The publication of the first volume on Rubens’s mythological paintings is another milestone for the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, arguably the longest and most exhaustive catalogue raisonńe project of our time. Encompassing entries on paintings, preparatory studies and other related works on mythological subjects from A to G (Achilles to the Graces), it is the fruit of the labor of six international scholars: Elizabeth McGrath, Gregory Martin, Fiona Healy, Bert Scheppers, Carl Van de Velde and Karolien De Clippel. As such, it marks a departure from earlier volumes in this project, typically assigned to, and written by individual authors. This decision on the part of the editorial board was surely not motivated only by the sheer number of works by Rubens and his studio in this genre, though the very fact that its five hundred pages cover only mythological stories from A to G does say a lot.
Anyone writing on Rubens knows what it takes to give due justice to the complexity of his work. In addition to being so prolific and running an active studio practice throughout his career, his singular capacity to absorb, internalize and interpret the visual and literary canon requires an equally singular determination to trace and understand the ways in which he used that canon. This challenge has only become greater for more recent contributors to the catalogue raisonńe, whose origins go back to the 1960 bequest of the immense documentation and photo archive assembled by the Rubens scholar Dr. Ludwig Burchard. The first of the projected twenty-nine parts came out in 1968. Judging by the pace of the publication of the parts to date, the last of the remaining volumes will likely take us beyond 2020, the year set as a goal for the completion of this project.
An excellent introduction by Elizabeth McGrath, whose importance to Rubens scholarship needs no introduction, sets the tone for the volume under review. With characteristic erudition, she leads the reader towards the artist’s approach to classical myths as shaped by broader context of their reception in early modern Europe. Yet as she notes, due to the collaborative nature of this project, she could only provide us with an “impressionistic preliminary to the subject,” since she wrote her essay before being able to read the final entries, and certainly well before she could read any of the material forthcoming in the volumes that will address paintings on mythological subjects from H to Z. Despite this disclaimer, this is another contribution of the kind we have learned to anticipate from McGrath, who impresses no less with her visual sensitivity than her deep knowledge of the classical tradition.
The catalogue entries are organized into smaller alphabetical units, with one author typically writing on a group of related works based on a mythological character, story, or a topos. Gregory Martin, who writes one of the largest sections within the present volume, opens the catalogue entries with Achilles. Though he discusses a single painting, the Prado Achilles Discovered among the Daughters of Lycomedes and two related works, his entry runs to fourteen very dense pages of description and documentation. Similarly, his section on the stories of Diana later in the volume (Cats. 24-36, pp. 302-384) brings together a wealth of material that could easily serve as a basis for a monographic study on the subject.
The same thoroughness and attention to detail characterizes the work of the other contributors, lending additional support to the notion that the remaining parts of the Corpus Rubenianum might be better served by similar team endeavor. Carl Van de Velde writes on Aeneas and Dido. Bert Schepers takes on the subject of the Amazons, which held particular fascination for Rubens, especially early on in his career. Karolien De Clippel contributes to the section on Bacchus. Fiona Healy deals with several mythological narratives that inspired Rubens throughout his life, including Andromeda, Apollo and Daphne, Danäe, and Erichthonius. McGrath herself writes the entries on Boreas and Orithyia, Ganymede, and the Three Graces, and co-authors a few other entries with Martin and Schepers.
Some of the boundaries between these groupings do get blurry. The entries on Bacchus, discussed by three authors (De Clippel, Martin, McGrath), lead to some repetitions and internal dissonances that could have been avoided by a more judicious distribution. Nonetheless, the benefits of this collaborative approach far outweigh the occasional weakness.
On the whole, this volume is another testimony to the scholarly energy it takes to survey and summarize the critical legacy of an artist like Rubens. Thus when Schepers discusses a lost painting of the Amazons (Cat. 5), his description extends to a modest half page of text, but it is followed by five even more dense pages of provenance data and notes. Similarly, in his entry on the extant version on the subject from Potsdam (Cat. 5a) we get two pages of citations concerning provenance and literature, seven pages of descriptive text and additional seven with notes. This is impressive cataloguing work by any standards, though it was certainly helped by the fact that Schepers has been working as a researcher at the Rubenianum since 2002. Yet as we follow the incredibly detailed accounts on the “lives” of these works from one collection to another, or the comments and opinions that have been voiced about them over time, we are sometimes left wanting for more input regarding their meanings.
Some of the contributors manage to bring in that personal perspective more fully than others. Healy’s discussions of works based on Andromeda and Erichthonius are good examples of entries that go beyond the customary expectations concerning a catalogue raisonńe to include a number of original observations. Similarly, Martin’s focus on the works featuring Diana and/or her companions allows him to write insightfully and persuasively about what these compositions may mean, and how they convey those meanings. Last but not least, McGrath closes this volume on a particularly high note with her discussion of works involving the Three Graces motif, especially the monumental painting from the Prado from about 1638 (Cat. 45).
Notwithstanding the long time it took to bring this study of Rubens’s mythological paintings out, it will be essential to anyone interested in further research into his approach to classical mythology. I am saying this as someone who wrote a dissertation on several of Rubens’s mythological paintings back in 1999, published as a book in 2009, without access to any comparable reference work on the subject. We can only hope that the next volumes (H-Z) will not take as long to write and produce.
Allow me to conclude with the unavoidable question: the future of similar endeavors.
Any catalogue raisonńe is inherently a work in progress, especially one dedicated to an artist whose oeuvre keeps generating new commentary, whether through journal articles and books, or through exhibition catalogues. For all of the energy that went into this volume, its longevity as a standard reference necessitates a continuous updating, hopefully through a digital edition. At the moment, all of the volumes of Rubens’s catalogue raisonńe published at least 15 years ago can be downloaded in pdf format from the site of the Rubenianum. A step in the right direction, this move towards the digital environment will eventually lead to a Corpus Rubenianum that can be continuously updated and enriched, and thus truly preserve the legacy of Dr. Burchard and the many stellar contributors to this project over the decades.
University of Maryland, College Park