Probably the most internationally active painter of his day, Rubens catered to the artistically-refined taste of the courts of England, France and Spain by providing individual works, often of a highly sensuous nature, to augment existing collections, or executing large programs, such as the Medici cycle, which through their use of complex allegorical language glorified the political might of the reigning dynasty. Rubens’s association with these countries was additionally intensified through his involvement as a diplomat seeking to bring about a peaceful settlement to the strife between the Northern and Southern Netherlands. It was with Spain that Rubens had the most enduring association, having lived in the Spanish controlled South from 1589. In 1603 he made his first visit to Spain when, in the service of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, he was charged with bringing paintings and other gifts to Valladolid, the residence of the king, Philip III, and to several members of the Spanish aristocracy, in particular the royal favourite and all-powerful Duke of Lerma. In 1628 Rubens returned, this time to Madrid, to the court of Philip IV, who was to commission numerous works all through the 1630s until Rubens’s death in 1640.
Given then these close artistic and political ties, it is indeed surprising that Alexander Vergara’s publication is the first monographic examination of Rubens’s lifetime involvement with Spain, whereby the focus is on his artistic and not diplomatic activities. There have, of course, been important studies of individual projects, such as the two volumes in the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard series devoted to the Eucharist Tapestry series for the Descalzas Reales in Madrid, commissioned by the Infanta Isabella and completed by 1628 (Nora de Poorter, vol. II), and to the paintings for Philip’s hunting lodge, the Torre de la Parada, commissioned in 1636 (Svetlana Alpers, vol. IX). Other studies, such as those dealing with the decoration of the Alcázar palace in Madrid by Steven Orso and Mary Crawford Volk, discuss Rubens’s contributions in the larger context of collecting. The aim of Vergara’s volume, a condensed version of his doctoral thesis, is twofold: he brings together all that is known about Rubens’s presence in the Royal collection, and examines the acquisition of his works by other collectors in Spain.
In his introduction Vergara outlines the scope and limitations of his study. His approach is to chronologically detail when works by Rubens entered Spain by dividing his text into five chapters: Rubens’s first visit to Spain, 1603-04; the years 1604-1628; Rubens’s second visit to Spain, 1628-29; the last decade of his life, 1630-40; and finally 1640-1700, when the last Spanish Hapsburg king Charles II died. This is the most sensible way of discussing Rubens’s association with the court and he provides interesting analyses of many works, such as the changes the artist made in 1628 to his Adoration of the Magi, which had entered Spain already in 1612. This approach does however give a fragmented understanding of the acquisition policies of private collectors. It is here that Vergara’s study is particularly informative, and in many cases he is not only able to identify the works listed in inventories but also suggests that many of those paintings which have hitherto been considered copies of well-known works may in fact be identical with these originals. Thus, for example, he proposes that a ‘la abundancia de Rubens con muchas figuras de Su familia’, inventoried in 1689 in the estate of Gaspar de Haro and purchased in London as the ‘la paz y la abundancia’ for his father Luis between 1651 and 1654, is Rubens’s Allegory of Peace (London, National Gallery). It is however a pity Vergara did not include a brief discussion of the known provenance of this and other works, especially as in many cases it would have substantiated his argument. The same applies to the absence of original inventory citations, a limitation perhaps imposed by the publisher, which again makes it necessary to consult other references, such as G. Cruzada Villaamil, Rubens diplomatico español (Madrid 1874) or M. B. Burke and P. Cherry, Collections of Paintings in Madrid 1601-1755(Malibu 1997).
Vergara, as he explains in his introduction, limits the scope of his study to the self-contained topic of Rubens’s paintings in Spain rather than expanding it to address issues such as the extent to which his works influenced both Spanish painters and contributed to the development of the taste for collecting. Such a study would indeed have been a completely different project. Yet as Vergara points out, Rubens’s paintings “provided images that affected contemporaries in the fabrication of their mental worlds . . . [and] should therefore be seen as part of the cultural identity of seventeenth-century Spain (p. 5).” In view of this, exemplary discussions of the reception of a few works would have greatly enhanced our understanding, and allowed Vergara to share his knowledge of Spanish society and painting rather than just arouse our curiosity by including brief mention of such significant aspects as the use of allegory in painting (p. 74), the attitude of conservative moralists who condemned more the creator of nudity in painting than the owner/viewer (p. 167), or the suggestion that Velázquez may have been motivated to include architecture in his Riding Lesson of Baltasar Carlos by the presence of the portraits of the Archdukes by Rubens and Jan Brueghel.
Vergara concludes with three appendices: a translation of Pacheco’s biography of Rubens, the transcription and translation into English of the Infanta’s order of 1623 granting a monthly pension of ten escudos, and of the text for the petition requesting Rubens’s ennoblement. The book is well written with an attractive layout and with illustrations throughout the text. It is a work that every student of Rubens and Spain will have to consult.
Addendum – April 2001
Vergara’s monograph is a much shortened version of his dissertation of 1994. Although details of the history of individual paintings are not given in the monograph, this information is found in volume 2 of his dissertation which is a catalogue of all known works (451 in total) by or attributed to Rubens that were in Spain during the seventeenth century. Each entry details the known history and in many cases corrects erroneous provenances. Vergara’s dissertation is available for purchase from UMI.