England possesses several of his most considerable works: The
Triumph of Pan is at Basildon House, near to Pangbourne, (Berkshire),
and his great allegorical painting of the Arts at Knowsley.
At Rome, in the Colonna and Valentini Palaces, are notable works by him, and one of the private apartments of Prince Doria is
decorated by a great series of landscapes in distemper.
Throughout his life he stood aloof from the popular movement of his native school. French art in his day was purely decorative, but in Poussin we find a survival of the impulses of
the Renaissance coupled with conscious reference to
classic work as the standard of excellence. In general we see his paintings at a great disadvantage, for the color, even of the best preserved, has changed in parts, so that the keeping is disturbed; and the noble construction of his designs can be better seen in
engravings than in the original. Amongst the many who have reproduced his works Audran,
Claudine Stella, Picart and Pesne are the most successful.
Poussin was a prolific artist, some of his many works are:
|Scipio’s Noble Deed, from
the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
*Some of the paintings by Poussin at the Louvre,
*Plague at Ashdod
*The Judgment of Solomon (1649)
*The Blind Men of Jericho (1650)
*The Adulteress (1653)
*A few of Poussin’s other paintings:
*Adoration of the Golden Calf (National Gallery, London);
*Holy Family on the Steps (National Gallery, Washington, D.C.);
*Cacus (St. Petersburg);
*The Testament of Eudamidas (Copenhagen);
*The Destruction of Jerusalem (1637);
*Hebrews Gathering Manna (1639);
*Moses Rescued from the Waters (1647);
*Eliezer and Rebecca (1648);
*Seven Sacraments (double series – the first series is in the Bridgewater Gallery,
London and the second is in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh).
*A Dance to the Music of Time (1639-40), (Wallace Collection, London)
Historical reception of Poussin
Initially, Poussin’s genius was recognized only by small circles of collectors and it appears from the record that he failed to please Louis XIV, being, it appears, unfit for
Court intrigue. At the same time, after his death, it was recognized that he had
contributed a new theme, of “classical severity” to French art.
Benjamin West, an American painter of the 18th century who traveled to Europe in the way of that time, based his canvas of the death of General Wolfe at Quebec on Poussin’s example. As a result, the image is one in which each character (including a rather fanciful Native American) knows how to gaze with appropriate seriousness on Wolfe’s famous death after securing British domination of North America. Subsequently many military painters of the 19th century followed Poussin’s compositional examples in order to make sure the strategic situation, or role of the favored individual, was highlighted properly in an era when people learned facts from paintings.
Jacques-Louis David resurrected a style already known as “Poussinesque” during the French revolution in part because the leaders of the Revolution, following in part the American example, looked to replace the frivolity and oppression of the court with Republican severity and civic-mindedness, most obvious in David’s dramatic canvas of Brutus receiving the bodies of his sons, sacrificed to his own principles, and the famous death of Marat.
Throughout the 19th century, Poussin, available to the ordinary person’s gaze because the
Revolution had opened the collections of the Louvre, was inspirational for thoughtful and
self-reflexive artists who pondered their own work methods, notably Cezanne.
Cezanne’s artistic career, in fact, somewhat tracked that of Poussin who in early life
experimented (with a signal lack of success) in dramatic colors and diagonal compositions.
Poussin was stumbling after Caravaggio while Cezanne was haunted by the demon of a
powerful sexuality later sublimated but both discovered that “clarity, order, and
rigor” which personalities such as theirs have to adopt as a second or constructed
In late life Cezanne announced that he was recreating Poussin “after nature”,
which was strange, since Cezanne, unlike Poussin, painted *alla prima* and without
Poussin’s 17th century mechanisms (recently deconstructed in David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge) of predrawn “cartoons” and
underpainting in monochrome.
What Cezanne meant, and what is evident in his late work, is a painterly pursuit of
three-dimensional composition in space. This is evident when we compare Poussin to David,
for David made the neo-Classical mistake of imaging the Poussinesque as a frieze…when
the examination, for example, of the painting of the marriage of Orpheus and Euridyce *in
situ*, in the Louve, shows a complex three-dimensional drama.
Just as Mont Ste-Victoire is so clearly, in the late Cezanne, situated beyond the railway
cut and bay, the only person in Poussin’s painting to actually notice Euridyce’s distress
is a fisherman, to whom the eye is led in the near background after it travels through a
group of wedding guests, arranged not in a frieze but in three dimensions.
In fact, the painting upon examination turns out to be about Orpheus’ failure to
“see” Euridyce, a failure echoed in the legend when Orpheus forbids Euridyce to
look upon him as he escorts her from Hades.
In the twentieth century, any number of art critics have suggested that the “analytic
Cubist” experiments of Picasso and Braque were founded upon Poussin’s example.
The most famous, but now most notorious, avatar of Poussin’s memory in the 20th century
was Anthony Blunt. A member of a sort of Inner Ring, the Cambridge Apostles, Blunt grew up
in an age of post-Empire weariness but at the same time was drawn, like a number of
personalities through history, to Poussin’s inwardness and erudition. Blunt became the
curator of the Queen’s picture collection but in 1979 was disgraced by revelations of his
complicity with Soviet intelligence (see Miranda Carter, Anthony Blunt: His Lives, Picador
This “complicity”, as Ms. Carter’s research shows, was mostly second-hand in
that it included homosexual liaisons with some of the more directly-involved figures but
Blunt made no attempt to fight the charges, which resulted in the withdrawal of his
knighthood. In fact, the affair as retailed by Ms. Carter has family resemblances to
Poussin’s experience at court, and would have been comic opera in fancy dress were it not
for the stakes involved…including Margaret Thatcher’s seizure of power.
Today, Poussin’s paintings rather moulder in dignity in a chamber of the Louvre dedicated
to his memory while elsewhere, the go-ahead directors of the Louvre see fit to spend money
(that could be spent on cleaning the Orpheus masterpiece) on a chamber dedicated to what
American humorist P. J. O’Rourke has called Marie de Medici’s “useless life”,
and a cleaning and restoration of the forgettable moment when Napoleon Bonaparte nicked
the crown from the Pope, and crowned himself and then the de Beauharnais woman in turn.
This spares Poussin, and his latter-day adepts, from having to stand amid people with
headphones and others who speculate upon painting, in the matter of the elegant mob which
Poussin seems to have despised. We are thankfully left by the still waters of Diogenes and
Euridyce to in fact reflect upon human vanity, and when we foregather with others in front
of Poussin, we meet not tourists but, at times, fellow adepts.
External link and references
See Sandrart, A cad. nob, art. pict.; Lettres de Nicolas Poussin (Paris, 1824);
FÃ©libien, Entretiens; Gault de St Germain, Vie de Nicolas Poussin (1806); DArgenville,
Abrg de Ia vie des peintres; Bouchitt, Poussin et son wuvre (1858); Emilia F. S. Pattison
(Lady Dilke), Documents indits, Le Poussin, in LAn (1882).