POUSSIN, Nicolas
(b. 1594, Les Andelys, d. 1665, Roma)

A Dance to the Music of Time

c. 1635
Pen and brown ink on paper, 148 x 199 mm
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

This important compositional study, which dates from the mid-1630s, is the only known preparatory drawing for Poussin's painting called A Dance to the Music of Time, in the Wallace Collection, London. The picture was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio Rospigliosi, who later became Pope Clement IX. According to Poussin's earliest biographer, Bellori, it was Rospigliosi who defined the subject (a 'moral poem'), which is an allegory about fortune and the cycle of human life, in which the dancers personify poverty, labour, wealth and pleasure. They follow the music of Father Time, who plays a lyre, while putti toy with an hourglass and blow bubbles (both emblems of life's brevity), and the Janus figure looks to the future and the past. In the sky, Apollo and Aurora emerge from the zodiac to herald the dawn, and the passage of the day and the year.

For Poussin drawing was a practical necessity, rather than a source of delight; this is, however, one of his most appealing studies, in which the sensual figures are defined as slightly abstracted forms, consistently lit from the upper left, as they appear to cavort upon a stage. In the painting the composition becomes more austere and measured. The title now used for it is a creation of the twentieth century, and has become widely known as it was adopted for a famous series of novels by Anthony Powell.