Rubens and Marie

Rubens' Life of Marie de' Medici

by Jacques Thuillier and Jacques Foucart
Abrams, 254, 160 illustrations, 180 color plates pp., $150.00

Peter Rubens
Peter Rubens; drawing by David Levine

The twenty-four pictures devoted to scenes from the life of Marie de’ Medici, which Rubens painted for the Palais du Luxembourg between 1622 and 1625 and which are soon to be properly reassembled in the Louvre, are—like the earlier frescoes by Raphael and Michelangelo in the Vatican—not only great works of art in their own right, but masterpieces whose impact has been felt in painting almost ever since.

In 1860, the Goncourt brothers could write that “for a hundred years it seems that the painting of France had no other cradle, no other school, no other homeland than the Galerie of the Luxembourg,” but in some ways they were understanding the situation even then. Long after Watteau had taken advantage of his friendship with the concierge to absorb at leisure the imaginative richness he found in the gallery, and Greuze had climbed a ladder to be able to study the pictures in detail, David, the neoclassicist, was to seek inspiration from them for his glorification of Napoleon, and his pupils were to turn to the same source for ideas for their own more recondite imagery. Later, Delacroix was to copy some of the figures, Renoir was to imitate them, and Cézanne too was to come and draw sustenance from Rubens’s astonishing tribute to a queen who was by then little more than a textbook memory.

But the controversies aroused by the gallery have been just as intense. Even before the artist had begun work there was indignation in certain quarters that so splendid a commission had been given to him rather than to some Italian, and even after he had settled to his task, changes had to be made in the program so that what might prove delicate political ground could be circumvented. It was not long before rationalizing critics were raising objections to his mixture of allegory and contemporary history, and toward the end of the seventeenth century, when the whole future of French painting seemed to hang on what view was taken of Rubens as an artist, the debate on the merits of the gallery became bitter and prolonged. In the nineteenth century Ingres used to tell his pupils to “lower their eyes and hasten their steps” as they passed these dangerously seductive and subversive canvases (though we know from a private letter that he did not always follow his own advice), and during the reign of Napoleon III the question of their restoration gave rise to one of the most savage disputes that even the Louvre has known.

It was obviously desirable that all the enthralling material surrounding this great work—one of the landmarks of European culture—should be brought conveniently together and submitted to the light of modern scholarship. The spectacular volume under review does just this—and more. Yet it is by no means certain that the American publishers, who have taken it over with some modifications from…

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