Only sporadic traces of Rubens’s written art theoretical views have survived, making them a particularly challenging subject for scholars. Considerable attention has in recent years been paid to aspects of his workshop practice and the formation of his own art collection. Moreover, his very penetrating visualisation of the affetti has been discussed in recent studies and exhibition catalogues,* especially by scholars such as Arnout Balis, Ulrich Heinen and Jeffrey Muller. The publication by Eveliina Juntunen under review here – originally submitted to the University of Jena as a doctoral thesis – is in keeping with this particular line of research and must be viewed as a supplement to the above-mentioned studies.
Juntunen argues that Rubens also visualizes his art theoretical viewpoints and principles in a number of relatively large history paintings with mythological subject matter, all of them executed in Antwerp between c. 1611 and c. 1618. The author refers (p. 33) to documents which imply that a certain number of paintings from this particular category were not made in order to meet a specific patron’s wishes, but were kept by Rubens in his house, “on spec” in the hope that they might attract the attention of a humanist-oriented audience. This audience was to be found in Antwerp or elsewhere in the Southern Netherlands, but even more so in the Northern Netherlands, which had become more easily accessible during the period of the Twelve Years Truce (1609-1621). Ever since Matthias Winner published his ground-breaking thesis in 1957 on the function and meaning of the Antwerp gallery pictures, art history is familiar with the interpretation of this particular group as “painted art theory.” Juntunen, however, explicitly seeks to distinguish her approach from Winner’s, preferring to consider the paintings under discussion as implicit visualizations of art theoretical considerations (“bildimplizite Kunsttheorie”).
Unlike altarpieces and other devotional pictures, which possessed a very clear liturgical function and had to be in keeping with severe canonical instructions and regulations, the painter of “fabulen” or “poeteryen“, as mythological subject matter was often described in seventeenth-century documents, had a kind of poetic licence. He could choose from a variety of literary sources, including Greek and Latin epics, poetry and drama, ekphrases of famous but lost ancient art works and also from more contemporary mythographical literature. And in visualizing a mythological story a painter could easily set his own accent, by the selection of a specific aspect of the myth but also by using his imagination to elaborate the depicted scene.
In this context Juntunen gives a thorough discussion of the following mythological scenes, which, she argues, were painted by Rubens as demonstrations of his specific ideas about art and artistry: The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (Munich, Alte Pinakothek), Juno and Argus (Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum), Ixion Deceived by Juno(Paris, Musée du Louvre), The Daughters of Cecrops Discovering Erichthonius (Vienna, Liechtenstein Museum), Perseus and Andromeda (St. Petersburg, Hermitage) and The Battle of the Amazons (Munich, Alte Pinakothek).
In a very detailed way Juntunen interprets The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus as an example of a creative and emulative appropriation of the canonical highlights of Italian cinquecento painting. In this particular case, Rubens seeks to demonstrate his ability to harmonise the Tuscan-Roman style and Venetian colour by referring for the former to Michelangelo and Giambologna in particular, and to Titian for the latter. Thus Rubens seems here to seamlessly connect with the art theoretical discussions on disegno,colorito and paragone which had been so instrumental in making possible the revolutionary stylistic innovation heralded by Annibale Carracci shortly before 1600.
The next chapter of the book (“Kunststücke der Malerei”) is devoted to a very specific interpretation of a group of four paintings which Juntunen discusses as interrelated compositions. She considers their particular subject matter as well as their specific stylistic treatment as connected with a number of topical art theoretical issues. She interprets Juno and Argus as a demonstration of painting’s mimetic power, an aspect that is further examined in her discussion of Ixion deceived by Juno. This picture is presented by Juntunen as a striking visualization of inganno degli occhi, the acme of optical illusion, a pictorial quality which from antiquity onward had always been stressed as the summit of artistic virtuosity. According to Juntunen, Rubens demonstrates in his Daughters of Cecrops Discovering Erichthoniushow ars and natura are to be considered the point of departure for all artistic creativity. He also, she contends, visualizes in this work his view that sculpture should be regarded as superior to painting, and enhances her argument by referring to Rubens’s own views as defined in his De Imitatione Statuarum. The Perseus and Andromeda in the Hermitage is also considered to express Rubens’s art theoretical views with the mythological figures representing, according to Juntunen, ingenium and studium as two essential conditions for fruitful artistic activity. Rubens also addresses the issue of paragone by modelling the naked figure of Andromeda on the ancient statue of Venus of Cnidos. It looks as if Rubens has infused this famous Greek sculpture with flesh and blood, a demonstration as it were of his view that a painter should refrain from imitating cold marble too literally. That this work should be regarded as a painted art-theoretical allegory is further supported by the fact that around the same time Rubens painted a second version of the composition, only slightly different from the Hermitage painting, as one of the trompe l’oeil frescoes decorating the outer wall of his studio, which – as has been brilliantly demonstrated by Elizabeth McGrath – visualize, as it were, his particular art theoretical views.
Juntunen’s final chapter is devoted to a thorough discussion of the Munich Battle of the Amazons. Here the author makes clear how in this case Rubens built up his composition by ingeniously integrating motives from the four most famous High Renaissance battle scenes: Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari, Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs, Raphael’s Battle of Constantine and Titians’s Battle of Cadore. Thus the Munich panel can be seen as one of the most brilliant examples in Rubens’s entire oeuvre of creative aemulatio.
The pressure of time may well be responsible for a limited number of minor flaws: contrary to Juntunen’s claim (p. 23, n. 100), Erik Duverger’s publication of inventories of seventeenth-century Antwerp art collections was completed in 2002, followed in 2004 by an index of names; the modello for the front of the Arcus Ferdinandi from the 1635 Pompa Introitus series has long been lost and is certainly not identical with the copy, possibly from Rubens’s workshop, now in the Rubenshuis (p. 39, fig. 3); the reference (p. 82) to the church of Santa Maria Novella in Rome should read Chiesa Nuova Santa Maria in Vallicella; The Daughters of Cecrops Discovering Erichthonius no longer hangs in Vaduz but is one of the treasures of the recently opened Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna; leaving aside Cornelis van der Geest, the first known proprietor of the Battle of the Amazons was the Duc de Richelieu and not his great-uncle, the more famous Cardinal Richelieu. Some quotations from Dutch publications contain transcription errors, such as the quotation from Carl Van de Velde’s monograph on Frans Floris’s house (p. 115). A final remark on the book’s layout: this monograph would have benefited from additional illustrations, especially for comparative material. But apart from these rather pedantic remarks, Eveliina Juntunen’s tentative interpretation of a selection of Rubens’s mythological compositions as pictorial visualisations of his ambitions as a pictor doctus provides stimulating reading. Her essays are pioneering work and it is my sincere hope that this fresh look at a particularly important segment of the artist’s oeuvre will inspire further research on Rubens’s sublime interpretation of ancient culture and especially for the study of his paintings with
mythological subject matter.
* Editor’s note: see review by Christine Göttler of Barocke Leidenschaften (exh. cat. Braunschweig 2004) in this issue.