by Roderick Conway Morris

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Light in the Darkest of Times

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 15 May 1999
Palazzo Pitti, Florence
The Three Graces by Rubens, 1620-23



Peter Paul Rubens reached the peak of his career during the Thirty Years War, one of the most bloody, wide-ranging and protracted conflicts in history.

But while European courts were busily promoting war, the genius of the northern baroque's studio in Antwerp practically became an alternative court devoted to the arts of peace, and one to which princes, generals and grandees flocked to pay their respects and purchase works. And such was his prestige that Rubens himself was in demand to undertake diplomatic missions.

Even when they were at war with one another, monarchs vied for the opportunity to have the same artist decorate their palaces and banqueting halls and to portray them in the same magnificent Rubens manner.

Rubens's triumphal progress outstripped anything achieved by kings and commanders on the battlefield, and by the time of his death in 1640 he was probably the most universally acclaimed man of the epoch. He is now the central figure of 'Rubens and His Age,' at the Palazzo dei Diamanti here (until June 27). Of more than 75 pictures on show, more than a score are by the master himself, with other contemporary artists well represented, including Van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens, who both worked in Rubens's studio.

The quality of the paintings on display - which include religious and mythological works, portraiture, still life, landscape and genre scenes - is generally high, and a large number come from private collections and from Mexico, which sent remarkable pieces, among them a stunning 'Portrait of a Spanish Nobleman,' whose author and sitter remain a mystery. (This picture is from the Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City, where an earlier version of the show was staged last winter.)

Returning to his hometown of Antwerp after an extended sojourn in Italy and an embassy to Spain, Rubens was prevailed upon to become court painter to the governors of the Spanish Netherlands, the Habsburg Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, lavish and enthusiastic patrons of the arts, who were engaged in making Spain's dominion in the Low Countries a showcase of the Catholic Reaction.

The Truce of 1609 brought temporary respite in the struggle between Spain and the rebellious Protestant United Provinces of the Dutch Republic to the north, but hostilities resumed in 1621.

Having been recovered from the secessionist United Provinces in 1585, Antwerp was geographically on the front line. But the decades-long wars between Spain and the Dutch were extraordinarily static. There was only one pitched battle in this theater of the Thirty Years War, near Antwerp in 1638, the rest of the fighting consisting of extended and incredibly costly sieges of heavily fortified towns, which left much of the rest of the Netherlands relatively unaffected.

Thus Rubens could continue to operate his studio, which would have been inconceivable in other war zones.

At one level Rubens became the supreme example of the human face of the Counter-Reformation, and the ideal exponent of the Jesuit program to propagate the faith through beauty and majesty in art and architecture. But his painting, as his Protestant admirers saw, transcended dogma, as was dazzlingly evident in his sumptuous nudes, the psychological depth of his portraiture and captivating landscapes.

Antwerp was in some respects in economic decline during this period, but Rubens, with his huge studio and phenomenal output, did much to maintain its international profile. Certainly paintings became one of its prime commodities. In Rubens's studio when he was not the sole author of a work the master did designs and personally 'finished' the pieces that had been executed mostly by his studio assistants. At the same time further copies were sometimes made by his collaborators for a less prosperous and less demanding clientele.

Other workshops in the city specialized in reproducing paintings by various leading artists, the notion of copyright then being in its infancy. Rubens supervised the making of his own prints, and numerous other workshops produced a huge quantity of engraved material, some popular images running into editions of several thousand, examples of both Rubens's own prints and many others reaching the most remote outposts of the colonial world.

As the war in Europe ground on year after year, Rubens continued to elaborate on his parallel universe - as Sir Kenneth Clark has written, he created 'a new, complete race of women' - where felicity, abundance, peace and harmony held sway. He did not live to see the Peace of Westphalia, which brought the conflict to an end and, among other things, final recognition of the Dutch Republic. A witness to one of Europe's darkest ages, more than any other single artist of the era he succeeded in suffusing it with light.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023