Fiona Healy has studied in depth and for the first time Rubens’s eight surviving depictions of the Judgement of Paris. As she argues it, these works bracket the start and end of the artist’s career. They contain varied and changing meanings that express the theory of art, tributes of love, choice in politics, and the artist’s choice of beauty. Throughout, the process of choice and the exercise of judgement tie together Rubens’s treatment of the theme.
Healy establishes the strongest possible foundation for her account of Rubens proper. She begins with an iconographical study of Marcantonio Raimondi’s famous engraving after Raphael’s design for The Judgement of Paris. Her analysis of Raphael’s debt to ancient Roman sarcophagi and of his consequent break with earlier Italian tradition already makes an important independent contribution. Raphael, by emulating ancient art, is seen to raise the issue of the artist’s judgement of beauty and form. Healy then traces the reactions of later artists to Raphael. She also identifies a separate Venetian iconography of the Judgement of Paris in which Giorgione transforms the myth into a pastoral idyll, inviting the viewer’s participation and identification with Paris. Equally thorough, learned, and informative is Healy’s chapter on the very different iconography of the story in Northern Europe, where the myth was incorporated into the history of the fall of Troy by framing it as Paris’s dream. When sixteenth-century Netherlandish artists assimilated the Italian tradition, vestiges of the older dream of Paris remained as what Healy calls iconographical incongruities in a time of transition. Development later in the sixteenth century leads straight to Rubens who combined the ideas of his immediate predecessors in the Netherlands and his own emulation of the great Italian model, Raphael.
Bracketed between these accounts of the earlier Italian and Northern iconographic traditions at the beginning and concluding remarks at the end, the heart of the book is a chapter by chapter discussion of all eight renditions of the Judgement of Paris that can be associated with Rubens. Out of the eight versions, only the last, painted in 1639 for Philip IV and now in the Prado, is a documented commission. The sequence of the previous seven must be reconstructed above all on basis of the internal visual evidence contained in the pictures themselves. This is not a simple task, because dating frequently is disputed. Also, five of these works are famous and generally accepted originals by the artist, but three others are one step removed from Rubens: a painting included in Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Sense of Sight and Smell now in Madrid, Jacob Neeff’s etching after Rubens’s designs for a silver basin and ewer, and the so-called Wilhelmsen Judgementthought by Healy to reflect Rubens’s lost early design for the silver ewer. Healy forges a lucid, thorough, and consistently sustained chain of argument that touches on every aspect of Rubens’s development. To support her dating of the early London version before the artist’s departure for Italy in 1600, Healy synthesizes what is known about Rubens’s work in Antwerp prior to his Italian journey. Her suggestions always are plausible, based on a thorough knowledge and logical consideration of all evidence.
The datings and interrelationships Healy proposes all fall together in a convincing sequence. The succession of pictures on the theme of the Judgement of Paris also fits into a larger, coherent account of Rubens’s development as an artist. In every case, supporting or circumstantial evidence, whether a document or work of art, is used judiciously to reach conclusions that always are presented exactly for what they are, ranging from very firm to speculative and tantalizing. Healy is willing to explain important elements of the pictures as products of the artist’s intentions: the early London version implements Rubens’s theoretical studies; the design of the story included in the artist’s sketches for a silver basin and ewer expresses the love he felt towards his new bride Helena Fourment in 1630; and the late London version includes the Fury Alecto who alludes for the first time to the disastrous consquences of Paris’s choice, understood by Healy as Rubens’s veiled criticism of political leaders who had failed to avoid war. Each context depends on a delicate structure of circumstantial evidence that is exquisite and fragile at the same time. Healy never hesitates to question undocumented assumptions, and if the reader follows her lead, then it is not hard to throw open cases that she considers closed. How secure, for example, are the attributions to Rubens of the group of pictures based on engravings and thought to date before his Italian sojourn in 1600?
Throughout her book Healy takes seriously the visual language of art. Raphael was much more interested in ancient Roman sculptures depicting the Judgement than in texts describing it. Consequently Healy looks at each detail of every composition, discussing the implications of change, compositional arrangements, figure types, and actions. It is not at all the case that she neglects texts. What makes her analysis so interesting is that she credits artists with their own separate and independent visual language. Her account of this language is based on a learned and thorough grasp of early modern critical terms that are congruent with artistic practice. This tenacious scrutiny reveals many aspects of the pictures that a reader otherwise might miss: enjoyment, humour, serious judgement of quality all are animated by Healy’s clear and witty style so that the reader constantly senses her engagement with and love for the works, and her serious concern for them.
Healy’s close attention to the visual details allows her to discover or reconsider in original terms many siginficant nuances of emphasis and change in the pictures. Perhaps most fascinating and incisive is the explanations she offers and the conclusions she draws regarding the differences between the first and second states of the late LondonJudgement of Paris. In the first state, best preserved by a studio copy now in Dresden, Paris appears as a simple shepherd who somewhat awkwardly ponders his decision. After Rubens’s death and, indeed, as Healy demonstrates, following on the publication in 1677 of Roger de Piles’s description of the picture still in its first state, a French artist painted the alterations that still cover over Rubens’s original intentions. Paris’s broad features are idealized, his clumsily extended leg is retracted, while he now holds the apple out to Venus, and Mercury who had been addressing the three goddesses with a gesture of his right arm, now is reduced to the role of passive observer. Healy bothers to ask why these changes were made and she suggests ingeniously that all the additions are consistent with the theoretical criticism made by Poussinists who attacked the pictures by Rubens in the collection of the Duc de Richelieu that De Piles had praised so highly. She correctly observes that her hypothesis cannot be proven without technical examination of the overpaintings on the picture in the National Gallery, but the reader can nevertheless admire the resourcefulness and subtlety of her argument. Throughout the book this kind of close and carefully pondered hypothesis stimulates the reader to think in new ways about Rubens’s pictures, the general nature of his art, and the history of narrative painting.
Fiona Healy has succeeded in making Rubens’s pictures of the Judgement of Paris central to understanding the larger achievement of his art. Her book is a stimulating mixture of incisive scholarship and keen personal engagement with the pictures. She refuses to deny the individuality of Rubens’s art or of her own response.