Symbolist Art by Edward Lucie-Smith (1972)

Symbolist art does not depict nature as it actually exists, but brings together various impressions received by the mind of the artist, to create a new and different world, governed by its own subjective mood. (p.151)

Although this book is 45 years-old, I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop to compare and contrast with Michael Gibson’s account of Symbolism. Gibson’s massive books is packed with brilliant full-colour reproductions but, as I read it, I did increasingly find myself wondering where ‘Symbolism’ ended and where the simply fantastic or morbid or sensationalist began. So I read this book to further explore whether Symbolism was really a movement in a narrow definable way – or is just the word given to a kind of mood or feeling of other-worldliness apparent in a huge range of artists between about 1880 and 1910.

The World of Art series

Symbolist Art is a typical product of Thames and Hudson’s renowned ‘World of Art series’ in that, although there are 185 illustrations, only 24 of them are in colour. So you’re not buying it for the pictures, which can be better seen, in full colour, in numerous other books (or online); you’re buying it for the text.

Edward Lucie-Smith

Lucie-Smith was born in 1933 and is still alive (aged 84). Public school, Oxford, the RAF during the war, then freelance poet, art critic, essayist, author and curator, he has written over 100 books. His book comes over as significantly more learned and informative than Gibson’s.

Symbolism in Renaissance painting

He starts with a basic consideration of symbols in art starting back in the Renaissance. Renaissance art is packed with symbols – classical gods and goddesses are accompanied by their attributes, kings and queens are shown in allegorical paintings accompanied by war or peace or the triumph of the arts and so on.

To get the most out of Renaissance art you undoubtedly have to have a good eye for its religious, political and cultural symbolism. For example, spot the symbolism in this masterpiece by Rubens.

(In this picture the portrait of Marie de’ Medici – daughter of the Grandduke of Tuscany – is being presented to Henry IV, the king of France, and her future husband. The gods of marriage and love – Hymen and Amor (Cupid), to the left and right – hover in midair. From up in heaven the king and queen of the gods, Jupiter and Juno, look down in approval. Jupiter’s symbol, the eagle of war, clutching lightning bolts in his talons, is literally being squeezed out of the picture, to the left, while Juno’s symbols, the peacocks of love and peace strut (the male) and look down at the scene of love (the female). A pink ribbon symbolising their marriage binds them together. The chariot the peahen sits in bears a gold relief on the front showing Cupid standing on/triumphing over (another) eagle, and holding a garland (symbol of marriage). Behind Henry stands the personification of France, wearing French blue silk embroidered with gold fleur-de-lys (the coat of arms of the French monarchy). She is reassuring Henry that it is a good match for the nation. The burning town in the distance and the dark clouds to the left of the picture, beneath the eagle, symbolise War, as do the helmet and shield at the foot of the painting. These must all be abandoned so that Henry can concentrate on the lighter, feminine arts of peace, subtly emphasised by the light source for the whole scene coming from the right, the side of the Future, peace and harmony.)

Lucie-Smith draws the distinction between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ symbolism.

Open symbolism is the use of publicly available and traditional imagery. All of the symbolism in the Rubens picture is ‘open’ in the sense that any educated person could spot it.

Closed symbolism refers to ‘secret’ knowledge, available only to ‘initiates’. Renaissance and post-Renaissance art features numerous painters who included closed symbolism in their works: some has been investigated and explicated by later scholars; some remains obscure to this day.

Watteau

In other words, symbolism as a strategy or technique, is absolutely intrinsic to the Western artistic tradition.

What Lucie-Smith brings out is the strand of artists over the past few hundred years who brought something extra to the idea: who incorporated open symbolism or straightforward allegory (where x stands for y, where, for example, an hourglass stands for ‘Time’), but something else as well.

He takes an example from the wonderful Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). On the face of it Watteau was painting fashionable fête galantes for the French aristocracy, scenes of dressing up and carefree flirtations in an idealised classical setting, thus:

Yet (apart from the fabulous rhythmic compositions, the draughtsmanship of the figures, the wonderful use of colour) what makes Watteau ‘magical’ is the sense he achieves of a deeper meaning which somehow diffuses a mysterious influence around itself. According to Lucie-Smith, Watteau:

had already abandoned conventional allegory in favour of a use of symbolism which was more pervasive, more powerful and more mysterious. (p.21)

Something else is conveyed above and beyond the ostensible subject and its over symbolism. Somehow it achieves a sense of mystery.

The Romantic roots of Symbolism

There follows a chapter about Romanticism, a movement which I, personally, find boring, maybe because I’ve read too much about it and seen too many times the same old paintings by Fuseli (The Nightmare), Goya (The sleep of reason produces monsters) or Caspar David Friedrich (The Cross in the mountains).

Lucie-Smith’s purpose is to show that ‘Romanticism’ is (quite obviously) the godfather to modern Symbolism – in its use of obscure but meaningful images, nightmares and dreams, scary women and looming monsters – in the use of pseudo-religious imagery which has lost its literal meaning but acquired a spooky, Gothic, purely imaginative resonance.

Victorian symbolists

The next chapter looks at symbolist currents in British art during the 19th century, starting with the self-taught mythomane, William Blake. It then moves on to consider the group of artists who claimed to be his followers and called themselves ‘the Ancients’, including Edward Calvert and the wonderful Samuel Palmer, with his strange visionary depictions of rural Kent (Coming from Evening Church).

Then we arrive at the pre-Raphaelites. Lucie-Smith identifies Dante Gabriel Rossetti as the most ‘symbolist’ of these young idealistic painters, not least because his technique was quite limited. Rossetti wasn’t very good at perspective or realistic settings and so his mature paintings often have a vague, misty background which helps to emphasise the ‘timeless other-worldliness’ of the main subject (generally cupid-lipped, horse-necked ‘stunners’ [as the lads used to call them] as in Astarte Syriaca).

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Burne-Jones and Watts

Lucie-Smith credits Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) with developing the medieval and dream-like elements of pre-Raphaelitism to their fullest extent and in so doing creating a stream of late works devoted to expressionless women moving through heavily meaningful landscapes.

Burne-Jones exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889, where he won a first-class medal. (Intriguing to think the Impressionists were almost entirely excluded from this show and forced to mount an exhibition at the nearby Café Volpini – as described in in Belinda Thompson’s book about the Post-Impressionists.)

French symbolist artists were well aware of Burne-Jones’s work. But the most overtly ‘symbolist’ of the late Victorian artists was George Frederick Watts. He was quite clear about his intentions and his own words give quite a good summary of the symbolist impulse:

I paint ideas, not things. I paint primarily because I have something to say, and since the gift of eloquent language has been denied me, I use painting; my intention is not so much to paint pictures which shall please the eye, as to suggest great thoughts which shall speak to the imagination and to the heart and arouse all that is best and noblest in humanity. (quoted page 47)

His many contemporary fans and supporters considered Watts a ‘seer’ and suggested his work be hung in a temple not a gallery (an ambition which sort of came true with the dedication of his final home and studio in the village of Compton, Surrey, to his work, a venue you can now visit – the Watts Gallery).

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

‘The dweller of the innermost’ is obviously someone important, and something very meaningful is going on in this painting – but who? and what?

Symbolism

All this background is covered in the first 50 pages of this 220-page book in order to get us to the Symbolist movement proper.

Symbolism in the narrow sense was a literary movement, embodied in the poetry of Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé in the 1870s and 1880s. They used real world images but set in shimmering, vague and allusive contexts. By the late 1880s this kind of literary worldview overlapped strongly with a revival of a so-called ‘decadent’ style, in both writing and painting. It was largely to distinguish between the two outlooks that the minor poet Jean Moréas in 1886 wrote the essay which introduced the term ‘symbolist’ and ‘symbolism’.

According to Moréas, both symbolism and decadence turned away from the oppressive mundaneness of the everyday bourgeois world but whereas the symbolists emphasized dreams and ideals, the Decadents cultivated heavily ornamented or hermetic styles and morbid subject matter.

Lucie-Smith asserts that the first phase of symbolism lasted from Moréas’s 1886 essay until he himself rejected the name in 1891. Its central figure was the poet Mallarmé. Lucie-Smith lists the qualities of Mallarmé’s poetry, and points out how they can also be found in the symbolist painters of the day:

  • deliberate ambiguity
  • hermeticism (i.e. closed to easy interpretation)
  • use of the symbol as catalyst i.e. to prompt a reaction in the soul of the beholder
  • the idea that art exists in a world separate and apart from the everyday one
  • synthesis not analysis i.e. while the Impressionists analysed light and its effects, the symbolists brought together elements of the real world – from tradition, myth and legends – into strange and new combinations or syntheses

An important element of synthesis was not only the unexpected combination of real-world elements, but the notion that all the arts could and should borrow from each other. Symbolism always hovered around the idea of a ‘total work of art’ which combines music, dance, art, even smells and touches. Everyone in the 1880s was entranced by Wagner’s massive operas which aspired to just this condition of being Gesamtkunstwerks or ‘total works of art’. The idea was very powerful and lingered through to the First World War – the Russian composer Scriabin composed works deliberately designed to evoke colourful fantasias and artists like Wassily Kandinsky in the 1900s theories about the closeness of painting and music.

Here’s a Symbolist depiction of the hero of one of Wagner’s massive operas, the pure and holy knight Parsifal.

Gustave Moreau (1826-98)

Moreau is the painter most associated with the first phase of Symbolism. He developed an ornate jewel-studded style of treating subjects from the Bible or classical legend.

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Reviewing the Salon of 1880, the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans singled out Moreau’s work for being mysterious and disturbing. Four years later in his classic novel A Rebours, which describes a decadent aristocrat who retires to his country house to cultivate sensual pleasures and experiences, Huysmans singled out Moreau as the patron painter of his decadent lifestyle, using a lexicon of late-19th century decadent terms: Moreau’s art is ‘disquieting… sinister… sorrowful symbols of superhuman perversities’ and so on.

Of his own painting Jupiter and Semele, Moreau wrote:

It is an ascent towards superior spheres, a rising up of superior beings towards the Divine – terrestrial death and apotheosis in Immortality. The great Mystery completes itself, the whole of nature is impregnated with the ideal and the divine, everything is transformed. (quoted page 66)

That gives you a strong sense of Symbolist rhetoric.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

Huysmans also includes Redon in his short list of artists favoured in the country sensorium of his decadent hero, Des Esseintes. Redon seems to me by far the more symbolist painter of the two, and the polar opposite of Moreau. Whereas Moreau paints relatively conventional mythical subjects in a super-detail-encrusted fashion, Redon strips away all detail to portray the subject in a genuinely mysterious and allusive simplicity.

Redon wrote of his own work:

The sense of mystery is a matter of being all the time amid the equivocal, in double and triple aspects, and hints of aspects (images within images), forms which are coming to birth according to the state of mind of the observer. (quoted page 76)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98)

Puvis wanted to revive the academic tradition and his compositions of figures in landscapes in one way hearken back to the posed landscapes of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1661). But he did so in a strange dreamlike way which pointed forward, towards the semi-abstraction of Cézanne. He wrote to a friend that he preferred low skies, solitary plains, bad weather – a temperament which resulted in melancholy often mysterious paintings.

I don’t like Puvis because of what I take to be his rather ropey draughtsmanship – his figures seem angular and uncomfortable, especially the faces.

Eugène Carrière (1849-1906)

Lucie-Smith doesn’t like Carrière much because he developed one subject – family members, especially mother and baby – and painted them over and over again, in a very distinctive way, as if seen through a thick brown mist. I can see how this would quickly grow tiresome, but in brief selections Carriere comes over as a powerful element of the symbolist scene.

At about this point in the book it struck me that a quick way of distinguishing between post-Impressionist and Symbolist painters is that the former were experimenting with ways of depicting reality, whereas the latter are experimenting with ways to try and depict what lies behind reality. Of the former, contemporary critics asked, ‘What is it meant to be depicting?’, of the latter they would ask, ‘I can see what it’s depicting – but what does it mean?’

Paul Gauguin and the Pont-Aven school

Gauguin the post-Impressionist is included? Yes, because in the several summers he spent painting at Pont-Aven in Brittany, Gauguin attracted young disciples who both inspired him to become more abstract and ‘primitive’, but also came back to Paris to spread his influence.

The young Paul Sérusier organised a group of like-minded young artists at the private art school of Rodolphe Julian, which included Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis – and christened them the ‘Nabis’ (Hebrew for ‘prophets’). Without really intending to, Gauguin found himself being lauded as a prophet to the Symbolists. When he set off for the Pacific he was given a going-away party by the Symbolists, presided over by Mallarmé himself.

Here’s a work from Gauguin’s South Sea period.

Lucie-Smith says it is symbolist work because it has mystery, ambiguity and is clearly an invitation to seek some deeper meaning lying beneath the surface. Well, yes… I find several works by other Nabis more convincingly symbolist:

Lucie-Smith devotes a chapter to the Salon of the Rose+Cross founded by Joséphin Péladan in 1892, which held a series of six exhibitions from 1892 to 1897 at which they invited Symbolist painters to exhibit. Featured artists included Arnold Böcklin, Fernand Khnopff, Ferdinand Hodler, Jan Toorop, Gaetano Previati, Jean Delville, Carlos Schwabe and Charles Filiger.

The Salon combined rituals and ideas from Medieval Rosicrucianism with elements of Kabbala and other aspects of esoteric lore. Charming and distracting though much of this arcane knowledge may be to devotees, it is also, at bottom, a profoundly useless waste of time and intellect. However, the Salon of the Rose+Cross’s practical impact was to bring together and promote a wide range of painters who shared the symbolist mindset:

More impressive are Soul of the Forest by Edgar Maxence (1898) and:

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)

An illustrator who created line drawings in black ink, Beardley’s big breakthrough came in 1894 when Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, was published in a version with Beardsley’s woodcuts and caused a succès de scandale. Well aware of fashionable taste, Beardsley tackled favourite Symbolist themes like the medieval dreamworld of King Arthur, the femme fatale, Wagner’s operas, and pretty risqué pornography, as in his illustrations to the classic play, Lysistrata.

Beardsley’s clarity of line and hard-edged arabesques make him one of the founders of Art Nouveau.

Symbolists in other countries

This summary only takes us up to half way through the book which beings to risk – like Gibson’s book – turning into simply a list of relevant painters with a paragraph or so on each.

Part of this is because Symbolism was so thoroughly international a style, with offshoots all across Europe. Lucie-Smith makes the point that it was a little like the Mannerism of the end of the 16th century – the product of a unified and homogenous culture, and of a social and artistic élite determined to emphasise the gap between itself – with all its sensitivity and refinement – and the ghastly mob, with its crude newspapers and penny-dreadful entertainments.

Later chapters describe the Symbolist artists of America, Holland (Jan Toorop, Johan Thorn Prikker),  Russia (Diaghilev, Bakst and the World of Art circle), Italy (Giovanni Segantini, Gaetano Previati), Czechoslovakia (Franz Kupka), Germany-Switzerland (Arnold Böckin, Max Klinger, Otto Greiner, Alfred Kubin, Ferdinand Hodler, Franz von Stuck).

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

I particularly liked:

The books ends with extended sections devoted to James Ensor, Edvard Munch (who Lucie-Smith considers the most avant-garde painter working anywhere in the mid-1890s) and Gustav Klimt.

Modernists who had symbolist phases

Like Gibson, Lucie-Smith points out that a number of the great Modernists first passed through identifiable symbolist phases before finding their final styles.

Two great examples are Wassily Kandinsky, whose pre-abstract paintings are admittedly influenced by Fauve and Divisionist techniques but as, Lucie-Smith points out, depict undeniably Arthurian and medieval subject matter, and so qualify for the symbolist team.

The other is Piet Mondrian, the Dutchman nowadays known for his black-lined grids of white squares and rectangles, enlivened with the occasional yellow or red exception. But before he perfected the style that made him famous (about 1914), Mondrian had gone through a florid Symbolist period in the 1910s – in fact he was a keen theosophist (member of a spiritual movement akin to Rosicrucianism).

In a final, surprise move, Lucie-Smith makes a claim for Picasso to have gone through a Symbolist phase, before becoming the father of modern art.

He quotes Evocation, which does look remarkably like something by Odilon Redon (Picasso was only 19 at the time) and whose subject is a characteristically fin-de-siecle one of suicide and death. Or take Life, which uses a handful of meaningful figures to address this rather large topic, not unlike the confessional approach of Edvard Munch just a few years earlier.

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Finale

As with Michael Gibson’s book, I felt that Lucie-Smith pulled in so many outriders and fringe symbolists that he watered down the core vision and essence of Symbolism.

Beardsley? Gauguin? Whistler? Ye-e-e-s… but no. Beardsley is an illustrator who anticipates Art Nouveau design. Gauguin is a post-Impressionist. Whistler is a type of Impressionist with little or no interest in ‘religion’ or ‘the beyond’…

But that is the difficulty with the Symbolism as an-ism, it is extremely broad and covers themes, topics, ideas which spilled over from earlier movements, spilled into contemporary movements, which touched artists (and illustrators and designers) of all types and genres. At its broadest, it was the spirit of the age. All we can say with complete certainty is that the Great War utterly destroyed it, and ushered in a new, anti-spiritual age, in literature, poetry, music and the visual arts.

And, turning back to the immense and beautifully illustrated Gibson coffee-table book, I’d say that if you were only going to own one of these books, Gibson’s is the one: Lucie-Smith’s text is thorough and informative but Gibson’s illustrations are to die for.


Related links

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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