A prodigious, powerful, and incredibly prolific painter, Rubens was also a traveller and a diplomat. He rubbed shoulders with the powerful of his time, receiving commissions from them but also serving them on political missions. The exhibition which opened in BOZAR analyses his influence on the artists who followed in his footsteps, over the span of 400 years.
Altogether 160 works, including 44 by Rubens himself, are presented here under six 6 themes: violence, power, lust, compassion, elegance and poetry. Endowed with uncommon creative energy, Rubens was able to handle many subjects with great intensity and accuracy, which accounts for his widespread fame as an artist.
The Spaniards prized his religious works, the English were inspired by his portraits and his landscapes, and the French were drawn to the eroticism and the poetry emanating from his paintings. As for the German and Austrians, they admired his vitality. For four centuries, he remained the inspiration par excellence in Europe and elsewhere for painters such as Rembrandt, Murillo, Watteau, Fragonard, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Delacroix, but also Cézanne, Renoir, Kokoschka, Picasso, Van Gogh and many others. In addition, some of his paintings reveal him as the precursor of Romanticism and Impressionism.
A film director
Nico Van Hout, the exhibition curator, compares Rubens to Homer or even Quentin Tarantino. For sure, Rubens knew how to tell a story and some of his scenes have a film-like quality. In some of his preparatory drawings, he did not hesitate to break down movement into several small sketches (including the wonderful drawing at the end of the exhibition), until he found the right gesture … as the first photographers would much later do. This drawing illustrates the “cinematic” characteristics of Rubens’s works: mobile, dynamic, vibrant. Many of the Master’s works were intended to shock: they were explicit, powerful, and sometimes violent, to serve the interests of the Catholic Church and absolute monarchs.
Pierre Paul Rubens was born in 1577 in Westphalia (now part of Germany). His father, Jan Rubens, was a lawyer suspected of Calvinist sympathies. His mother, a Roman Catholic, was the daughter of a tapestry merchant. The family had fled from its Antwerp stronghold in 1568 to escape the persecution of Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands. At the age of 23, he travelled to Italy and stayed in Rome for a lengthy period of time, producing portraits and copies of the works of Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Tintoretto, Titian, Caravaggio, etc. In October 1600, in Florence, he attended the proxy marriage of King Henri IV of France and Marie de Medici, who would later become one of his main patrons.
In 1608, Rubens settled permanently in Antwerp. One year later, he was appointed court painter to the Archduke Albert of Habsburg, governor of Flanders and husband of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, daughter of Philip II of Spain. The Infanta made Rubens one of her closest advisers. Rubens was awarded the privilege of living in Antwerp and take in pupils without declaring them to the Guild of St. Luke.
He married Isabelle Brant, who bore him three children. In 1610, Rubens bought land on the Wapper in Antwerp, where he later built his residence, now the Rubens House museum. In 1622, in Paris, he received a prestigious commission from Marie de Medici for a series of paintings destined to the gallery of the Luxembourg Palace in Paris (“Marie de Medici Cycle”, now in the Louvre). In 1628, at the request of the Infanta Isabella, Rubens went on a secret diplomatic mission to Madrid, where he remained eight months in order to restore peace between the United Provinces and the Spanish Netherlands. Philippe IV commissioned many portraits from him and had him copy his paintings by Titian. One year later, following the peace treaty between France and England, Rubens was appointed Secretary of the Council of Flanders by Philip IV of Spain. The same year, Rubens was entrusted with a new diplomatic mission in London, involving Charles I, in order to end hostilities between Spain and England. Rubens received numerous commissions, including the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace, a sketch of which is displayed in the exhibition.
Having lost his first wife to disease, he married Hélène Fourment in 1630, upon his return to Antwerp. The couple had five children. 15 December 1630, date of the proclamation of the peace between England and Spain: Rubens was knighted by Charles I of England. In 1631, he was knighted by Philip IV of Spain and was appointed negotiator with Marie de Medici, sentenced to exile by her son Louis XIII. The painter died in Antwerp on 30 May 1640.
A major figure
When reading the biography of Rubens, one realises that he was much more than just a painter. A major figure of his time, he befriended princes, served as a negotiator, while receiving many commissions from them. Today, exhibitions still retain the image of the painter-diplomat. The artist is presented as a servant of the Catholic establishment, a defender of absolutism and an architect of peace. However, these activities were only part of a whole. Had he merely been a propaganda painter, albeit outstanding, he would have been quickly forgotten. Yet, the painter of History also paints family portraits, landscapes and pastoral scenes, country dances and a Garden of Love. The artist may have been a strategist, but he also loved love, sensuality and the simple joys of life.
He inspired many artists because of his far-ranging, multifaceted talent. He revolutionised art history, owing mainly to his vitality and creative power, but also because of the many works he was able to produce. It is a treat to see here how his followers were inspired by his work.
The exceptional “Tiger Hunt” is the painting that best illustrates the first theme of the exhibition: violence. Indeed, what violence in this large format, in which Rubens depicts the tiger as dominating the scene and defeating the hunter! Rumour has it that some paintings were returned to Rubens by several monarchs because they frightened visitors. A powerful, centrifugal composition and diagonals structure the space on the canvas. The eye is drawn in turn to large clusters of oranges and reds in the composition. The realistic rendering of the animals’ fur adds an element of power. Alongside this extraordinary scene, “The Lion Hunt” by Eugène Delacroix: he used the Master’s composition, the centrifugal and “entangled” movement, without managing to give it the same vigour as Rubens.
On the theme of power, one can discover the series of prints which are copies of the Master’s paintings on the life of Marie de Medici. Quite a challenge as a subject, since she did not achieve much in her life. This is where Rubens truly demonstrates his genius for allegory. And there is a sketch (bozzetto) for the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. Painted in Antwerp, the paintings were placed in London by the Master’s assistants, because by then he was too old and frail to make the trip.
On the theme of lust, Rubens used a woman in the same posture to represent Venus and Suzanne, the Christian symbol of chastity. There was much talk about the rendering of the flesh, such an eye-catching, pearly, luminous complexion. Rubens was criticized for represented his women solely as objects of desire. The tiny painting entitled “Pan and Syrinx” that Rubens produced with Jan Breughel I (an excellent way to get rid of the competition!) is echoed in a painting by François Boucher on the same theme, or “Two Nymphs pursued by satyrs” by Honoré Daumier. Here you have “The Garden of Love”, a prestigious loan from the Prado Museum (Madrid). Rubens had just married his second wife, Hélène Fourment. This first ever representation of a picnic in the history of art is bursting with sensuality. The pearly skin and buxom cleavage of the ladies, with pink putti flying over the scene, create many luminous points, contrasting with the colourful silk of their dresses. Although more linear – an area in the foreground with the characters, an area in the background depicting architectural elements – the composition remains centrifugal: one can easily draw a spiral developing from the centre of the painting to the edges. This is how Rubens brings great energy, dynamism, to the composition.
Mainly his religious paintings are displayed to illustrate the theme of compassion. Rubens’s genius for portraiture fits well in the theme of elegance. Yet, he was superseded by Van Dyck, his pupil, who produced less flashy and more delicate, more psychological, portraits (watch the video on the subject).
In conclusion, the pastoral landscapes that have inspired British painters so much are featured in the “Poetry” room. The French painter Watteau, among others, was inspired by the lightness and the joie de vivre of Rubens’s works.
This exhibition is organised by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA), the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR). It will relocate at the Royal Academy from January to April 2015. Note that the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels (RMFAB) are taking this opportunity to exhibit silverware with historical scenes inspired by Peter Paul Rubens, from 21 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. These pieces will take place in the new exhibition of 18 sketches painted by the Master, which belong to their collections.
In addition to being a remarkable painter, Rubens was famous for his entrepreneurship. His workshop was prosperous. He kept many painters in employment, including Van Dyck who very quickly chose to follow his own path. Because of his successes and his aristocratic stature, Rubens, who had himself aspired to attain Titian’s mythical status, later became a model for the young Rembrandt. He also made a lasting impression on Velasquez, who met him in Madrid in 1628 and followed his advice to visit Italy. And later, Sir Thomas Lawrence and Hans Makart both tried to match his success as a court painter and entrepreneur. The glory of Rubens even drove some artists to madness. One thinks of Antoine Wiertz who regarded himself as the Master reincarnated.
This immersion in the vitality and sensuality of Rubens and his heirs is a fabulous journey. Not to be missed.
Sensation et Sensualité
Rubens et son héritage
Jusqu’au 4 janvier 2015
Rubens : esquisses et pièces d’argenterie
Du 21 octobre 2015 au 25 janvier 2015
Biographie de Rubens: http://www.louvrelens.fr/biographie-de-rubens