Lisa Rosenthal’s Gender, Politics and Allegory in the Art of Rubens is an ambitious project, covering three fundamental aspects of Rubens’s pictorial rhetoric. The aim of the book is to demonstrate the key role of gender in the artist’s political allegories. The first chapter clearly sets out the author’s methodology as a combination of semiotics and psychoanalysis, while at the same time situating Rubens’s paintings in their historical and iconographical context and within their contemporary reception. Rosenthal also considers how meaning evolves in Rubens’s own oeuvre not only through the preparatory stages of the sketch and repeated engagement with themes, but also across different pictorial genres. Psychoanalysis is presented as a complement to an iconographical interpretation, to address aspects of the paintings for which, she posits, there was no language before the twentieth century: themes of male empowerment and disempowerment in relation to women, of identification with and disassociation from the feminine, possession and loss, as they are dramatized in the representation of male and female figures in Rubens’s paintings.
Rosenthal shows how these concerns were articulated in Rubens’s day in the allegories of Rubens’s predecessors, particularly his teacher, Otto van Veen, and in a wide range of literature, from satires on domestic life to moral philosophy and political treatises. She emphasizes the multivalent nature of Rubens’s allegories as a key element of the pleasure of their interpretation on several interconnected levels. For example, she argues that the notion of masculine autonomy at the heart of Neo-Stoic moral philosophy was founded on the very anxieties towards the feminine that have since been identified and analyzed in Freudian psychoanalysis. She argues that in the Lipsian Neo-Stoic philosophy advocated by Rubens and his milieu, masculine identity was expressed in terms of perceived sexual difference, as an internal struggle against ‘womanish vices.’ Rosenthal also demonstrates how the masculine hero was invoked by Lipsius as a model for the political leader who must suppress the forces of revolt. Although the study is structured as a series of case studies of paintings which are not ordered chronologically, and the semiotic approach emphasizes a reception-based interpretation, the role of Rubens as maker remains crucial to the project.
Rubens’s activities as diplomat to the Spanish crown endowed him with a privileged political perspective quite unique among artists of his day, adding an extra rhetorical charge to his allegories on the benefits of peace and the horrors of war. Also at stake is Rubens’s position in regard to the mentalities of his own day. The paintings that form the key part of Rosenthal’s study are ostensibly part of a moralizing allegorical discourse of oppositions based on perceived sexual difference; however, Rosenthal proposes that Rubens’s paintings exceed those of his predecessors by exposing in various ways the instability and contingent nature of gender as a cultural construction. For Rosenthal the insistent physicality of Rubens’s figures and the complex interaction between them complicates their legible, allegorical function. The cumulative impression of the book is that Rubens was also deeply ambivalent about the role of men and women within the humanist construction of masculine virtue that he formally advocated.
The book consists of six chapters, three of which are based on material previously published in articles. Rubens’s group portraits of the family are used to frame the whole book, leading to his representation of peace in the London Minerva Protects Pax from Mars in the first chapter, while the last chapter is devoted to Rubens’s portraits of his wife and children. In the second chapter, Rosenthal underlines the centrality of maternity in Rubens’s rhetoric for the desirability of peace, according to conventions that he had formulated earlier through family portraits. Rosenthal demonstrates how these portraits articulated the prevailing patriarchal vision of family, and how Rubens invoked this same rhetoric in his painting for Charles I, thus making a crucial link between ideologies of fatherhood and kingship. She suggests that Rubens was the first to focus on the exclusion of the father from the family, which was a consequence of this prevalent idea of virtue, and also on the problems that arose from it. She sees Rubens’s portraits of his family as a subjective account of the ‘dispossession’ at stake in the father’s necessary exclusion from the domestic realm, the implications of which for Rubens as an artist are explored in the last chapter of the book.
Rubens’s ambivalence towards traditional ideals of heroic masculinity is explored in the following two chapters, emphasizing the complexity in Rubens’s oeuvre of interactions between either Venus or one of her manifestations, and a masculine hero resembling Mars or Hercules. Traditionally, the significance of Venus was ambiguous because she was the goddess of both sensuality and maternal love, which could be interpreted as vice and virtue. So, too, the meaning of Mars as god of war and aggression was unstable and contingent on his relationship to Venus, and vice versa. Chapter three opens with two versions of The Hero Crowned by Victory (Munich and Kassel) and the conflicting desires provoked in the hero by the surrounding feminine figures. The first version is contextualized within the moralizing, allegorical tradition of the Christian Knight, in which the internal struggle against the passions was represented in terms of a violent suppression of women. Rosenthal argues that in Rubens’s painting, the hero’s attempts to subjugate the women and his uneasy reaction to the female personifications undermines rather than emphasizes his moral superiority over them. She presents a number of paintings in which she identifies aggression and warfare as the unfortunate consequence of the exclusion of the masculine hero from the positive, disarming influence of women, exemplified by Venus imploring Mars to restrain his fury in the Pitti Palace Horrors of War.
Drunken Hercules (Dresden) was listed in Rubens’s inventory as a pendant to the Hero Crowned. However, Rosenthal does not analyze them in the conventional way in terms of opposition or contrast, but rather at the beginning and end of the chapter, as poles of Rubens’s evolving ideas about empowerment and disempowerment. For Rosenthal, Drunken Hercules reflected Rubens’s preoccupation with the bacchic world of ecstatic loss of boundaries, which she characterizes as his desire for identification with the feminine world of maternity. However, the way in which the material is presented does suggest that Rubens and his milieu considered the bacchic condition to be permanent and defining (in other words in opposition to the heroic), but there is also ample evidence that bacchic behavior and laughter were perceived as a necessary temporary release from civic responsibility. In social custom this took the form of carnival and other such public festivities. Nor can a moralizing disposition always be assumed in Rubens’s audience, since pastoral scenes of the hero dallying with his lover held an important place in epic literature.
Two paintings, Hercules Mocked by Omphale (Louvre) and Venus Lamenting Adonis (private collection), are analyzed in the fourth chapter as scenes of men dominated by women. The case that they were conceived as pendants in the form of marriage allegories by their patron, Gian Vincenzo Imperiale, needs to be made more persuasively. Rosenthal presents a wide range of contemporary literature reflecting anxieties about women’s dominance in the domestic sphere, which lead her to a detailed psychoanalytical reading of Hercules Mocked by Omphale. She also draws on contemporary reception of this painting as evidence that it provoked a titillating pleasure in the viewer, as the heroic male who identifies with the feminine yet ultimately emerges with his masculinity intact, which the author explains in terms of Freudian theories of castration anxiety and the substitution of the phallus as fetish. A combined iconographical and psychoanalytical reading is applied to Venus and Adonis, which is read as a tragic recasting of this narrative of masculine loss.
The chapter ‘Occasio: violence and allegory’ is a culmination of Rosenthal’s complex argumentation around the mechanisms of gender and power in Rubens’s allegorical paintings. It is a thorough iconographical and psychoanalytical account of a workshop copy made after Rubens’s lost Occasio allegory, an image now little known but demonstrably of great importance in the seventeenth century. The allegorical conceit, as Rosenthal presents it, is that of the hero taking the opportunity to make peace. Rosenthal provides a fascinating iconographical account of the evolution of the personification of Occasio in Rubens’s preparatory sketches and the final composition, from a captive being pulled along by her forelock to a bride offered to the hero. The author’s intricate psychoanalytical reading of the composition involves an analysis of violence as a constituent part of allegorical language, culminating in a detailed exposition of the hero’s Medusa shield according to Freudian psychology, as a ‘shield’ against castration anxiety combined with the fear of female procreativity.
Rosenthal’s book offers an alternative reading of Rubens, usually considered an extremely self-confident artist who was absolutely at ease with his place in the world. It builds on Svetlana Alpers’s study of Rubens’s artistic creativity and identification with the feminine, and Margaret Carroll’s work on gender and violence in Rubens’s political allegories. It asks us to re-think the tendency to cast Rubens’s identity into distinct public and private roles, and to see him instead as an artist whose domestic life directly informed his paintings in the service of politics. It is well written and persuasive, and the focus on the construction of political power through gender is particularly compelling. The psychoanalytical interpretation is not applied consistently throughout the book, with the most sustained application of Freudian psychoanalysis only introduced in chapters four and five. The book is overall a thought-provoking contribution to Rubens scholarship.
Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts
National Gallery of Art