P. P.Rubens
P. P.Rubens; drawing by David Levine

Arriving at the Antwerp railway station last September, during the fourth centenary of the birth of Rubens, the visitor was greeted by a large display with the words RUBENS’S HOME TOWN WELCOMES YOU. If he turned to a restaurant recommended by the tourist agency he was offered a “Rubens Menu,” with “Rubens steak” and a Flemish dish named “Helena” for this occasion (after the master’s second wife Hélène Fourment). Making one’s way to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts where the Rubens exhibition occupied the ground floor, one found the entrance blocked by two sheer endless lines winding around the building, one reserved for organized tours and school parties, the other for individual visitors. Reaching the gates after an hour or so, and having paid one’s fee, one discovered, of course, that the waiting was not yet over. Jostling crowds enlivened by boisterous schoolchildren had also formed in front of every individual painting, particularly in the first rooms.

One could not help wondering what most of these people thought when they managed to catch sight of the first exhibit, a large panel thronged with halfnaked bodies. In the center a man with a bare trunk is seen lying on the ground and trying to raise himself from a bulging pillow. His head is being guided by a naked boy, who sprawls on his body, toward a well-aimed jet of milk which a portly woman squeezes from her breast into his mouth, while another female, in armor, interposes her hand. Only initiates can have found it obvious that we have here a rendering of the familiar theme of the struggle for the soul of man between Venus and Minerva, Pleasure and Virtue, further orchestrated by a grinning figure of Bacchus and that of Father Time, not to mention others.

Most visitors could be forgiven if they were relieved to discover in the catalogue that this unprepossessing painting did not bear the signature of Rubens but the initials of his last teacher, Otto van Veen. It was placed at the beginning of the show because, as we read, “the style of the painting is more plastic than is usual with him [van Veen] and we may suppose that the young Rubens had at least some part with it.”

The example would not be worth mentioning if it did not illustrate in somewhat grotesque magnification the obstacles which the average visitor must have encountered in his initial approach to the paintings of Rubens. Their message and symbolism must have struck him as remote, their forms heavy and unappealing, and the controversies about the degree of their authenticity bewildering. But being carried along in the crowd he must also have fallen under the spell of these extraordinary creations. He could appreciate the bravura of the small oil sketches such as those for the series of tapestries celebrating the Triumph of the Eucharist without being put off by the information in the catalogue that old Father Time is here carrying a young woman personifying Truth while “Luther lies lamenting among his books and Calvin still tries to defend his doctrine.”

Maybe he felt like the visitor to an opera who no longer cares if the libretto is unintelligible and the heroine fat so long as the music envelops him. The images and themes that may have seemed so alien at first had been transfigured by Rubens into a poetic idiom to which anyone could respond without caring for the commentaries of the learned and the controversies of the connoisseurs. That pictorial charade of the first exhibit had turned into its opposite in The Garden of Love from the Prado, where the power of Venus and her cupids is glorified in a lyrical vision of unfailing appeal. We would understand its message even if Rubens in his fifties had not written to a friend about his marriage to the young Hélène Fourment: “I have not found that I am as yet suited to celibate abstinence, and just as I earlier mortified my flesh I am now gratefully enjoying permitted pleasures.”

In penning this intimate confession he switched from Italian into Latin, which surely came as naturally to him in writing as did the use of ancient mythology in his compositions. In that pictorial praise of married bliss the master represented himself leading his wife with great tenderness into the presence of the Goddess of Love, a cupid helping him by pushing her from behind. Loving couples and cupids abound, and no Minerva descends to spoil their permitted joys. There is no break between this world of enchantment and the real world. Three of the studies in black and red chalk Rubens made from models for this most personal of his creations were shown at the exhibition, and if these did not complete the conquest, the famous portrait drawing of his children from the Vienna Albertina must have revived the spirits even of the most tired visitor.


In attributing this response to the average tourist I am not only relying on personal observation. There is solid evidence for the selectivity of the public taste in this matter. London can boast of housing the only large-scale decorative work by Rubens which is still in its original place and setting—the ceiling of Banqueting Hall, that magnificent palace by Inigo Jones, with its allegorical paintings in praise of James I. There are no jostling lines of tourists waiting to be admitted, in fact one wonders who among the millions of foreigners who watch the Changing of the Guard, right opposite, have any wish to see this historic place. So unless we want to attribute the attendance at the Antwerp exhibition simply to the power of publicity and the attractions of the Rubens menu we must ascribe it to the presence in this and other exhibitions—including one in London itself—of works more intimate and accessible than the grand machines of official art on which Rubens was so frequently engaged. His oeuvre, so vast in scale, so varied in themes and moods, offers something to everyone, but few can grasp and appreciate it in its entirety.

From this point of view 1977, despite its many exhibitions, lectures, and articles, did not yet prove the year to take stock. The monumental enterprise which aims to do this is still far from completion; I am referring to the Corpus Rubenianum, a series of twenty-six monographs on Rubens’s oeuvre published in Antwerp and based on the material collected throughout his life by the late Ludwig Burchard. It is characteristic, however, that even this international enterprise will leave the reader with the task of arriving at a conspectus, for the various specialists have been assigned different themes and different slices of the Corpus as if no living scholar could be expected to cover it all.

The sumptuous volume by Frans Baudouin, the curator of the Rubens House in Antwerp, simply called P.P. Rubens, may therefore be regarded as something of a stopgap. Its introduction and fifteen chapters (of which seven have been previously published as articles) are designed to spotlight various aspects of the master’s work and career, notably his first two decades in Antwerp and the setting of his life. The essays on “Rubens the Diplomat” and “War and Peace in Rubens’s Work” cover fairly well trodden ground, but that on “Rubens and His Social and Cultural Background” offers a useful counter to the stereotype of Rubens as a servant of the mighty. Many of the patrons who commissioned the works in Antwerp that established his fame were members of the middle class, not very different in social status from Rembrandt’s early patrons. It was only later that the Bourbons, Stuarts, and Hapsburgs took notice of Rubens and loaded him with those enormous commissions which often proved a burden. The chapter on “Rubens’s Personality” may not tell us much that is startling, but it conveniently assembles a number of precious testimonials which are quoted in full in the notes. In addition the book is worth having for the sake of its 276 illustrations including ninety-five color plates, to which I shall return.

The folio paperback of 108 reproductions compiled and with an introduction by Keith Roberts evidently aims at a more popular market, though as the author says in his introduction, “It is well known among publishers that books on Rubens do not easily sell.” Unfortunately it is even better known that introductions to picture books are rarely read, though in this case I prefer Roberts’s sensible and perceptive text to the pictures, of which sixty-four are in color. The selection tries to be fair to all aspects of the master’s output while still remembering the likely preferences of prospective buyers. It would be interesting to know how far such a volume overcame or created sales resistance to Rubens.

Except for exhibition catalogues—besides those of Antwerp and London, that of Cologne should at least be mentioned—the only contribution to Rubens studies of lasting importance to be published in his centenary is the longawaited book by the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Professor Michael Jaffé. It also deals with one aspect only, albeit one which is central to the understanding of Rubens’s art. Rubens and Italy is the fruit of many years of intense research. We learn from the preface that the author’s interest reaches back to the year 1950 when he embarked on a dissertation entitled “Rubens in Italy, 1600-1608.” These eight years which span the painter’s career from his twenty-third to his thirty-first year were indeed decisive for the formation of his style, so decisive that the author rightly felt that in his final treatment he could omit neither the effect of this experience on the master’s later development nor the impact which the art of Rubens had on the subsequent history of Italian Baroque painting.


The bibliography to the book lists no fewer than forty-six separate studies published by Jaffé between 1953 and 1972, and it is on these solid foundations that he has based his text, often incorporating not only his results but also his formulations. The outcome is a work which no art historian can afford to ignore, but which will inevitably present some difficulties to the nonspecialist who lacks the relevant knowledge of languages and of monuments. For though the book is generously supplied with 346 illustrations in black and white and sixteen color plates there are inevitably still many works mentioned or even described for which the conscientious reader would have to turn to a specialized library.

Even in such a library, however, the layman may be in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees, for the author takes it for granted that the wood is known to his readers. By the wood I mean the history of the classical idiom in European art in which Rubens plays such a dominant part. The range of this idiom, as Aby Warburg was the first to emphasize, extends from the calm dignity of ancient statuary to the wild frenzy of Bacchic revels and murderous battles. The assimilation of these pagan forms and contents starts, of course, with the Renaissance, and the prestige of works “in the ancient manner” secured the spread of this imagery from monumental decoration to such minor arts as majolica and metal work. In the years of Rubens’s apprenticeship these displays of contorted nudes were as fashionable in the courtly arts of the North as they were in Italy. Even so it must have been a revelation to Rubens, when, on taking up his appointment as the court painter of the Gonzagas in Mantua, he first set eyes on the great paganizing cycles by Giulio Romano in the Palazzo del Tè and the Ducal Residence.

Not that Jaffé ignores the importance of this encounter for Rubens. He writes eloquently that a “conspicuously productive part of his universal nature had been nourished by Giulio’s abundance,” but this abundance is taken as read. Here as elsewhere his text keeps to proven examples of works Rubens copied or used rather than to the impact which must have been made on the young artist by these carousing nymphs and satyrs and the fierce battle friezes which sometimes look like Rubens avant la lettre. If an antidote was required for the coarseness of Giulio’s sensuality, it was also at hand in Mantua in the compositions by the most delicate of the Renaissance paganizers, Correggio. Here one may even wonder whether one of these famous allegories for the grotta in Mantua might not have directly inspired Rubens. The torturing of the satyr, as an embodiment of vice (now in the Louvre), seems to foreshadow in composition and in mood Rubens’s painting of Hercules and Omphale of about 1602.

Admittedly such a dependence is less certain than are the studies after Correggio that Jaffé pinpoints, and it is again on these that he likes to concentrate. The organization of his book demands that he should review the leading Italian masters one by one for what Rubens may have taken from them. Starting with Michelangelo, and proceeding to Raphael, whose importance for Rubens he rightly emphasizes, he goes on to Leonardo, Andrea del Sarto, Correggio, Parmigianino, Titian, Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, only then to Mantegna and Giulio Romano, and finally on to the Mannerists and the contemporaries of Rubens including the leading masters of his time in Rome, Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio. It is only after this detailed and fruitful scrutiny of possible sources for Rubens’s art that we return to the theme of Rubens in Italy, his activities as a portraitist, and—rather strangely placed in the book—his studies of the antique and his antiquarian interests.

Biographically the most detailed of the chapters, well supported by archival material, concerns Rubens’s work for the Oratorians in Rome toward the end of his stay when he was recognized by Italian connoisseurs and patrons as a rising star—having established a reputation which could not be effaced by his precipitate departure from Italy at the news that his mother was dying. He returned to Antwerp, his mind stocked with impressions he had absorbed in Italy, a store of images on which he could draw for the rest of his life and which he could share with his pupils and collaborators.

It is with this development that Jaffé’s book is mainly concerned, and its outstanding contribution lies in the thorough documentation of this strange process. I call it strange, because it turns out that the method of study Rubens adopted must have differed radically from that of the average Northerner who crossed the Alps in order to master the fashionable style of the Italians. It is true that Rubens, like the rest of them, had grounded his training on the copying of prints and had subsequently gone to the sights in order to study at first hand the Sistine Ceiling, the Stanze, or the Laocoon. But it seems that his attitude was not merely that of an apprentice trying to learn the formulas of the masters. From the outset his copies are less concerned with accurate imitation than with assimilation. He transposed his model into his own visual idiom—not incidentally, as may be unavoidable, but systematically and apparently with relish.

The reader may be forgiven if he is somewhat skeptical at first when confronted with the assertion that the copies Rubens made as a boy after Holbein’s Dance of Death show “an astonishing increase in vitality,” and that his drawing after a portrait by the same artist “distinguishes itself from Holbein’s original neither in quality nor in scale nor really in technique, but in the idiosyncratic rhythms of the silhouettes and in the subtleties of modeling in chiaroscuro.” Could such judgments not be attributed to the author’s partiality for his hero? But the further we read the more we become persuaded that this creative copying is indeed distinctive of Rubens’s personality.

To mention but two instances: we learn that he “felt free to transform the character of Raphael’s design, both physiognomically and in the more lavish display of the roundings of the black-haired Grace,” and of Rubens’s drawing after Titian’s Fall of Man that “the morphology and the muscling of the bodies are subtly but unmistakably his. His is the new rhythm in the tree trunk, the new turn of Eve’s left arm and wrist, and the new tension in the gesture of protest by Adam’s left arm.” Even these examples, however, hardly prepare us for one of the main themes of Jaffé’s book, the way Rubens transformed existing drawings not in copying them but in working them over with brush or chalk.

Jaffé quotes the observation of the great eighteenth-century connoisseur Mariette who wrote that “when Rubens came across mediocre or badly preserved drawings after the great masters he took pleasure in retouching them, transforming them according to his personal taste, so that these drawings can be regarded as the products of that great man himself.” Many examples of this procedure are listed and analyzed in this book. A drawing by Farinati in pen and wash with hatchings of white (not illustrated) “has been largely converted by Rubens, brushing on a brown ink, with rose and pale buff body colors, to his own forms and rhythms.” Dull copies after Giulio Romano’s Triumph of Sigismund “show over many areas the enlivening touch of Rubens’s brush…in order to increase the intensity of expression or the elasticity of tread.” It appears that he did not even hesitate to subject not copies but master drawings to this treatment. A drawing of the Expulsion by Salviati “is the scene of great liberties. Rubens invested the bodies of our first parents with a plastic fullness and force unforeseen by the sixteenth century.”

In his catalogue of the Rubens exhibition at the British Museum, which included a good many such copies and retouched drawings, John Rowlands rightly remarks that “we might perhaps regard such tampering as amounting to little short of vandalism,” but assures us that any objections will be quietened by the results. No doubt; but what is their secret? Certainly Rubens’s approach to the works of his predecessors totally differs from the drudgery which was expected of any apprentice-painter bent on mastering the craft. He did not only copy or trace to practice his hand and eye or to extend his vocabulary. He evidently enjoyed testing his creative prowess in these encounters with his predecessors as he watched a new life entering these comparatively inert images. Dare one suggest that psychologically these transformations may not be all that far removed from the vandalism that indulges with more or less wit in the alteration of posters on display? They were also an exercise of power, but what turned the process into a “permitted pleasure” was the master’s conviction that they also resulted in a real improvement.

Steeped as we are in historical relativism the very idea of improving a work of the past must strike us as bizarre. It is all the more noteworthy that this possibility was admitted right into the middle of the nineteenth century and precisely in the context under discussion. John Constable’s friend and biographer C.R. Leslie writes in his Handbook for Young Painters (1855), “The coloring and harmony of Rubens, instead of injuring the dignity of Raphael, would, if applied with the discrimination with which Raphael was sure to apply them to his works, unite with it and add to their value. Imagine, for instance, the ‘Galatea’ with the tone and harmony of a Rubens, and the image of a work is immediately presented to the mind of far greater perfection than that picture in its present state.”

Now this idea of an objective improvement may conceivably even affect the problems of the connoisseur, for if this was how Rubens saw the matter, can we quite exclude the possibility of his having occasionally encouraged his own students to follow his pratice? It is clear on the other hand that the ability to impart the “life-giving touch” was most vital to the head of the workshop who had found a means of improving and transforming the hackwork of apprentices. Whether the master invariably reserved this privilege to himself is again a matter for connoisseurs to worry about.

One thing is sure. Rubens thought deeply about the rights and wrongs of copies and transformations. That great champion of his art, the French critic Roger de Piles, has preserved for us in his Cours de Peinture (1708) a Latin essay by the master on “The Imitation of Ancient Statues.” Rubens shared the conviction of his age that classical sculpture reflected a human physique healthier and more beautiful than could be found in the modern age and he had no doubt that these works should be assiduously studied, indeed “imbibed”; but he also warned against certain pernicious effects which had led some artists to ruin. For “some inexperienced and even experienced masters fail to distinguish the form from the material” so that their paintings (as de Piles’s eighteenth-century English translator puts it) “smell of the stone.” “Instead of imitating flesh they only represent marble tinged with various colors.” Statues show harsh and dark shadows, while with the living body “the flesh, skin and cartilages, by their diaphanous nature soften, as it were, the harshness of a great many outlines…. There are, besides, certain places in the natural, which change their figure according to the various motions of the body, and, by reason of the flexibility of the skin, are sometimes dilated, and at other times contracted…. To this we must add, that not only the shade, but also the lights of statues are extremely different from the natural; for the gloss of the stone…raises the surface above its proper pitch” and dazzles the eye.

No explanation could be better suited to help those who want to find their way through the wood. For here is the summing up of what Rubens had tried to achieve in Italy and what he asked others to achieve—the transmutation of the classical idiom into living flesh. Coming from the tradition of the North which had for centuries paid special attention to surface qualities, to the play of light on various textures, he admired the art of the South, its mastery of form and of movement, but he did not allow himself to be overwhelmed or “led to ruin.” It is likely that he would have found even Michelangelo’s paintings wanting in attention to the everchanging modulations of the human skin. Most, if not all, of his transformations and retouchings show him improving this impression of mobility and transparency to which he attaches such importance. Indeed it is this characteristic of his nudes to which upholders of the academic ideal have implicitly or explicitly objected. The notorious complaint that the women Rubens painted are so “fat” rests perhaps less on their vital statistics than on an unconscious comparison with ancient statues.

Kenneth Clark (to whom Jaffé’s book is dedicated) subtly discerned, in The Nude, the role of movement in this impression. “That suggestion of movement flowing across a torso, which, in the female body, antiquity had rendered by the device of clinging drapery, Rubens could reveal by the wrinkles and puckers of delicate skin, stretched or relaxed,” in other words by the surface qualities on which he wanted the painter to focus his attention after he had first “imbibed” the form of the antique. A study of his drawings and particularly his unfinished sketches reveals to what an extent he followed this precept. We find him first roughing out the outlines in a vigorous brush drawing, often in brown; next he generally models the form by shading, after which he brings the surface to life by a judicious distribution of whites. Not that this “three stage method” is peculiar to Rubens alone, but in his hand it reveals the power of defeating the rigidity of the frozen moment. For this, after all, is the paradox of painting, that it is meant to capture life in a “still.” Nobody can find the world of Rubens motionless. Fat or lean, his figures palpitate with life.

Who can doubt that it gave Rubens immense pleasure every time to work this magic, that what inspired him above all was, in Keith Roberts’s happy phrase, “love of the art and act of painting”? It may seem redundant to quote sources where the works themselves proclaim this fact, but de Piles confirms our intuition. “Since he took extreme pleasure in his work”—he says of Rubens—“he lived in such a way that he could work easily without impairing his health.” We are no longer used to associating artistic creation with enjoyment and with health, and there can have been few visitors to Antwerp who were not occasionally troubled by the fleeting suspicion that Rubens was more robust than was good for his art. But it is precisely these thoughts that were banished by the delicacy of his touch in his sketches and charcoal drawings, by the landscape sketches (of which London has an abundance), and most of all, perhaps, by the encounter with the self-portraits, notably the drawing from the Louvre, shown at Antwerp, and the slight but infinitely moving sketch from Windsor Castle shown in London, which probably dates from the last year of his life.

The fact is that the art of Rubens more, perhaps, than any but that of Watteau, who learned so much from him, relies for its effects, as we have seen, on the most subtle modulation of surfaces. Alas, painting is an impermanent art. Dirt and varnish can interfere with the delicate interaction of tones on which the enchantment of Rubens’s style depends, and brutal overcleaning can kill it altogether. There were opportunities in Antwerp to study both types of disaster, not only at the exhibition but also in many churches where important paintings by the master had been polished up for the occasion. By and large it looked as if the paintings on loan from the other side of the Iron Curtain had fared best. The masterpieces from Dresden and from the Hermitage inspire confidence.

But if it is hard today to find one of Rubens’s large compositions which still convinces by its tonal harmony and its surface sparkle, what should one say of color reproductions in which the hazards are compounded? The color plates in Jaffé’s book certainly deserve praise. A judicious choice of subjects avoids the impossible and achieves the difficult. In the other two books mentioned caution is thrown to the wind, and so results vary from near-success to total disaster. One important factor here is scale. Even an exact facsimile matching every tone will look different when reduced or enlarged. It is hard to see, therefore, why M. Baudouin’s book illustrates the portrait drawings of Rubens’s boy Nicolaas as monstrous enlargements. Some of the details of paintings in the same volume, such as the heads of the double portraits of Rubens and Isabella Brant in Munich, can give much pleasure, and so do other individual heads reproduced close to the original size. Several of the smaller sketches look convincing and even the so-called Chapeau de Paille from the National Gallery nearly comes off, while that miracle of a painting, the Château de Steen in the same gallery, loses all its magic.

This painting offers a good test case for the book introduced by Keith Roberts, since it so happens that it is there reproduced as a whole and in two details. In making this choice the publishers have surely given hostages to fortune; at any rate the details and the whole simply do not match. One only wonders which is less faithful to the original. Visiting the National Gallery in London with this volume under one’s arm may be an unfair test, but it certainly leaves one depressed. The “Rubens Menu” has largely been drowned in tomato sauce. In charity one may admit that some of the drawings have fared better, but should one even be charitable? No one—one hopes—would do this to Watteau. They should not do it to Rubens either.

This Issue

March 9, 1978