Dance to the Music of Time

Poussin (1634-35)

The Wallace Collection, London


time
"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 recognisable 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." -Anthony Powell

The Four Seasons dance in a circle representing the year, as Father Time plays a lyre. The scene is set early morning, with Eos goddess of dawn, preceding the chariot of Apollo the sun-god; the Hours trail behind. Apollo holds a ring representing the Zoadiac.

The male dancer with the crown of twigs was originally intended to represent the god Bacchus as well as the season Autumn, followed by Winter, Spring and Summer. As Poussin developed the painting, however, this theme gradually transformed into the concept of the cycle of life and fortune. Today it is accepted that Dance to the Music of Time  represents the passing of time, and the different stages of life on the revolving wheel of fortune: poverty, labor, wealth, and pleasure. Poverty is the male figure at the back of the circle. He looks  towards Labor, his dancing partner on the right. Labor, a muscular woman whose bare shoulders and covered hair indicate her hard work,  twists to grasp Wealth's hand. Wealth, dancing in golden sandals and robes, reluctantly takes Labor's hand and gazes haughty past her. Finally, Pleasure gazes at the viewer with a sly smirk.

The herm is Janus, the god of the doorway and the gateway, who  holds the keys to auspicious beginnings and looks forward and backwards in Time. Below Janus is a putto blowing bubbles representing both the beauty and fragility of life. On the right another putto examines an hour glass.

The accepted view stated above (The Dance to the Music of Time  represents the passing of time, and the different stages of life on the revolving wheel of fortune: poverty, labor, wealth, and pleasure.) seems flawed to me. First, the Janus figure is in reverse; the old bearded figure should be facing to the left, as in the west time moves from left to right. The younger figure should be facing right towards the future. Apollo and entourage are moving in the accepted direction towards  morning and  the future and that is a hint from the artist that all is not as it seems or should be down below.

Second, if the figures are dancing in a circle, then Pleasure will move into the position occupied by Poverty and so on. Thus disrupting the logic of the changing season motif. Pleasure would not only take the place of poverty she would also have to change sex, highly improbable. So, there might well be a more fitting interpretation of Poussin's painting.

Granted, the seasons and the sun seemingly move in a regular progressive pattern. But the dancers are not the seasons but society. Poverty must hold to Labor for hope, but Labor does not necessarily lead to Wealth. Moreover, Wealth is not holding hands with Labor, but only seem to be touching her thumb. Finally, Pleasure, holding tight to Pleasure, is all but winking at the viewer as if to say, "We are all dancing in place." Moreover, Pleasure is not holding hands with Poverty.

Another hint: Apollo holds a circle, representing the cyclical changes of nature. While the putto, seated on the ground,  holds an hour glass representing the static aspect of societal or class time. The French Revolution is a century and a half away.


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