The present publication accompanied the first temporary exhibition held at the newly built off-site ‘dépendance’ of the Louvre in the former mining town of Lens in northern France. To mark the opening of the sleek SANAA and Imrey Culbert designed satellite museum, an ambitious loan show was mounted (May 22 – September 23, 2013). L’Europe de Rubens presents the artist as a spider sitting at the heart of a web he himself spun over the continent through travel, correspondence and the business of art. Evoking the European social, political, and cultural landscape of the first half of the seventeenth century through a generous selection of paintings, drawings, prints, tapestries, sculptures, and objects, the exhibition also spanned the artist’s entire career, from the early Lamentation lent by the Galleria Borghese, Rome, to the late Landscape with Gallows from Berlin.
Of the 170 assembled items, not even a third is from the holdings of the Paris mother house, with the Bibliothèque Nationale as the second largest contributor, uniquely lending the spectacular Grand Camée de France, the largest object of its kind. The Gemma Tiberiana, discovered by Rubens’s friend and correspondent Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc in 1620, is shown in Lens flanked by the true scale drawing from the Antwerp printroom, by a print after that drawing and by the painter’s later and much larger rendering from Oxford. To that was added the 1614 Washington Agrippina and Germanicus, testifying to both Rubens’s earlier interest in antique cameos and to the generosity which many international lenders have shown towards the new Lens museum. Not all items have full catalogue entries; instead a checklist is provided at the back of the publication where twenty-five items are reproduced with shorter notes. A further twelve have longer entries by Blaise Ducos, the exhibition’s curator.
The main section of the catalogue contains seven essays, loosely corresponding to the seven exhibition rooms. Marc Fumaroli sets the broader scene in a long introductory essay in which Rubens’s career is discussed against the background of post-Tridentine Roman Catholic ideology and Spanish Habsburg dynastic politics. The ensuing text by Jeroen Duindam is a general introduction to the mechanics of Renaissance and early modern court apparatus and to the role of artists in representational policy. Arnout Balis’s essay discusses the nature of Rubens’s education and the extent of his involvement in early seventeenth-century scholarship. Referring to his forthcoming volume on the so-called ‘Theoretical Notebook’ in the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard series and to Rubens’s correspondence with scholars across Europe, Balis sketches an evolution from youthful esoteric interests to the serious antiquarian pursuits of the pictor doctus. Corinne Thépaut-Cabasset deserves praise for her concise essay on dress in Rubens’s portraits. Her contribution illustrates how broad political power shifts are reflected in the fashions worn by Rubens’s sitters. Paul Huvenne looks at how Rubens reengaged with the Flemish tradition after his return from Italy, both in painting technique and later in subject matter. David Jaffé on the other hand examines the impact of Italian art on Rubens, who drew inspiration from both antique and modern sculpture and from a range of painters, developing a pictorial vocabulary through a magpie approach and looking mainly at Titian for stylistic advice. The concluding essay by Blaise Ducos is a study of Rubens’s engagement with the human body. Stressing the artist’s indebtedness to Michelangelo, Ducos nuances the image of a painter focused solely on the female figure, illustrating the point with a series of Rubens’s enlivened male anatomical studies and écorchés in different at times expansive poses that transcend sterile empirical studies. Ducos contrasts Rubens’s aesthetic with that of the Dutch sculptor Adriaen De Vries and sees the most successful realization of Rubensian ideals in sculpture in the work of the German Georg Petel, and to a lesser extent that of the Fleming Gerard van Opstal, two artists whose portraits by Anthony van Dyck and Lucas Franchoys the Younger are included in the show and who are well represented in Lens.
Good use was made of the available space in the fourth room, devoted to monumentalité ephèmere, where two indeed monumental allegorical figures by Jan Van den Hoecke from nearby Lille were hung on either side of a passage in the circuit, evoking the triumphal arches erected for the joyous entry of the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand. One of the real joys of the exhibition was a wonderful ensemble of four modellifor the ceiling decoration of the London Banqueting Hall in the same room, showing Rubens as a master colorist. Among them only the Louvre’s own Piety and Victory was presented in a climate-controlled display case, somewhat detracting from the presentation’s strong visual impact. Surprisingly, the modelli feature in the checklist without being discussed in the catalogue essays, which seems a missed opportunity as the Whitehall ceiling is a brilliant defense of the fledgling Stuart dynasty and as the circumstances of its commission are highly informative of Anglo-Spanish diplomatic relations.
More disappointing is that while two portraits of Marie de’ Medici by Frans Pourbus the Younger are included in the exhibition, no works relating to the Louvre’s Medici series were present in Lens. The inclusion of the two ‘workshop’ portraits of the Jesuit missionaries Nicolas Trigault and Petrus de Spira from Douai seems based on proximity to the venue rather than on added value for the exhibition’s narrative. Though larger than life size, these paintings shrivel in the company of Rubens’s large drawing of Trigault from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and they do not succeed in repeating the effect of the Van den Hoecke pairing. The portrait of the Duke of Alba shown in the very first room as by Rubens is not accepted by the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard and a few other paintings have questionable attributions. However, these are minor points of criticism for an enjoyable exhibition of challenging scope both in scale and concept. The handsome catalogue is beautifully illustrated and provides substantial essays on a range of topics and an extensive bibliography. However, despite being indexed, the book can be hard to navigate due to long series of full page illustrations and essays that are interspersed randomly with catalogue entries.
‘Tout fait système chez le Flamand’ writes Ducos. This adage is the strength and the weakness of both the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue. Mapping the entire sprawling artistic phenomenon that is Peter Paul Rubens in a systematic way is a truly Homeric task which no single exhibition, however ambitious, can hope to attain fully. As a suggestive endpoint in the last and smallest exhibition room, hangs the Louvre’s own late Landscape with Windmill and Bird-Trap. The unassuming picture evokes autumn and transports viewers to a much more private space. After learning how the painter had been enmeshed in the intricate balancing act of Habsburg politics, how he was finely connected to networks of service, friendship, and knowledge stretching across the European continent, and how he became personally familiar with the trappings of power and wealth, the barely discernable mist net stretched between the trees – ambushing viewers only on close inspection of the picture – becomes a thing of rich symbolic significance.