The writing of the catalogue raisonné of Rubens’s work is arguably one of the most ambitious projects dedicated to a single artist over the last several decades. The early volumes in this series, which was inaugurated more than half a century ago with John Rupert Martin’s monograph on the no-longer extant paintings for the ceiling of the Jesuit church in Antwer, were typically written by individual scholars. Due to numerous new discoveries, academic publications, as well as those accompanying museum exhibitions, the task of compiling, organizing, and analyzing all of that material became ever more daunting. As a result, the writing of the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard has grown into a remarkable collaborative effort involving several generations of scholars.
This is especially true of the book under review – which constitutes the second volume of Part XI dedicated to mythological subjects. Written by eight scholars over a period of several years, it encompasses a portion of the artist’s oeuvre inspired by classical mythology (ranging alphabetically from Hercules to Olympus). Despite this fairly limited scope, even a quick look at any of the entries suffices to illustrate the challenges of keeping up with the constantly growing number of relevant references, before even attempting to build upon the existing knowledge with new interpretations. While most of the subsections are written by one of the eight contributors, the largest portion of this volume, which deals with works featuring one of Rubens’s favorite demi-gods, Hercules, was jointly authored by three scholars, Jeremy Wood, Bert Schepers, and Elizabeth McGrath. Indeed, that section alone, which extends to nearly two hundred pages, would have easily justified a separate volume.
As all other thematic units that comprise this publication, the section on Hercules is introduced by a general essay, this one written by McGrath and Schepers, which focuses on a particularly challenging portion of the artist’s oeuvre: the lost series of eighteen mythological paintings involving the life and deeds of Hercules commissioned by Philip IV in 1639 for the Alcázar. The related catalogue entries provide an excellent overview of the changing opinions concerning that cycle, as well as of the many other Hercules-themed works by the artist. Remarkably exhaustive in terms of referencing the existing information, while also rich with new observations, these entries typify the methodological approach and the attention to detail that characterizes the entire book.
Another large section of the catalogue, prepared by Nils Büttner, addresses Rubens’s works involving representations of nymphs. Büttner’s succinct introduction touches upon some of the perennial questions concerning this theme, which was also one of the artist’s favorites throughout his life. In addition to addressing the broader cultural reception of these mythological characters, he raises questions regarding the ways in which the artist may have imbued these inventions with his own meanings. Büttner is also the author of several other entries, including those featuring representations of Meleager and Atalanta, Jupiter and Callisto, and the assembly of the Olympians.
Gerlinde Gruber’s main contribution to this volume is a very thorough account of the artist’s representations of Medusa. Though she is dealing with only two works, her analysis highlights the challenges of arriving at firm conclusions concerning so many of Rubens’s paintings, especially those that involve possible collaborations with other artists like Frans Snijders or Jan Brueghel the Elder or that were created without known patrons in mind. In a similar way, Fiona Healy writes on merely two works, the lost Leda after Michelangelo and a now rejected composition featuring Orpheus. Nonetheless, her detailed discussion is both very helpful and quite illuminating regarding the difficulties of ascertaining so many aspects of the work of this prolific painter.
Another scholar in this volume who has written on Rubens’s mythologies in the past is Eveliina Juntunen. Her task was to write about the famous Munich composition of the abduction of the Leucippides, the one featuring the meeting between Mercury and Argus, as well as about another lost work showing Jupiter and Cupid, known primarily from an old copy in Princeton. Her observations concerning the iconography and the style of the Leucippides follow closely her earlier publications and are supplemented by additional entries on related works written by McGrath.
Gregory Martin adds his expertise to this collective endeavor by writing on a diverse group of works relating to Hippolytus, Leander and Hero, the Lapiths and the Centaurs, and Venus’s plea to Jupiter. He also makes a number of suggestions that refine some of the earlier interpretations, especially with regard to visual and literary sources that have not been noted in the literature. As one reads his contributions, one cannot help but be reminded again of Rubens’s exceptional capacity to incorporate so much of that tradition within his own work.
In addition to the entries for the section on Hercules, Elizabeth McGrath writes on a number of other works, including two particularly intriguing early mythologies, the Juno and Argus from Cologne (whose central portion also graces the cover of the text volume of this publication) and the Louvre Ixion. As one might expect from a scholar with a deep classical learning and particular sensitivity to iconographic clues, McGrath offers new suggestions regarding some of the more recondite elements of these compositions, which differ from those that have been proposed to date. At the same time, while these new interpretations may take us closer to the artist’s pictorial intent, they also demonstrate the difficulty of fixing any meaning within these copious inventions.
The editing of this varied material was surely a Herculean task in itself. One can only admire the three editors, Elizabeth McGrath, Bert Schepers, and Brecht Vanoppen, for their efforts in ensuring the uniformity of approach and the comparably high standards throughout this volume – notwithstanding the fact that they were working with such a fine group of fellow scholars.
Even as a partial account of Rubens’s inventions on subjects from classical mythology, this portion of the Corpus Rubenianum is a most welcome addition to the literature. The team of art historians who worked together on gathering and organizing this material can only be commended for their scholarly rigor. At the same time, one cannot help but acknowledge that this kind of systematic catalogues is a thing of the past, not only because of the tremendous resources they require, but because of their inherent “datedness.”
This is in no way intended as a criticism or a question concerning the value of this publication and all the work that has gone into its writing and production. The very fact that one finds so much information on a particular topic or a work of art by Rubens in a single place – often accompanied by new analysis and interpretation – is an incredible gift given the size of his oeuvre, and all of the ongoing debates concerning the attribution or the dating of some of his works, or the relationships between autograph paintings to those from his workshop.
Over the last several years, the Centrum Rubenianum has digitized numerous earlier volumes and made them available through their website free of charge. This direction is very much in line with the approach of other research institutions or museums. One hopes that as the original project comes to an end, the researchers at the Rubenianum will continue to work on transferring all of the material to a digital platform, creating a web-based catalogue raisonné that can continue to grow and retain its status as the most important reference work on the artist.
University of Maryland, College Park