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Rubens: ‘Dramatic, Moving, Convincing’

Alte Pinakothek, Munich/Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen/Art Resource
Peter Paul Rubens: The Massacre of the Innocents (detail), 1636–1638

When we visit museums today, not only are the works that we see no longer in settings like those for which they were made, but in many cases the reasons why particular subjects were carved or painted are obscure. The subjects themselves are often unfamiliar, or at least they do not carry for us the kinds of association that they once had for the artists, the patrons, or their contemporaries. This point was tacitly recognized in the development of art history, which began as a process of compiling biographical information about artists and lists of their works. Then, from the middle decades of the nineteenth century, attention was focused on connoisseurship, the attempt to identify the artist or at least the geographical origin of unattributed works.

At about the same time there was an increasing preoccupation with the development of artistic style. The study of subject matter, for example in the work of Émile Mâle, was mainly associated with the art of the Middle Ages, a period for which identifiable artists were relatively uncommon. For later art such research was concerned primarily with a small number of paintings whose subject was particularly hard to identify, such as Botticelli’s so-called Primavera, on which two scholars associated with the Warburg Institute, Edgar Wind and Ernst Gombrich, both published elaborate interpretations.

Although a great deal of erudition has been applied to this type of research, the results have usually been disappointing. The main effect has been to create a widespread belief that works of art of the past were often full of learned allusions that would have been accessible only to a very restricted public. Scholars have in general paid less attention to the broader task of investigating the circumstances in which works of art were made, the implications of the subject matter for the artist and his contemporaries, and the setting in which such works were originally displayed.

Peter Paul Rubens was among the most prolific and was certainly the most successful painter of the seventeenth century. His style is instantly recognizable and he has always been regarded, not least by other painters, as one of the most gifted of all European artists. His family came from Antwerp, but after converting to Calvinism his father moved to Westphalia, where Rubens was born in 1577. Following his father’s death ten years later, his mother returned to Antwerp, where he was trained as a painter. In 1600 he traveled to Italy, where he remained for the next eight years, apart from a trip to Spain. He acquired a deep knowledge of ancient and recent Italian art, notably the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Caravaggio, which served as the basis of his own distinctive style.

Thereafter his social skills and linguistic gifts qualified him to serve on more than one occasion as a diplomat for the Spanish Hapsburgs, who then controlled the Netherlands. No less unusual for someone in his profession was his deep knowledge of and enthusiasm for every aspect of classical antiquity and his wide range of friends in the world of scholarship.

Probably his most popular works today are his portraits, especially of members of his family. These extraordinarily tender, affectionate, and lively pictures reflect feelings that are easy enough for the viewer to share—not least the famous full-length portrait (now in Vienna) of his second wife wrapped only in a fur coat. Rubens’s landscapes too seem to present few problems of interpretation, as do many of his mythological paintings. He certainly knew more about classical mythology than most people today, and his appreciation of classical literature was probably more intense, but in these paintings—The Three Graces in the Prado is a well-known example—he was, at least in theory, taking as his theme a culture that was almost as remote from him as it is for us, and producing paintings of intense sensuality that were usually straightforward in their meaning.

More alien to us are his illustrations of themes from ancient history. Many of the subjects, such as Queen Tomyris plunging the head of Cyrus into a basin filled with blood, which would have been familiar to educated people of Rubens’s day, are now known only to specialists, and few today share the then-prevailing belief that such subjects provided effective lessons in human conduct. Even less relevant to modern spectators are the allegorical compositions that are such an important part of Rubens’s output, paintings in which classical gods and goddesses mingle with usually female figures personifying abstract qualities, and sometimes also with humans. Until well into the nineteenth century personifications of such qualities as liberty and concord were more or less indispensable in public art.

Unfortunately, most of us are unable to identify many of the personified images commonly used by artists. Justice, with sword and scales, does not present a problem, and many people can probably recognize the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. But we are soon reduced to speculation and guesswork. This is not to say that contemporaries of Rubens would necessarily have found his allegorical compositions self-explanatory, let alone have understood all their implications. In a famous letter, he provided a polished and very elaborate explanation of one of his most famous works in this category, The Consequences of War, in Florence, accounting for every detail of the picture:

The principal figure is Mars, who has left open the temple of Janus (which in time of peace, according to Roman custom, remained closed) and rushes forth with shield and blood-stained sword, threatening the people with great disaster. He pays little heed to Venus, his mistress, who, accompanied by her Amors and Cupids, strives with caresses and embraces to hold him. From the other side, Mars is dragged forward by the Fury Alekto, with a torch in her hand. Nearby are monsters personifying Pestilence and Famine, those inseparable partners of War. On the ground, turning her back, lies a woman with a broken lute, representing Harmony, which is incompatible with the discord of War. There is also a mother with her child in her arms, indicating that fecundity, procreation, and charity are thwarted by War, which corrupts and destroys everything.

What is most remarkable is that this picture, which could so easily have become absurd, is dramatic, moving, and convincing.

It is unrealistic to suppose that most pictures of this kind would have been understood without help by their intended audience. In their original settings they were often provided with inscriptions identifying the subjects, or else guides or custodians could give an explanation. Nor were they always straightforward in their meaning. The grandest and most famous example of Rubens’s allegorical paintings is the cycle of twenty-two canvases devoted to Marie de’ Medici, dowager queen of France, that are now in the Louvre. Here he was presented with the problem of glorifying a queen whose career had been less than glorious and who had quarreled bitterly with her son Louis XIII. Rubens understood that it was sometimes appropriate to obscure embarrassing facts with splendid but often generalized allegories. With a lack of political wisdom that was typical of her, Marie wanted to include a fairly literal representation of one episode in her life, showing her expulsion by torchlight from Paris in 1617, on orders from her son.

Predictably, this proposal caused offense to Louis’s supporters. Rubens replaced this scene with a canvas representing what he called The Felicity of the Regency of Marie de’ Medici, adding that “I believe that if the other subjects had been entrusted entirely to us, they would have passed, as far as the Court is concerned, without any scandal or murmur.”

Political allegory is now largely unknown except in the work of some newspaper cartoonists, and this is an obstacle to modern appreciation of Rubens’s works in this genre. At the same time, the events of the reign of Louis XIII will no longer be widely known. Indeed, some of the details depicted by Rubens have been the subject of much scholarly debate, and we will probably never fully understand all the nuances of his paintings for the Marie de’ Medici cycle. But to have some understanding at least of the conventions within which Rubens worked and the limitations of his brief can only enhance admiration for the skill with which he translated something that could have been labored and prosaic into a glorious piece of decoration.

If the Medici cycle needed a guide to explain, or on occasion to conceal, the subtleties of its meaning, Rubens’s many altarpieces on public display in churches were intended instead to be understood by Catholic believers. Although he was much in demand as a religious painter, these works—some of which provide the subject of Willibald Sauerländer’s wonderful and superbly translated book—are often quite difficult for a modern viewer to appreciate, because they reflect circumstances that no longer exist and attitudes that for the most part have been superseded.

It is not just that many of the pictures have been removed from their original setting in churches and are now displayed rather incongruously in museums. Nor is it that many of the admirers of Rubens today are not Catholics, but rather that the Catholicism that informs these pictures belongs to a religious world that is long past. Sauerländer, who describes himself as an agnostic of Protestant background, has set out to explain why the pictures look the way they do and how they fulfill the requirements of Rubens’s patrons. He does so with tact, sympathy, and much scholarly and critical insight. As a result he leaves the reader with a greatly enhanced admiration for Rubens’s genius.

As Sauerländer writes at the outset of his book, Rubens’s own religious beliefs were infused with an enthusiasm for Stoicism, the ancient philosophical system based on an acceptance of suffering and stressing renunciation and moral conduct. It was much admired by intellectuals in early- seventeenth-century Flanders, especially those in the circle of the celebrated scholar and humanist Justus Lipsius, whose favorite pupil was the painter’s brother Philip. This admiration, which is most obviously reflected in a famous painting by Rubens, The Death of Seneca (now in Munich), was certainly a response to the circumstances of the period, especially the religious conflicts and the endemic warfare in the Netherlands, in which the predominantly Protestant northern states sought successfully to win independence from the rule of Catholic Spain. Religious differences had been particularly strong in Rubens’s hometown of Antwerp, where most of the religious works of art in the churches had been destroyed during an outbreak of iconoclasm in the 1570s. After his father died in exile, Rubens was not only brought up as a Catholic but seems to have been an enthusiastic one; he frequently went to morning mass, although this did not prevent him from having Protestant friends.

As Sauerländer shows, Rubens’s altarpieces, some of them for churches in Flanders and some for Germany, where the Thirty Years’ War was still raging, need to be understood against the background of the religious divide between Catholics and various categories of Protestants, and more specifically of the requirements of Catholic authorities for religious art established at and after the Council of Trent. One of the major differences between Catholics and Protestants concerned attitudes toward images, although the term itself is ambiguous. In a wide sense, an image can designate any figurative representation in painting or sculpture; but the term had also been used for more than seven centuries to refer more specifically to nonnarrative representations of individual figures, while by contrast pictures of events were normally called histories or stories.

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