Two years ago, I had the opportunity to read for review purposes Part XI of Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard dedicated to paintings based on mythological narratives (Achilles to the Graces). That volume of the 29-part illustrated catalogue raisonńe of Rubens’s oeuvre was the result of team work of six international scholars led by Elizabeth McGrath, who wrote both individual entries and an excellent introduction. This time around, as in most earlier volumes, we have a single author: Nils Büttner, well known both for his studies of Rubens, and for the breadth of his interests, as attested by publications on subjects ranging from Hieronymus Bosch to Otto Dix. His principal source, as for all other authors in this ongoing project, is the archive of Ludwig Burchard (1886-1960), which has been continuously augmented and updated by the staff at the Centrum Rubenianum.
The scope of Büttner’s task and the expertise with which he approached it is amply demonstrated throughout this publication. Scrupulously researched and documented, cogently presented and very readable, this volume will be a standard reference for any scholar who needs reliable access to all of the documented works by Rubens on some of his favorite themes – from allegories of peace and prosperity, to those on the nature of love. In a broader sense, the author’s close consideration of interrelated works in different media also constitutes an important contribution towards an ongoing discussion of a more theoretical nature – the artist’s way of thinking about allegory itself.
As Büttner notes in his introduction, though the concept of “allegory” was used rather fluidly until the emergence of modern literary theory in the nineteenth century, for Rubens and his contemporaries it was invariably related to a recognition of the symbolic value of images – or the notion of doublings or distinction between “surface” and “deeper” levels of meaning of a sign. However, as he also points out, Rubens’s approach to allegorical inventions was recognized as something novel, uncommon, and already exceptional by some of his early champions, most notably the influential art theorist Roger de Piles. That “ingenious and learned use of symbols” (as per de Piles), leads Büttner to a brief review of the artist’s erudition, attested by his endless curiosity, especially about the world of antiquity, and exemplified both by his remarkable library, and his collection of art and artefacts.
In this portion of his study, Büttner also draws attention to a topic that has gained some currency in the literatue of late (and which is of particular interest to me) – namely, the manner in which Rubens uses a recognizable visual source in diverse contexts because of its expressive potential (in a way that calls to mind Aby Warburg’s Pathosformel). The importance of this affective power of forms for the artist’s inventions is evident throughout this volume. One might mention, for instance, the artist’s use of the reclining form of Ariadne Sleeping from the Vatican to describe a range of other female characters: from Iphigenia, to Angelica, to one of Diana’s nymphs (Nos. 59, 59a, 60, figs. 293, 296), or the way in which another antique figure, the Crouching Venus from the Louvre, can express both a state of deprivation of the Goddess of Love (Venus Frigida) and Ceres as the figure that brings this Goddess that necessary nourishment (Nos. 53, 54, figs. 276, 277). Concomitant with this is the need for a finer understanding of iconographic flexibility. As Büttner correctly observes, the meaning of any image is fundamentally performative, that is, contingent upon audience, placement, and the historical context of viewing.
The catalogue is organized in several thematic categories: allegories of plenty and prosperity, those dealing with topics such as wisdom, peace and war, those that focus on triumph and apotheosis, and those addressing forms of love and subjects from literature (ancient and modern alike). Similarly to the other volumes of the Corpus Rubenianum, each section covers related works of art, bringing in most documented comparanda, from preparatory studies to workshop replicas or those of similar character and uncertain authorship. There is also a separate section in the end for doubtful attributions and disattributions.
Büttner’s thematic organization of the material makes good sense, especially given the fluid nature of the idea of visual allegory in the art theory and practice of the period. At the same time, the variety of creative approaches in the construction of these symbolic images prompts consideration of other ways in which they could have been grouped, or of other works by Rubens that could have been included in some of these categories. Why is a painting such as the magisterial Three Graces from the Prado not an allegory in the same sense as Abundance (Three Nymphs with Cornucopia), housed at the same museum and included in this volume (No. 8)? What is the allegorical difference between Mars Disarmed by Venus from the Hermitage (No. 101), included in the study, and two of the many masterpieces by the artist from the Prado, the Garden of Love or Nymphs and Satyrs? How is The Drunken Hercules from Dresden (No. 11) different in an allegorical sense from The Drunken Silenus from Munich? Similarly, how does one draw the line between paintings that feature mythological characters drawn from specific narratives (even if they rely on multiple literary sources) and those in which those characters are mainly personifications that help build an abstract discourse around an idea or a commonplace. At the same time, one has to recognize that such questions require an analysis that goes beyond the scope and nature of this study.
Within the context of the Corpus Rubenianum, this volume is exemplary in its wealth of information, as well as its presentation: from data on provenance, primary and secondary sources, exhibition history, to that relating to technical aspects of the works, their condition, and related image. In addition, each entry summarizes different opinions on a range of issues, from authorship to iconographic subtleties. As Büttner reminds us, however, no “engagement with Rubens’s huge oeuvre and the number of interpretations it has occasioned over the centuries can ever be anything but selective.” (p. 64). Notwithstanding his disclaimer that the material he has pulled together represents only “the current state of knowledge,” his study will surely contribute not only to preserving and augmenting that knowledge, but will facilitate further inquiries into the idea of allegory itself – both in Rubens’s work and in seventeenth-century art in general.
University of Maryland, College Park