Check this out… I came across a Poussin painting called “The Dance to the Music of Time” in an old book on fingerprints written by the director of the Scotland Yard fingerprint department. It’s an unremarkable allegorical picture depicting four dancing figures in which, remarkably, the entire surface is embedded with fingerprints, presumably the artist’s own. For a time it was thought that the dancers represented the four seasons. They are now believed to represent work, leisure, riches and poverty–the central issues of human existence according to the man who commissioned the work.
The painting was restored in 1975. It was assumed that after it was cleaned and the outer layer of varnish was removed, that the fingerprints would disappear. But as the project proceeded, the museum officials instead discovered that the prints became more pronounced. It became obvious that the fingerprints were in fact in the primer, embedded in the gesso ground. Analysis showed that all of the fingerprints had been made by the same digit–probably the left thumb–repeatedly pressed into the primer while it was still wet. We can only assume that the print is Poussin’s but, considering the deliberation of the gesture and the fact that we know he used studio assistants less than any of his contemporaries, it seems likely.
I was thrilled when I found this but I couldn’t find any other references to it in books about art, even books on Poussin.
Until a few years ago when I was alerted by a friend to a mention of it in Matthew Collings' book “Matt’s Old Masters” in which he writes, “We assume that in the past art was deeper: it had moral, psychological and aesthetic depth and was never merely arbitrary. But I can think of an example of the self in old master-art that really is arbitrary. Poussin’s patron, who was later to become Pope Clement IX, gave Poussin the subject for The Dance to the Music of Time.
Poussin gave it something the Pope probably didn’t ask for: he carefully pressed his thumb into every inch of the ground when it was still wet, so its print can be clearly seen throughout the paint surface, unrelated to anything else that’s going on in the painting, either in the imagery or in the brushwork.
Poussin is considered the master of perfect order. Although we don’t know if he was particularly well educated, he’s come to stand for reason and intellect and a thoughtful sublimation of the impulsive, arbitrary, individual self. But here he is imposing something personal, his body’s own imprint in such an oddly literal way that someone ought to be braying out an explanation of it that they’ve read in a press release from the Turner Prize. It has today’s art-culture’s feeling of official pointlessness and unhinged values.”