Dance of the Hours and three putti with cornucopiae
Red chalk, washed in red, heightened in white, on red-tinted paper
Inv. No. 615
35.8 × 33.5 cm
Francesco Primaticcio, who studied in Mantua with Raphael’s pupil Giulio Romano, came to the court of François I in 1532. By 1540 he had become its leading painter, responsible in particular for the magnificent decorations at the chateau of Fontainebleau. A highlight of the ensemble, with which the French king intended to create a residence that would rival those of the Italian Renaissance, was the »Galerie d’Ulysse«, measuring more than 150 metres in length. The cycle of paintings depicted the adventures of Odysseus, framed by scenes from the world of Greek mythology and complex allegorical compositions. Destroyed in the eighteenth century, the gallery is known today only through written descriptions, a few old copies, and quite a number of surviving preliminary drawings from Primaticcio’s hand, among which the sheet in the Städel Museum is a prominent example.
In the gallery’s central vault, between a feast of the gods and a Parnassus scene with Apollo and the muses, Primaticcio depicted the »Dance of the Hours«, which is the subject of our well-preserved largescale drawing. The twelve hours of the day – according to Homer the guardians of the gates of heaven – appear here as nude young women, holding hands and dancing gracefully on clouds. Floating above them are three further women, accompanied by tumbling putti bearing horns of plenty. They have been interpreted as the Three Graces, but it seems more likely that they represent three fertile seasons, daughters of Zeus and Themis, also known in Greek mythology as the Horai. This central portion of the drawing was glued in later, replacing a section which had been cut out.
Primaticcio, who was acquainted with the illusionistic ceiling paintings of Correggio in Parma, here employs bold foreshortenings that suggest an opening of the space above, while the imaginative and varied movements of the dancers evoke the circularity of the round dance. The red chalk has been gone over with a damp brush; together with the delicate heightening in white, this technique serves to model the voluptuous figures of the female nudes. At the same time, the white background lights them from behind, emphasizing their silhouettes and lending the composition an ornamental effect – a form-conscious stylization entirely in keeping with the Mannerist tendencies of the School of Fontainebleau.