On the eve of the feast day of St Vincent, patron saint of winemakers, this week’s bibulous painting is Nicolas Poussin’s Bacchanal Before a Term, painted in Rome sometime in the first half of the 1630s. In a sylvan landscape, revellers in various states of undress drink and dance before a term - a pillar topped with torso and head - of an ancient god, either Pan or Priapus, both associated with fertility and drunkenness.
One of the first paintings acquired for the British nation, the work was enthusiastically analysed by the painter and engraver John Landseer in his Descriptive, Explanatory and Critical Catalogue of Fifty of the Earliest Pictures Contained in The National Gallery of Great Britain, published in 1834:
“The dancers consist of four Wood-nymphs, or Bacchantes; two Fauns; and three or four chubby sylvan boys. One of the Wood-nymphs, although engaged in the dance, contrives, in passing, to squeeze grapes into the wine-cup of a little thirsty soul who eagerly reaches for it, while another less favoured little curly-pated rogue would share the boon; a third boy has fallen down, having already had too much of the delicious beverage; and a fourth, having climbed the side of a large sculptured vase, is stooping his head in order to partake without stint or measure of the exhilarating contents of the mighty bowl. The principal male figure of the group is a sort of Faun, slightly habited in yellow drapery: his head bound with ivy, and his rubicund face and figure, replete with ‘tipsy dance and jollity’, is almost beaming with mirthful enjoyment… But the most prominent, if not the most poetic, incident, in the whole composition, is, that an intrusive Satyr has rushed in a wild freak from some neighbouring thicket or circumjacent grove, and, dashing with dissonance the harmony of the meeting, has interrupted the irregularity of the dance, by clasping a fallen nymph who has just been tripped down - perhaps by his unceremonial rudeness - and who is half averting, half inviting, a kiss.”
For all its ekphrastic exhaustiveness, Landseer’s account does not quite tell the full story. Like many other artists active in Rome in the first half of the seventeenth century, Poussin was commissioned to supply pictures on sensual pagan themes like the Bacchanalia - orgiastic rites of worship with their origins in the ancient cult of Bacchus, god of wine - for the private houses of his patrons. Such decorative and mildly titillating works were fashionable diversions for the rich, a way of spicing their lives with a measure of decorously classical decadence.
There is an intriguing tension between the apparent frivolity of Poussin’s theme and the absolute rigour with which he has composed his picture. The drunkenness of the figures in the scene contrasts with the evident sobriety of the artist, who has placed them with such manifest care. They have been arranged in shallow space to resemble a bas-relief, much like those found on Roman sarcophagi (which the learned and archaeologically inclined Poussin is known to have studied and copied). An orgy is being performed as a statuesque and graceful dance. The figures form a human chain, each linked to the next in a way that suggests a single continuous process, a gradual metamorphosis of mood and action unfolding as we watch. Tipsiness leads to dance, which produces arousal, which is to end in consummation. The harmonious rhythms of the painting; the careful checks and balances of the figure’s interlinked poses; the brightly coloured billowing drapery, which seems not just frozen by the painter’s touch but petrified, turned to a substance of mineral sharpness and solidity - every detail contributes to the mood of high artifice pervading Poussin’s imagined arcadia.
The artist’s first biographers described his working methods in some detail. He would first sketch out his design on paper and then model it in three dimensions, creating little naked figures from wax, each one about four inches high. These would be set out on a board marked with a gridwork of squares, to enable the painter to coordinate their various positions. Then the board would be placed inside a small box, rather like a miniature proscenium arch theatre, complete with an appropriate painted backdrop. At that point, but only at that point, painting could begin. Such a careful method inevitably left its mark. The artist’s premeditation is visible everywhere. Another nineteenth-century English admirer of his work, William Hazlitt, noted that “in Poussin, every thing seems to have a distinct understanding with the artist: ‘the very stones prate of their whereabouts’: each object has its part and place assigned, and is in a sort of compact with the rest of the picture. It is this conscious keeping, and, as it were, internal design, that gives their peculiar character to the works of our artist.”
The strictness with which Poussin has subordinated the revellers in Bacchanal before a Herm to the discipline of a pictorial scheme can to some degree be explained by the circumstances of his own life. A wild and unruly man in his youth, he had been badly shaken by a syphilis infection in 1629, after which his character seems to have been forever altered. He read the Stoic philosophers of the ancient world and cultivated an attitude of lofty detachment from the world around him. “My nature compels me to seek and love things that are well ordered, fleeing confusion, which is as contrary an inimical to me as is day to the deepest night.”
The idea of painting a “well ordered” Bacchic revel may not have struck Poussin’s contemporaries as an entirely perverse thing to do. His learned Roman patrons would have been familiar with the prevalent scholarly idea that ancient myths prefigured Christian truths. To such men, what was being celebrated in the worship of Bacchus was the fertility of nature and the promise of renewal, or eternal life. The wine of Bacchus symbolised the blood of Christ, as Poussin perhaps was trying to insinuate by painting the raucous pagan festival as if it were also a solemn rite, or sacrament.