by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pavel Demidov/Hermitage, St. Petersburg
'The Carters,' c. 1629

London Exhibition Showcases the Wide Influence of Rubens

By Roderick Conway Morris
London 13 March 2015


Painter, draftsman, designer, scholar, collector and diplomat, Peter Paul Rubens was the leading artist of his age, and his influence stretched far beyond his era. His production was prodigious, his range was vast — from religious, historical and mythological scenes to portraits, nudes and landscapes — and his inventiveness seemingly endless, leaving an inexhaustible repertoire of compositional source material and virtuoso painting techniques for future generations of artists to study.

That Rubens's influence was as profound as it was enduring, even when this does not immediately meet the eye, is enrichingly demonstrated by 'Rubens and His Legacy: From Van Dyck to Cézanne' at the Royal Academy in London.

Curated by Nico Van Hout, of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, and Arturo Galansino of the Royal Academy, the exhibition features more than 140 works by the master and by artists inspired by him over the last three and a half centuries.

The show has obtained loans from more than 60 institutions and private collections, including such superb Rubens canvases and panels as the triptych 'Christ on the Straw' and his 'Venus Frigida.' Both works are from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, which is closed for restoration until 2018.

Rubens took a particular interest in landscape painting relatively late in life, when he bought a country mansion outside Antwerp. His contribution to this genre had a marked influence on some of England's finest landscape artists, as shown in the first part of the opening section of the show, titled 'Poetry.'

Rubens's magnificent 'The Carters,' from the Hermitage, demonstrates the common ancestry shared with Constable's 'Hampstead Heath, Branch Hill Pond,' and 'The Hay Wain' (present here in a full-scale oil sketch) and Gainsborough's 'The Harvest Wagon.'

'Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon' is paired with Turner's 'The Forest of Bere.' Another Rubens, 'Landscape with Rainbow' from the mid-1630s, is juxtaposed with Constable's 'Cottage at East Bergholt' from the mid-1830s. The pairing illustrates Rubens's ability to capture fleeting atmospheric qualities: 'the Rainbow of Rubens,' as Constable put it in a lecture, which encompasses 'dewy light and freshness, the departing shower, with the exhilaration of the returning sun.'

The second part of the 'Poetry' section contains two key Rubens works of more sophisticated and courtly pastoral scenes, with multiple figures in elegant dress: 'Château in a Park' and 'The Garden of Love,' accompanied by some preparatory drawings for the latter. The influence of these works on the development of French Rococo art is confirmed by Jean-Antoine Watteau's 'The Pleasures of the Ball' and other canvases, and by some of his lovely drawings.

Rubens spent the years from 1600 to 1608 in Italy. He was deeply influenced by his encounters with Italian painting — especially by the Venetians Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, as well as Correggio, Michelangelo and Raphael — and with ancient sculptures.

During the decade after his return to Antwerp in the autumn of 1608, Rubens combined elements of Italian Renaissance and Flemish portraiture, while making original contributions to the genre. The widespread influence of this stylistic development is borne out by the impressive lineup of pieces in the 'Elegance' section of the show, featuring works by Van Dyck, Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence, Watteau and Fragonard.

Shortly after Rubens's arrival back from Italy, 'The Twelve Years Truce' (1609-21) was declared, leading to a prolonged suspension of hostilities between the Habsburg-ruled Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic. Many Catholic churches were in need of repair and restoration, new ones were also being built, and Rubens and his large workshop were inundated with commissions to decorate them.

This period produced not only masterpieces such as 'Christ on the Straw' but also a host of Rubens religious images that, thanks to Spain's global empire, achieved wide distribution — from Mexico and Peru to the Philippines and China — largely through engravings. The extent of his reach is vividly shown by an early 18th-century Qing Dynasty plate with a remarkably accurate colored image of Rubens's 'Le Coup de Lance,' depicting Christ pierced by the lance as he hangs on the cross. Almost the whole of the artist's oeuvre became available after his death in the form of prints, many of which had been overseen by Rubens himself.

The most internationally prominent religious artist of the age, Rubens was still providing source material 250 years later, as seen in the exhibition in an oil from Vienna by Gustav Klimt, who found in Rubens's 'St. Cecilia' an ideal model for his own image of the patron saint of music for the decor of a theater in Croatia.

Ironically, it was the years of peace that gave rise to a series of fiercely dramatic hunting scenes, an especially spectacular example of which, 'Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt,' of about 1617, from the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes, forms the centerpiece of a section called 'Violence.' These works were destined for aristocratic and princely circles of the ancien régime, but their resonance proved surprisingly persistent, even into the Romantic and revolutionary times of the 19th century. Delacroix was utterly enthralled by them, as several hectic oils with a North African setting here confirm, as was his near contemporary, the British painter Sir Edwin Landseer.

The artist's nudes have remained among the most distinctive facets of his entire production, giving rise to the description of attractive female amplitude as 'Rubenesque.'

The title of the section of show devoted to these nudes, 'Lust,' underestimates the subtlety of these images and the complexity of the responses they evoke. For Rubens nudes typically have an unabashed, wholesome innocence calculated to provoke more nuanced emotions than the mere monomaniac lasciviousness that they are sometimes seen to arouse in the likes of satyrs and centaurs. Above all, these nudes express the artist's sheer delight in the feminine form and his subjects' enjoyment of their own bodies, while giving the artist the opportunity to display his mastery in depicting the variety of human skin tones.

In the room devoted to his female nudes, two delicious autograph canvases, 'The Hermit and the Sleeping Angelica' and 'Pan and Syrinx' (for which Jan Brueghel the Elder did the lush, reedy setting) are shown alongside works by, among others, Van Dyck, Watteau, Boucher, Rembrandt, Jordaens, Cézanne, Picasso and Renoir, the 19th-century master of the Rubensque nude. Watteau seldom painted nudes, but those of Rubens inspired him to create one of the most beautiful ever painted, 'Nymph and Satyr.'

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023