At first glance, The Dance of the Music of Time by Nicolas Poussin appears banal – the exploration of man and his relationship to the divine a common theme for the artist’s time. However, to move on from this masterpiece without further inquiry is a crime too many have committed. Poussin did not only employ beautifully vivid colours with immense precision, but was also a true intellectual. To fully appreciate the wonder of the work at hand, we must study it further and unravel the riddle.
Let us now turn to whom our eyes are immediately drawn, the circle of dancers. The first, adorned with a crown of flowers and dressed in orange, white, and blue represents the season of Spring. Following her in this circle of colour is Summer, boasting a subtle crown of wheat and dressed in billowing white and yellow. Next is Autumn, her head covered in rags. Finally comes Winter with a crown of laurels, the only season symbolised by a man. Here therefore, we see a simple allegory of the passing of the seasons, and therefore, an allusion to the passing of time itself.
However, now look more closely. These figures are not simply depictions of the seasons but, more significantly, are symbolic representations of key stages in human life. With bare feet and ragged clothes, Autumn symbolises man’s poverty in the beginning of his lifetime. The impoverished Autumn extends her hand to the ‘Summer’ of human life; work. With functional additions such as shoes on her feet and tied hair, Poussin clearly equates the summer figure to working life. Spring comes as the hopeful continuation from Summer, standing as symbolic of opulence. That is to say, Poussin links the idea of hard work to opulence (or success), highlighted in the fine clothes and shoes of Spring. The circle finally closes with Winter, who symbolises the cultivated leisure of old age (a period of life which can be surmised in the Latin word ‘Otium,’ suggestive of a kind of intellectual leisure); his laurels, the eternal symbol of the poet, are indicative of this. In this way, Poussin creates his impression of the development of human life; poverty forces man to work in order to obtain wealth with which he can use contemplate superior arts and poetry.
We can now appreciate more fully the composition and geometry of the piece. Work and wealth are in the foreground of the painting; bright in colour, full of life and vigour, and thus most easily seen. Contrarily, poverty remains hidden and darkened in the shadows – a stage in life that all hope to escape. Equally, Winter also has colours that might seem surprisingly dark and impure. However, one must remember, as winter ends the year, so ‘Otium’ is followed by our inevitable undoing. In this light, Winter’s dress and the colours surrounding him are shadowed by the profoundly melancholic thought that death is near – all are subject to the fate of Time.
Ultimately therefore, it is not by looking to the images of the heavens that one can understand Poussin’s work, but by looking to the most insignificant figures on the earth. For the hourglass held by the infant on the right highlights the inevitable and unstoppable passing of time. Meanwhile, the tune played by the old male angel and the infant with the flute allow the Seasons to dance as time rhythmically passes through life to its ultimate conclusion. For Poussin therefore, life is merely an un-extraordinary passage of time, to which the Gods are ambivalent.
Indeed, as Apollo bursts high in the sky through the scene on his mighty chariot, he appears decisively indifferent to this simple dance. From the cynic to the optimist and from the atheist to the religious, all will have different reflections on this meditation on the uniformity of human existence. Yet nevertheless, Poussin’s reflection upon the cosmic cycle of life is as beautiful as it is provocative.