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Poussin at the National Gallery in London November 2021

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

At first glance the paintings were intriguing and impressive, but I couldn’t quite work out what was going on – apart from the obvious – being lots of naked and semi naked people dancing around statues of gods like Pan and Bacchus. At one point as I was in front of one of the paintings, I got a flicker of a sense of ‘freedom’, but it was brief and was followed by a sense of a strange sort of sickness.

I found myself drawn and mesmerised by how these paintings were made, and in that technical sense they are masterpieces. To capture dancing figures and represent them in 2D without there being any photographic references is an amazing feat.

The exhibition showed his whole process; he made wax carvings of figurines, used multiple light sources and raw silk drapes on them. He also made preliminary sketches of the paintings. I found that the background of the countryside and woods was pretty unremarkable but the dancing figures in the foreground stood out completely. In that sense the background and foreground did not really flow together, but it was technically amazing.

The paintings to me smacked of debauchery. It was interesting how Poussin and his paintings were very much accepted into the establishment at the time. He was commissioned to do a triple portrait Cardinal de Richelieu in 1642.

I found the narrative in his paintings on show at the National somewhat inconsequential except as a technical directive for the future. Poussin was fascinated by the art of the Roman empire, the friezes and enormous decorative vases. While I was at the exhibition, I sketched the second century (at least that was how I read the date description) frieze of dancers. And took a photo of the last painting of Poussin shown in the exhibition, of the dancers.

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