Rubens and his Legacy @ The Royal Academy

This is a large exhibition in terms of number of items, but a vast one in terms of scope. It sets out to track the legacy of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), one of the most influential of all western artists, and makes large claims for his impact on a wide range of genres and painters in every European country.

As it is setting out to demonstrate his impact and legacy, the majority of the pictures (and sketches and engravings) in the exhibition are not by Rubens; in some of the rooms it feels like only 3 or 4 out of 20 items are by Peter Paul (PP). Most of them are by the contemporaries or later artists who followed in his footsteps. It might be possible to misread the posters and publicity and feel a bit cheated…

Nonetheless, as the exhibition proceeds, its curators’ intentions are to some extent fulfilled, insofar as you do start to genuinely see Rubens’s influence – in composition and colour and treatment – in a growing number of the paintings by other artists. You begin to have an intimidating sense of the breadth and depth of his legacy. (And, from the enjoyment point of view, many of the works by other artists are masterpieces in their own right, a pleasure to see whatever the context.)

The audioguide (26 items, 50 minutes) claims that without Rubens, no rococo, no romanticism, no impressionism. Bold claim: is it justified?

Poetry

The exhibition is divided into six themes. By ‘poetry’, the curators mean landscape. Early on the commentary makes an amusing statement of national stereotypes. Apparently, English painters took from Rubens his techniques in landscape, the French were interested in his treatment of love and eroticism, the Spanish copied his Counter-Reformation religious drama, and Germans liked the virility and pathos of his paintings. Each conforming to type, then.

The exhibition starts with ‘the English theme’, Rubens’s treatment of landscape. We are shown a Rubens landscape with carters and are told that the left side of the picture is in moonlight, the right side in sunlight, impossible in reality, but adding drama to an otherwise mundane scene. Near it the curators hang similar subjects by the English landscapists Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, among others – notably Constable’s full-size oil sketch for The Haywain. Rubens dramatised landscape, the moonlight-sunlight being an example. Another popular one was showing a landscape just after a rainstorm has ended, leaving a brilliant rainbow behind. There’s a Rubens showing just such a post-storm rainbow – and then a number of examples showing how English artists copied him. Constable, in particular, explicitly praised Rubens composition and colour in his notebooks. (Apparently Constable is famous for his use of red and the commentary says he copied this from Rubens). The section on Constable reinforced the impression gained from the recent Constable exhibition of how artful and calculating an artist he was.

Rubens to one side, I enjoyed many of the works by other artists on show in this room, including a wonderful sketch by Gainsborough, The Harvest Wagon, notable for its handling of the human figures, a cartoon, Daumier-like precision of shape and line and action. Also – very English – for its modesty.

The Garden of Love

Like many of Rubens’ larger paintings, the hugely influential Garden of Love is drenched in allegory and classical models: the elaborate architecture, the flying putti, the statue of Jove, queen of the gods, squeezing water from her ample breasts. Beneath them, in their shade and protection, these flirting mortals are featuring in one of the first ever scenes of contemporary people enjoying leisure time outdoors. Previously it was gods or military heroes or landscapes with peasants. Here are real people – albeit well-off people – but still real contemporaries, wearing contemporary costume, flirting and partying in the open air.

Peter Paul Rubens  The Garden of Love, c. 1633  Oil on canvas, 199 x 286 cm  Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid  Photo c. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Love, c. 1633
Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid

This painting bewitched the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who went on to develop his own style of light-hearted love scenes set outdoors. The argument goes: Rubens invented Watteau who invented the fetes galantes, inaugurating the age of rococo art in France.

More examples of Rubens, such as Chateau In A Park, are set against numerous sketches and oil paintings by Watteau, including the wonderful La Surprise, as well as works by other 18th century rococo painters such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Jean-Antoine Watteau  La Surprise: A Couple Embracing While a Figure Dressed as mezzetin Tunes a Guitar, 1718-19  Oil on panel, 36.3 x 28.2 cm  Private Collection  Photo: Private Collection

Jean-Antoine Watteau
La Surprise: A Couple Embracing While a Figure Dressed as mezzetin Tunes a Guitar, (1718-19)
Private Collection

Elegance

By which the curators mean portraiture. Rubens spent four years in Genoa (then a city made rich by trade in silks and fabrics) painting the wives of the richest bankers and merchants. The largest example of this period is the portrait of Marchesa Maria Grimaldi, and Her Dwarf – an ugly painting but, wow, the detailing of the gold cloth of her dress is amazing and lustrous in reality (reproductions completely fail to capture it). Note the classical columns (aren’t I classy) and the rich velvet curtain (aren’t I rich) and the bounding little dog (aren’t I sensitive).

The most direct influence of Rubens’s portrait style was on Anthony van Dyck, child prodigy and Rubens’s pupil, working directly under him in Antwerp before himself travelling to Genoa to make money. Van Dyck toned Rubens down, his portraits are cooler, more detached. In the Genoese Noblewoman and her Son, we have the classical architecture in the background and the luxury curtain (aren’t I cultured and rich) but the sitter is side on to the viewer, that much more self-contained, less revealing (aren’t I aloof). The boy is staring at us with the look of command and authority he is destined to grow into, and the dog is looking up at his future master. The thing is dripping with multiple layers of power and authority.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck  A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son, c. 1626  Oil on canvas, 191.5 x 139.5 cm  National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection, 1942.9.91  Photo Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Sir Anthony Van Dyck
A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son, c. 1626
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection

Van Dyck came to the court of Charles I (generally thought to have been the most genuinely cultivated of all British monarchs and who was rewarded for it by having his head cut off) and was knighted for his services to the crown and aristocracy. Van Dyck forged an image of Charles as the tall (he was short), wise (he was stupid), and authoritative (he alienated everyone who ever served him) ruler that he wasn’t.

The commentary made the striking claim that van Dyck invented the English gentleman which, if you’re familiar with his portraits of the English aristocracy, is at least plausible.

Back with PP, the exhibition is making the claim that Rubens is the father of the grand British portrait, and sets off to prove it by placing his huge portrait with dwarf opposite a selection of equally imposing portraits of rich people by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Thomas Lawrence, portraitists to the British upper classes from the 1770s to the 1830s. The examples here – say, Elizabeth Lamb Viscountess Melbourne with her son – are very large like the Rubens originals, they keep an architectural frame and a drape, but they are less sumptuous and rich, the colour is drabber, and the background is, in line with the English fondness for landscape, a realistic slice of countryside, presumably the estate of this rich woman.

Or take Thomas Lawrence’s Portrait of Mrs Arthur Annesley, a big slab of classical architecture, but with quite an extensive view over the estate on the right, and the painting dominated by sweet little darling children, appropriate to the Age of Sentiment.

Power

The previous rooms feel like they’ve been warming us up for the heart of the exhibition, two rooms dedicated to Rubens’s work as a propagandist of genius. It is staggering to be reminded all over again of his achievements completely outside the realm of art, for Rubens was also a diplomat, a spy and an antiquarian – a figure famous across Europe. Rather as with The Garden of Love, mentioned above, his achievement in political painting was to integrate classical mythology with everday reality, in this case with accurate depictions of living contemporary rulers, and to set both in a convincing space and tableau.

His masterpiece is the series of massive 24 paintings showing the career of Marie de Medicis and her husband, King Henri IV of France. A room is dedicated to a small selection of the numerous preparatory sketches Rubens made, and to an enormous screen projecting a video compilation of the finished paintings which currently hang in the Louvre. They are overwhelming, brilliant, vast, powerful in conception and in their myriad of details

Peter Paul Rubens  The Triumph of Henri IV, 1630  Oil on panel, 49.5 x 83.5 cm  Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942 (42.187) Photo c. 2013. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

Peter Paul Rubens
The Triumph of Henri IV, 1630
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942 (42.187)

Also in the same room and given the same treatment is the immense roof of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, London, which can still be seen today. It is covered in its entirety by scenes painted by Rubens and commissioned by Charles I to depict the power and glory of his father, King James I of Britain. It, also, is a commanding series of images, though less overwhelming than the Medici ones – and its impact slightly spoiled for anyone who knows that the paintings were still not complete when Charles I was led from that very room onto a scaffold built along the first floor of the building, to be beheaded. Absolute Monarchy, English style.

Hundreds of painters copied the example Rubens set of lending mythological force and dramatic mises-en-scenes to the depiction of contemporary rulers, from the Sun King to Hitler. The results are splendid but may be the most antipathetic to English taste…

Compassion

Or at least that’s what I thought till I entered the 5th room, which is about religion. Rubens was a devout Catholic and painter to the Counter-Reformation authorities. Ah. The largest Rubens in the room is the altarpiece Christ On the Straw, in which I found all the faults I dislike about most Christian art (and which I loathed in the recent Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery) – sentimental, lachrymose, stagey, inauthentic and banal.

There were lots of copies of this image, or something like it, by numerous subsequent artists, from David Wilkie doing the Grand Tour to Vincent van Gogh (!). Maybe the only one I liked was another sketch by Gainsborough, Descent from the Cross (after Sir Peter Paul Rubens). Seems to me Gainsborough expresses compassion in the shape and flow of the composition – the agony is implied, unlike the Rubens original where the white operatic faces are white with extreme emotion, the eyes drenched with tears and turned imploringly up to an angel-infested heaven.

Violence

Hell Along with the sentimentalism it evokes around the story of the crucifixion, Christianity is also famous for the extreme violence of much of its imagery of revenge, and the weakest room in the exhibition is devoted to these images which take their cue from Rubens’ large and vividly imagined Fall of The Damned. Shame we couldn’t see the original, which is in a church in Germany to terrify the faithful. The engravings and copies here show the delight in a multitude of grisly physical tortures which always tickle the Christian imagination (Dante’s Inferno) but not the sense of falling into the picture and joining the devilish throng which the original was presumably designed to make you feel.

Rape The violence of the religious imagination is set by the curators next to the popular of myths and legends about the rape or abduction of women in classical mythology, which Rubens depicted repeatedly, along with his copiers and devotees – The Rape of Proserpina, The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. These compositions are stagey, operatic, full of carefully arranged violence, at the centre of which are plump women with their clothes falling off. Various reviews mention how uncomfortable the British have been with elements of Rubens’s legacy, and I personally dislike this and the religious iconography, both, for shamelessly exploiting the viewer. With a landscape I feel my aesthetic sense is being appealed to. With a painting of Mary bursting into tears or scantily clad women being abducted by musclemen in armour I feel much baser emotions are being aimed at.

The Hunt Another room was dominated by Rubens’s very big painting of a Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (1617) and around it hung works showing the way this scene – the full drama of the capture of a large, exotic, wild animal – was repeated with variations by painters like Eugène Delacroix and the Englishman Sir Edwin Landseer. It was Delacroix, apparently, who said: ‘Be inspired by Rubens, copy Rubens, look at Rubens.’

Lust

We arrive, exhausted with sensual overload, at the final room which has numerous paintings of scantily clad women being leered at, or just about to be seized by, a satyr. The women are notable for their large thighs, buttocks and bellies and relatively small breasts, as in the Pan and Syrinx of 1617.

Peter Paul Rubens  Pan and Syrinx, 1617  Oil on panel, 40 x 61 cm  Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel  Photo: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister/Ute Brunzel

Peter Paul Rubens
Pan and Syrinx, 1617
Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel

The women are always painted as pink and light-skinned, symbolising their purity and innocence. The pans or satyrs are super-muscular figures, their sunburnt skins darkening towards their crotch, wherein lies the source of lust and the hellish pleasures which will buy their owners a one-way ticket to the Fall of Damned, mentioned above.

It was interesting to learn how Rubens used a variety of tints to create the appearance of flesh, including the use of blue or green tints to imply shadowed skin, next to unshadowed pink or white.

And it was interesting to see a roomful of works depicting the same subject by Watteau, Boucher, Renoir and Picasso – but whether this is due to Rubens’ influence or to the abiding interest in revealing the naked female body to the male artist’s male patrons and buyers, to the male gaze generally – is open to debate.

Certainly a room full of predatory, half-bestial men caught in the act of preying on exaggeratedly innocent, wide-eyed maidens left me feeling queasy and was maybe not the best final image to have of Rubens.

But this exhibition, exhaustive and exhausting, succeeds, and then some, in convincing you that Rubens was one of the most important and influential painters in western art.

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