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Rubens and Marie

Rubens’ Life of Marie de’ Medici

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

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 the earlier Italian edition, are fully aware of the fact that they have produced not merely a supremely elegant book but one that is of the greatest general interest as well. Certainly if they do appreciate the fact themselves, they (or their Italian predecessors) have made sure that few other readers will be able to do so, for the price must put it beyond the range of even reasonably well-endowed libraries.

Was the price really necessary? “As fascinating as the texts are,” says the blurb, “it is the colorplates—opulent, abundant and compelling—that set this book apart.” This shows a mistaken sense of values, and there is surely a growing danger that “opulent” art books may, like pornography, fall into the wrong hands. It is true that the glossy, large-scale plates at the end, while not very pleasing, really do convey a great deal of information about the state of the canvases being discussed, but this is by no means the case with all the smaller colored illustrations, which must have been procured at vast expense and which could just as usefully have been reproduced in black and white. The quality of the paper is superb, but one would willingly sacrifice it for an index.

The book falls into two parts, of which the second consists of a very full documentary account of the gallery itself and all the material relating to it from its inception almost to the present day, with extensive—and often complete—English translations of all the contracts, letters, and so on that date from Rubens’s lifetime, as well as a representative selection of the criticisms of his work that have been made since. In addition to this, each canvas is discussed separately from the point of view of iconography, with extracts quoted from all the sources that throw light on this, and details are given of the whereabouts of all known preliminary drawings, oil sketches, and copies. This herculean task has been accomplished by Monsieur Jacques Foucart of the Louvre with the most dedicated skill, lucidity, and scholarship. It will prove invaluable to all students, but it clearly cannot be given due attention here.

The remainder of the book is devoted to a brilliant, original, and provocative study of the significance of the gallery by Professor Jacques Thuillier. For many years now the most influential interpretation of the meaning of the canvases has been that advocated with great spirit by Professor Otto von Simson. According to him they must be read essentially in a political way. At its simplest, the gallery proclaims, admittedly in rather more extravagant language than had yet been adopted, the quasi-divine claims for the institution of monarchy that were frequently made in the seventeenth century.

On such a reading the association of so mediocre a woman as Marie de’ Medici with Jupiter, Juno, Mercury, and other pagan divinities becomes not merely a piece of extreme flattery—understandable enough in a humanist court where the gods of Olympus all had allegorical significance—but also a symbol that the very fact of her rule lifts her onto a different plane from that of ordinary human beings. In the light of Lebrun’s later exaltation of Louis XIV as Apollo in the palace of Versailles such an interpretation seems reasonable enough. However, as von Simson himself recognized, some of the scenes chosen for Rubens to paint are so extraordinary that they cannot possibly be made to fit into this relatively simple scheme. For we are shown, as well as her triumphs, some of the most humiliating crises that she faced in her battles with her own son, and though one of the most extreme of these (her flight from Paris) was suppressed at the last moment, fully enough material of this kind remains for it to be impossible to interpret the gallery merely as an exaltation of the monarchy—or even of an individual queen.

To overcome this difficulty von Simson suggests that, at certain vital and delicate points, Richelieu—just then coming to power—intervened directly and ordered the artist to paint a sort of apologia for his own very devious role in the complicated series of intrigues, battles, and reconciliations between mother and son that had divided France only months before Rubens actually set to work. Following this political interpretation, Professor John Coolidge investigated in a somewhat similar spirit the designs for a series of tapestries dealing with the life of the Emperor Constantine that Marie de’ Medici’s son, Louis XIII, also commissioned from Rubens.

With great courtesy, and with a series of fascinating arguments, Professor Thuillier now sets out to demolish the whole of this political interpretation of Rubens’s work for the French court. According to him Marie de’ Medici’s commission was a purely personal one, so to speak. She wished to have herself represented as a “heroine,” analogous to a figure from one of the long poetical romances that were so popular and admired at the time, in which mythological intervention in the affairs of the protagonists occurs at frequent intervals.

One real advantage of Professor Thuillier’s ingenious new theory is that it accounts, far more satisfactorily than do earlier explanations, for the inclusion in the series of those scenes that show the queen in dangerous and humiliating circumstances, for—as the author emphasized—such situations appeared regularly in romances and cast no disparaging light on the hero so long as everything ended happily—as it does in the gallery with The Reconciliation between Mother and Son and The Triumph of Truth. Not every part of Professor Thuillier’s argument is equally convincing, and at times he somewhat overemphasizes the differences between his own and earlier theories even when they seem to be not wholly incompatible. Nevertheless, he writes with such persuasive brilliance that it will never be possible to see Rubens’s pictures in quite the same light again.

His study will also stimulate revaluation of some of the other decorative schemes of the Baroque period. For his explanation has the further merit of breaking the hard crust of rigid iconographical consistency which historians have been so keen to force on the art of this and earlier periods—even when written evidence offers no support for their theories. If the mind of Richelieu is not controlling every gesture, every facial expression (as von Simson would have us believe about what is for him one of the most politically sensitive canvases of the whole series), then the artist can be allowed far more liberty of interpretation than is usually given him by current orthodoxy: it therefore remains something of a mystery why even Professor Thuillier should be still so insistent in claiming that Rubens’s role was an entirely subordinate one.

Nowhere does Professor Thuillier demonstrate his impatience with present-day dogmas more devastatingly than in his casual account of the rise of Rubens’s reputation to the peak that it reached in the eighteenth century. He demonstrates with much learning and skill that for more than half a century the masterpieces in Luxembourg attracted almost no attention from writers or painters, and he attributes the sudden change that followed to what was virtually a dealer’s racket:

On the market, pictures by Guido Reni, Domenichino, and Guercino were becoming rare. Poussins were going for fabulous prices. For Raphaels, Giulio Romanos, or Leonardos, purchasers vied with each other for dubious copies…. One of the most important Parisian dealers, Picard, seconded by the glib-tongued Roger de Piles, took it into his head to build up for the Duc de Richelieu—in return for a large profit—a gallery of masterpieces by Rubens…. The whole thing was obviously a commercial venture, so that at first no one gave a thought to the Luxembourg Galerie….

Nevertheless, claims Professor Thuillier, it was from this almost accidental beginning that there eventually developed the battle between the Rubensistes and the Poussinistes and hence the crucial revaluation of the Marie de’ Medici cycle, the importance of which for later painting has already been mentioned.

It is refreshing to see such a brisk dismissal of the view that changes in taste are conditioned by some predetermined “spirit of the age” and a recognition—doubtless stimulated by our own experiences today—of the extreme importance of dealers in stimulating taste and fashion. Argued with the finesse that the author shows elsewhere, his theory might well prove convincing. Certainly it needs to be examined in considerably greater detail than he has decided to do, if only because experience also teaches us that the rich usually prefer buying accepted masterpieces and dubious copies for fabulous prices to venturing onto unfamiliar territory.

Professor Thuillier’s essay teems with ideas, but only one further point need be made here. He is an art historian who is not afraid to express out loud his personal feelings about the pictures that he is studying. It is a well-observed fact that, since the breakdown of any universally accepted canon of taste, historians have usually been reluctant to express derogatory opinions about the general nature of the art of the past—the more remote the past, the more this reluctance is apparent—except in so far as these may affect questions of attribution. Thus in a modern monograph a phrase such as “the drawing is too weak for us to be able to accept it as an original” will cause no surprise, whereas we raise our eyebrows in astonishment when we come across sentences such as the following from Professor Thuillier’s final appraisal of the gallery:

For an even mildly refined taste the truthfulness of those nudes ends up by destroying the composition. Look at the Treaty of Angouleme: the cardinal’s vestments seem to serve as a background to focus attention on that big strapping Mercury, without a stitch on, just a little too much like a dock hand with his clothes off, biceps bulging and skin all rosy gleaming. He strides into the noble assembly of a widow and two prelates with a nonchalant indecency which, truth to tell, seems the only cause of the other personages’ embarrassment. After that, how can we protest when, in some picture of about 1900, a President of the Republic in black frock coat and top hat inaugurates an exposition escorted by nude females pretending to be the Muses of Civic Virtues.

What surprises us here is not so much the (surely implausible) notion that the skin of naked seventeenth-century dock hands was rosy or gleaming, but rather the moral courage (one is tempted to say) with which Professor Thuillier boldly faces genuine problems of the kind that art historians have shied away from for many decades now. The quotation is perhaps an unfair one, for Professor Thuillier goes out of his way to point out that Rubens’s “lack of taste” was an integral part of his genius, but is reproduced here with admiration—though not with agreement—because it is only when art historians can bring themselves to think about painting with this freedom from the cautious and pedantic limitations that are now so general that they will have something worthwhile to say not merely to their colleagues but also to a wider public.

This splendid book—so valuable and intensely fascinating to anyone at all interested in the seventeenth century—does have plenty to say to both, and the only pity is that neither his colleagues nor a wider public are likely to have much opportunity to study it with the care that it deserves.

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