Rembrandt yes, Rubens no, would be the verdict of the museum-going public in 2000. But if anything is going to get them to think again it is this book. This is indeed a biography in the old fashioned sense; for the personality of the man is always to be sensed behind the easel. Belkin provides a wonderfully rounded, coherent and contextual account of this outwardly most public of all painters. Biographies of artists tend to treat the facts of the life as a washing line to hang out pictorial imagery, but not this. Bravely, and with scant regard to modishness, Belkin has had the courage to speak of the man, and to speak with enviable eloquence.
This is one volume in the now extensive Phaidon Art & Ideas series, designed as an introduction to individual artists and World art perspectives, from the prehistoric to the late twentieth century. The books are thorough and exacting studies, and although intended to be accessible to the lay reader, will be both satisfying and informative at many levels. In this context the present volume would appear to fulfill those goals admirably. It reveals Rubens’s art against a background of social history and the events of his life. It is particularly strong on Rubens’s techniques and workshop practices, including the tradition of copying as a didactic process. He was deeply involved in religion and politics, and the book is revealing of the nature and life of Rubens the man, and especially the role of women in his life and art. It is a valuable guide to his iconography and influences and the effect upon his work of the church and state, and out of his correspondence it traces his public and social position and charts his relationships with his own circle.
The writer has meditated long on what is familiar, but she has not been daunted by the challenge of trying to think of something arresting to say: we are treated to fresh insights about the painter throughout the book. Belkin’s achievement is partly the virtue of her distinctly old-fashioned approach: her biography is very much ‘life and times’, with the ‘times’ acting as bars to the music of Rubens’s creativity.
It is suggested that Rubens’s early experience of his parents’ political adherence to now one religion, now another, developed that degree of expediency in his make-up which was later to become such a priceless asset. There is too, a proper emphasis on Rubens’s capacity, rare among artists, to read classical texts for himself and how this naturally allowed him to revivify old themes. Building on Alpers’s study of late Rubens, Belkin contributes something really worth saying on the difficult subject of Rubens’s intense dialogue with Titian after 1630. Surely it is right to think of all those faithful copies after Titian portraits as having an ulterior motive; the need Rubens felt to keep sweet with the archducal regime in Brussels through the compliment of returning with so many of their ancestors.
Inevitably in a book as good as this, there are things to disagree about. It is impossible to believe that there can have been no Venetian painting in Antwerp before Rubens left for Italy. How can this be squared with Antwerp’s status as the great northern entrepôt for the buying and selling of pictures? Belkin offers the fascinating idea that Rubens celebrated the union of the English and Scottish crowns with particular gusto because that is what he had always wanted for the Netherlands. That’s fine; but the Selfportrait acquired for Charles I was disgorged from Rubens not by Charles but that greedy and insensitive admirer of Rubens, Lord Danvers, as indeed I have tried to prove with the publication of new documents. Furthermore, Gregory Martin and I, separately, have also argued, at least to our satisfaction, that the genesis of the Whitehall ceiling was a lot more complicated than Belkin suggests.
This book is unquestionably the best general introduction in print on Rubens, and it is written in an unexpectedly fluid and pleasing style. Illustrations are excellent given the price of the book: a mix of big show piece altarpieces; a nice selection of drawings which always sugars the pill for those who find Rubens hard to swallow, and in addition, a showing of the impedimenta of that uniquely rich cultural life, in the form of letters, drawings after the odd spoon, and so on. The designers have given us a cahier d’art rather more than the conventional presentation of the oeuvre and that too, like the text itself, is fresh and exciting.
University of Edinburgh