This well designed and handsomely produced book on Rubens’s landscapes brings together ideas that have clearly been developed over a number of years of thinking and research. It grew directly out of the author’s dissertation (University of Oxford, 2010), which was supervised by several eminent scholars – including two who have made significant contributions to the very subject of this study, Christopher Brown and Elizabeth McGrath. As Kleinert acknowledges, she also benefitted from exchanges with numerous museum and academic experts in the field, both in various European countries and the United States. The result is a synthetic account of Rubens’s landscape paintings, drawings, and prints, which builds upon several earlier contributions, most notably Wolfgang Adler’s Landscapes and Hunting Scenes, Part 1, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, XVIII (London, 1982), Lisa Vergara’s Rubens and the Poetics of Landscape (Yale, 1982) and Christopher Brown’s Making and Meaning: Rubens’s Landscapes(exh. cat. National Gallery, London, 1996).
Kleinert develops her study in four chapters, prefaced by a brief introduction and followed by a summary conclusion. She begins by situating Rubens’s landscapes in their Flemish context. In addition to highlighting the social and cultural changes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that shaped contemporary perspectives on the urban versus the rural environment, she also addresses the gradual shift from a symbolic (and theologically inflected) towards a proto-scientific view of nature. In Chapter 2, she turns to the ways in which these developments influenced the artist’s approach to the genre of landscape. In this context, she draws correlations between iconographic and formal qualities of Rubens’s landscapes and a host of classical authors, including Pliny the Elder, Horace, Virgil, and Seneca. Though Rubens’s perusal of the classical tradition is one of the constants in the literature, Kleinert demonstrates that source hunting (however old-fashioned that may sound) can still yield fresh insights and deepen our appreciation of the importance of the classically based humanist discourse in his ouevre.
The other two chapters are dedicated to the reception of Rubens’s landscape inventions among his contemporaries and later art lovers. In Chapter 3, this is explored through a discussion of the engraved reproductions of his work, with particular focus on his collaboration with the engraver Schelte à Bolswert. Here she also provides a context and chronology of the prints from the “small” and the “large” landscape series, respectively. This analysis of the fortuna critica of Rubens’s landscapes continues in Chapter 4, where Kleinert addresses the reception of Rubens’s landscape paintings in continental and English collections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These sections are complemented by three appendices: a brief catalogue of the paintings, where Kleinert upholds existing attributions, with few amendments, and tabulated overviews of the “small” and “large” reproductive engravings.
More than half of the volume is taken up by images: 32 full color plates, and 219 black and white illustrations, many of which show details of the paintings and prints under discussion. Given the ongoing fiscal restraints in scholarly publishing, this generosity on the part of the editors of Pictura Nova is to be applauded. At the same time, this distribution creates a certain sense of asymmetry between the 150 pages of text (excluding the appendices and the bibliography) and the 173 pages of illustrations. In a number of cases, the black and white details of paintings already reproduced in color do not add much to the author’s points.
Precisely because Kleinert brings into her discussion so much material – both Rubens’s works in different media, and those they relate to thematically, from Bruegel’s seasons as some of his iconographic models, to the landscapes of Watteau and Gainsborough as examples of his influence – one feels that she did not have opportunity to develop her ideas more fully. As a result, her account is often closer to a descriptive overview rather than a more in-depth analysis. This impression is present even in the section of the book dedicated to its central theme, Rubens’s ideas on nature and art – a discussion condensed to twenty eight pages (31-59). As in other chapters, Kleinert begins with a brief overview of the “state of research,” which includes modern-day responses, as well as those of earlier times, ranging from Edward Norgate and Roger de Piles, to Goethe and Baudelaire. After a brief mention of the importance of Aristotelian ideas among contemporary art theorists such as Agucchi (as well as Rubens), she tries to match various natural motifs in his paintings – rock formations, marshlands, clouds, light – to specific loci classici. Though, as noted earlier, this method adds to our appreciation for Rubens’s erudition, sometimes the “trees” obscure the “forest” of her argument. The artist may well have recalled Pliny’s words on poplars and oaks as he painted those tree species, or Seneca’s notion of the air as a carrier of the warmth of the sun in the glowing skies of some of these landscapes, but one is left wanting greater reflection on the author’s part regarding those correlations.
Ovid, whose perspective on the world as a cycle of continuous change between modes of being was so important to Vergara’s approach to Rubens as a visual poet (1982), is seen as largely irrelevant. While not arguing with the author’s perception, I would take an issue with her related note that anthropomorphic imagery of nature is barely pronounced in Ovid’s works (32). It would have also been interesting to learn why she did not even mention Lucretius who was so critical to disseminating the Epicurean ideas on nature after the rediscovery of De rerum natura in the late fifteenth century. Horace and Virgil are given a lot of weight, which is to be expected in view of their importance for the early modern discourse on the virtues of the country lifestyle (laus ruris). What surprises is the absence of consideration of the related notion of contemplative leisure (otium) central to thinkers ranging from Cicero and Seneca, to Augustine and Petrarch. The author would have significantly benefited in this regard from Leopoldine Prosperetti’s insightful Landscape and Philosophy in the Art of Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) (Aldershot: 2009) – which is, regrettably, missing from her bibliography.
For all of these points of criticism, Kleinert is to be commended for organizing in a single volume a formidable amount of material – both the paintings and works on paper themselves, and the textual fabric they exist within, from the classical sources they may have been influenced by, to the critical evaluations of our own time. In doing so, she has also created a new rallying point for further investigations of the visual poetry of Rubens’s landscapes.
University of Maryland–College Park