Peter Paul Rubens towers over seventeenth-century Baroque painting as only Bernini does in sculpture. Both matched artistic productivity, versatility, technique, and genius with supreme talents as impresarios. Christian humanist, classicist and antiquarian, amateur architect and diplomat, Rubens represents the Baroque fulfillment of the Renaissance Man. His nephew Philip described his life as “but one long course of study.” The court chaplain in Brussels eulogized him as “the most learned painter in the world.”
Yet unlike Bernini, Rubens was not a prodigy. His style and technique were forged through a critical decade spent in Italy, where he studied and absorbed the masterpieces of classical antiquity as well as new revelations by the Carracci and Caravaggio at the dawn of the Baroque. Those Italian lessons were to transform Flemish art upon Rubens’s return to Antwerp. The San Francisco and Toronto exhibition offers a dazzling selection from the cornucopia of works produced by Rubens during that first decade back home, supplemented by earlier works from his Italian sojourn. Its broad theme “Early Rubens” is richly illustrated in this feast for the eyes.
The catalogue, edited by Sasha Suda and Kirk Nickel, is also a feast. Sasha Suda’s opening chapter on Rubens and Antwerp – the political, commercial, intellectual world in which he flourished – sets the stage for the city following the Twelve Years’ Truce. Her assessment of the underlying message in Toronto’s Massacre of the Innocents is spot on. The choice of this unbearable subject was “to serve as a reminder of the loss incurred by religious warfare and the trauma that it caused in the very city where, and for which, it was painted” (p. 12). In his informative essay on the artistic background of that painful painting David Franklin evidently missed her insight as he concluded, “Whether Rubens also intended a contemporary resonance for this work is not so obvious (p. 59).” In fact, this early Massacre foreshadows Rubens’s cri de coeur two decades later in his Horrors of War in the Pitti, as it anticipates Picasso’s Guernica three centuries later.
Kirk Nickel’s “Conflicting Visions” brings no less clarity to the subject of Rubens’s mastery of Counter-Reformation messaging in the context of Antwerp’s troubled religious past. Especially apt is his treatment of the half-length paintings of sacred narrative and devotion, above all his focus on The Doubting Thomas as explained by Barbara Haeger as a visual meditation on “seeing and believing.” David Jaffé’s essay surveying Rubens’s appreciation and appropriation of classical art illustrates its living presence within his inventions – diluted occasionally by jargon such as Olympian “speed dating” and Aurora’s “pit stop” (p. 51). For Rubens the Neo-Stoic presented no inherent conflict between ancient and Christian virtues: Rome remained Rome, a continuum of revelation. Jaffé might also have added what Wolfgang Stechow noted in his seminal study Rubens and the Classical Tradition: Rubens’s visual quotations from ancient sources consistently conveyed iconographic meaning; forms and gestures provided an interpretative gloss on his subjects. The authors must not have been given the chance to proofread their pages, for Jaffé would surely have spotted that the Louvre self-portrait drawing (fig. 12) is of Peter Paul, not “Philip” Rubens, and that the Antwerp cathedral Triptych of the Resurrection of Christ (fig. 13) is illustrated by The Raising of the Cross.
Bert Timmermans’s essay on Rubens’s network of patrons, associations, and commissions is regrettably titled “The Art of Entanglement”: Rubens was master of both multi-tasking and interconnections, but never – unlike Laocoön – did he succumb to “entanglement.” His skill at distilling clarity from complexity served him in both art and diplomacy. Timmermans’s awkward neologism “Rubensization” may read – and sound – better in translation. (The French had the more musical ear to coin “Rubéniste.”) Alexandra Libby’s model essay on Rubens’s business acumen (“The Master as Manager”) sets the standard for clarity and directness. Finally, Koen Bulckens’s essay on the operation of Rubens’s workshop within his new palatial studio and Jaco Rutgers’s concluding chapter on Rubens and printmaking shed valuable light on two key aspects of Rubens as master and impresario. I must, however, disagree with Rutgers’s dismissal (following Christian Tico Seifert’s questioning) of Julius Held’s attribution to Rubens of two drawings for the 1609 Vita of Ignatius Loyola (footnote 1, p. 112), which Anne-Marie Logan, in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Rubens’s drawings, accepts as by Rubens.
The catalogue entries are more varied in scholarship, and rather than critique them individually I offer instead these few observations and corrections:
1. The three-quarter profile facing the Rubens brothers in the Mantuan self-portrait with friends has been identified as Galileo by Frances Huemer, in a 1983 article apparently unknown to Kurt Nickel, who mentions only her 1977 Corpus Rubenianum portrait volume (footnote 1, p. 123).
2. Rubens’s Portrait of Michael Ophovius is surely autograph, pace passing doubts (p. 142). The slightly parted lips of this “speaking likeness” – a concetto famously translated into sculpture by Bernini – is a hallmark of the master that copyists missed.
3. In her model entry on Daniel in the Lions’ Den Alexandra Libby stresses that it must be seen “through the lens of Counter-Reformational thought, in which Old Testament heroes prefigured the labors and triumphs of the New….” I submit that it conveys a clear and simple message: Daniel’s survival in the den was a classic prefiguration of Christ’s Resurrection and Salvation – as Bernini was later to incorporate in his own Daniel in the Chigi Chapel. As a large work executed during the Truce it thus embodies a message of hope for salvation and peace amidst the threatening jaws of war and death, a theme dear to Rubens’s heart.
4. The comparative juxtaposition of the two versions of The Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth, Saint John, and a Dove is arguably the most valuable contribution of this exhibition, for a close comparison reveals that the Metropolitan Museum smaller version is not an autograph Rubens, but instead an exact studio copy – or ricordo for future studio versions – of the original in Los Angeles, the quality of which in modeling and brushwork is clearly superior.
5. There is no good reason to suppose that the Borghese Lamentation of Christ was “presumably destined for an Italian church” with a subsequent “removal from an altar” (p. 198). It is too small to have been painted as an altarpiece. Rather it was surely intended as a devotional painting for Cardinal Montalto – or Borghese.
6. John Spike’s eloquent effort (p. 221) to upgrade the Saint James the Greater to a Rubens original notwithstanding, this painting is beyond doubt an old copy of Van Dyck’s original for his Apostles series (closer to the version in Stockholm than the one in Boston – down to the last fold). It is inconceivable that Van Dyck would have copied a “one-off” Rubens apostle for his own series several years later, by which time he was a master in his own right. But one need not argue hypotheticals: the stylistic details of this St. James are but a pale reflection of a Van Dyck original – not of a Rubens. The only mystery is why it was granted entry into this exhibition and catalogue.
7. According to Anne-Marie Logan (supra) the sheet in the National Gallery in Edinburgh (pp. 240-243) is no longer considered an original by Rubens, but a copy, as argued by Bert Schepers in his Corpus Rubenianum volume on the Mythologies (not cited in Chong’s catalogue entry, footnote 5, p. 243).
8. Final judgment on the relationship between the Vienna and Brno versions of Medusa requires a side-by-side analysis, as in the Holy Family with Dove above. The catalogue entry gives short shrift to the Vienna canvas, long considered the original. In any case, the Medusa represents a collaborative studio production by Rubens and Snyders, who painted the profusion of snakes, as convincingly proposed by Susan Koslow (footnote 18, p. 249).
9. For Mars and Rhea Silvia I find Held’s appreciation of the final canvas in Liechtenstein more persuasive (footnote 2, p. 253) than David Jaffé’s attempt to denigrate it (p. 50). A studio production, it nonetheless reveals the final retouching by Rubens’s own hand (p. 251). The master would have settled for no less.
10. As I argued in my HNA review (July 2018) of last year’s Rubens oil sketches exhibition in Madrid and Rotterdam, the oil sketch in Rotterdam of All Saints represents a preliminary bozzetto for his detailed drawing in the Albertina for engraving. Rubens did more than look “to this sketch for ideas” (p. 275). He worked out those ideas in the sketch before taking pen in hand.
In general the catalogue reflects the diversity of a team effort – “Studio of Rubens.” It is puzzling that it omits a bibliography; more curious still that the chronology omits those seminal years in Italy. The narrative structure of this exhibition is at best impressionistic. Nonetheless, we are left with a treasure of images to behold and ponder with renewed admiration for an artist undimmed by time and shifting tastes: a Moveable Feast.
Charles Scribner III