Movement and Music

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Movement and Music

In this new blog series, our curators, archivists and conservators will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.

Today we will be looking at the theme of 'Movement and Music', discover the delights behind Poussin's A Dance to the Music of Time, its connection to the magnificent bronze sculpture, The Borghese Dancers, and the story of a charming tea service painted by Louis-Gabriel Chulot.

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A Dance to the Music of Time by Nicolas Poussin, c. 1636

Although Poussin’s exquisitely balanced, frieze-like compositions seem antithetical to the notion of movement, the artist actually incorporated representations of dance into many of his paintings. A Dance to the Music of Time represents the apogee of this practice. It was made for a patron, Giulio Rospigliosi (later Pope Clement IX), who wrote the libretto of what may be the first comic opera, and the iconography of dance lies at its very core.

A group of figures move gracefully to the music of Father Time. Perhaps they mirror the cycle of the human condition as the laurel-crowned Poverty, the weather-beaten Labour, the sleekly-clad Riches, and the seductive Pleasure turn in an endless circle. Or perhaps they represent the four seasons, spinning relentlessly. Their exact meaning is almost beside the point. Ever since Poussin’s day, viewers have found themselves touched by his captivating figures, caught in their eternal circle, still mysterious, still dancing.

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The Borghese Dancers probably by Henri Perlan after François Anguier, 1642–3

This magnificent bronze sculpture is a copy of a Roman marble relief; the latter used to be one of the highlights of the Borghese collection in Rome. In 1640 orders were given, on behalf of King Louis XIII of France, for plasters cast to be made in Rome of famous antique sculptures, for decoration of the royal palaces, including the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, work on which was being supervised by the painter Nicolas Poussin.

In 1642 bronze casts were ordered to be made from several of these plaster casts, including the Borghese Dancers. The original composition was altered, in accordance with neoclassical French taste. The figures may be compared to those of Poussin in his celebrated Dance to the Music of Time, also partly inspired by the marble Borghese Dancers. Poussin seems to have been closely involved with the project to cast the Borghese relief.

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Parts of an armour, made in Augsburg by Anton Peffenhauser, c. 1575

Warfare was ever a musical experience. Drums and horns have been used since ancient times to marshal armies, command them on the march, and signal them in battle. It is not surprising therefore to find musical imagery on these pieces, from a rich armour made for the future Emperor Matthias II (1557–1619) or his brother Maximilian III, Archduke of Austria (1558–1618).

Here musical instruments are interspersed with more obvious tools of war – helmets, armour, cannons, etc. Interestingly, the etched and gilt strapwork contains not just trumpets and drums, but also harps, viols and other stringed instruments that did not have a military role. They were however essential to the culture of chivalry- the instruments of poets and minstrels, who sang of great victories and the deeds of virtuous knights.

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Merrymaking in a Tavern by Jan Steen, probably 1674

The Haarlem painter Jan Steen was famous for his light-hearted depictions of drinking, usually in association with music and merrymaking. Here a young couple perform a folk dance to the music of the bagpipes and fiddle.

The origins of such a boisterous scene --with its quizzical take on the sensory pleasures of drinking, eating and dancing-- can be traced back to the Peasant Dance of Pieter Bruegel (c. 1568; Kunshistorisches Museum, Vienna). However, it is perhaps the little boy in the foreground, who holds a pewter spoon in one hand and feeds a cat from a pot with the other, who steals the show in this masterpiece.

Read more about this work here.

Take inspiration from the dancers in this scene and create your own shadow puppets with our learning activity.

Activity: Dancing Shadow Puppets

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Work-table by Jean-Henri Riesener, 1765–70

Music was a popular form of entertainment in eighteenth-century France. Members of fashionable society enjoyed concerts as part of social gatherings in the private rooms of their own homes, perhaps even in specially built salons or pavilions.

The marquetry top of this worktable, attributed to Jean-Henri Riesener, depicts a wide variety of instruments in great detail, including a hurdy-gurdy, a tambourine, a violin, a flute, an oboe and bagpipes – many of these associated with more rustic musical entertainments. Sheet music, to guide the musicians, has also been depicted.

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Sèvres porcelain tea service painted by Louis-Gabriel Chulot, 1775

Louis-Gabriel Chulot (1736–1824), the painter of the decoration on this charming soft-paste porcelain tea pot and sugar bowl, was also a keen musician who played the violin. His love for music is manifest in the elegant trophies that decorate each piece. They represent military and pastoral music, combining accurate representations of musical instruments and scores with attributes that allude to both soldierly activities and bucolic pleasures. While the cup and saucer, which are also part of the service, have no painter’s marks and may be by a different artist, the teapot and sugar bowl bear Chulot’s mark - a pair of semi-quavers that must surely allude to his musical talent.

Read more here.