In this latest installment of the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Koenraad Brosens grapples with the twelve-part Story of Constantinetapestry series which Peter Paul Rubens designed in 1622 and which was woven under the direction of Marc Comans (1563-1644) and François de la Planche (1573-1627) at their workshop in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel in Paris. Brosens has chosen to divide his text across six chapters: opening with a lengthy if necessary État de question, Brosens follows this with a sophisticated analysis of the circumstances faced by Comans and de la Planche, the tapestry weaving directors and, Brosens contends, commissioners of the primary edition; next, the familiar if remarkable record of correspondence surrounding the series’ production is presented, refreshingly discussed in light of the new evidence of the preceding chapter; the thirteen oil sketches and their subsequent provenance are dealt with next; perhaps slightly out of sync, this is followed by the literary and visual sources of the series; finally, the later reuse and adaptation of Rubens’s cartoons in subsequent weavings are covered, supported by detailed discussion of the role the tapestry market played in this.
As readers have come to expect from the Corpus Rubenianum, space is given to lucid presentation of each of the thirteen oil sketches by Rubens, as well as the twelve episodes in the associated tapestry series. The text is usefully bolstered by two appendices which encompass the core evidence: all the known woven editions of the tapestry series and their whereabouts; and the documentary record. In keeping with the mission of the Corpus, the volume is expansively illustrated with the drawings, oil sketches, paintings and many of the prints connected with the series, as well as examples from the main woven editions. In keeping with the Corpus format, four different indices comprehensively cover the text’s content. Brosens’s book is, therefore, a useful volume to which scholars and students will doubtless have recourse for years to come.
Refreshingly, Brosens approaches the material as a scholar not just of Rubens’s work but, above all, as a tapestry specialist. Brosens’s familiarity with the production context of the tapestries themselves adds a level of analysis missing, perhaps, from Egbert Haverkamp Begemann’s otherwise exemplary presentation of the Achilles series (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, X, Brussels, 1975). Above all, Brosens has approached the material unafraid to wrestle with what has become an increasingly thorny issue of royal commission versus entrepreneurial strategy. Opinion has vacillated whether the series was an example of the traditional patron-commission dynamic, embarked upon at the request of Louis XIII, or a project undertaken on speculation by the tapestry entrepreneurs Comans and de la Planche. The most influential proponents of the former scenario being Max Rooses, L’Oeuvre de P.P. Rubens, I-V, Antwerp, 1886-92 (III, pp. 216-219) and, most recently, both Pascal-François Bertrand, “La tapisserie et Rubens”, pp. 95-102 in M.-C. Heck, ed., Le Rubénisme en Europe aux VIIe et XVIIIe siècles, Turnhout, 2005, and Jean Vittet, “Charles de Comans’s posthumous inventory, 1635”, pp. 56-83 in T.P. Campbell & E.A.H. Cleland, eds., Tapestry in the Baroque. New Aspects of Production and Patronage, New York, 2010 (p. 60); the most prominent of the latter scenario being David DuBon , Tapestries from the Samuel H. Kress Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: The History of Constantine the Great Designed by Peter Paul Rubens and Pietro da Cortona , London, 1964, and Julius S. Held, The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens. A Critical Catalogue (National Gallery of Art, Kress Foundation Studies in the History of Art, 7), I-II, Princeton, 1980, pp. 66-68.
Despite Held’s stance, only five years ago the accepted wisdom in tapestry circles continued to regard the Constantine series as a royal commission (for example, by Isabelle Denis in New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tapestry in the Baroque. Threads of Splendor, exh. cat. October 17, 2007-January 6, 2008, cat. 14). A particularly fruitful exchange of ideas at the scholars’ day organized in conjunction with the Tapestry in the Baroque exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 2007 exposed the shaky foundations and repeated misconceptions of this narrative. In an uncompromising spate of activity since then, Koenraad Brosens has sought to redress the balance (“Who commissioned Rubens’s Constantine series? A new perspective: the entrepreneurial strategy of Marc Comans and François de la Planche,” Simiolus, 33, 3 (2008), pp. 166-182; “Les importations des tapisseries flamandes en France, 1600-1650. Un nouveau regard sur Marc de Comans et François de La Planche,” in: A. Brejon de Lavergnée & J. Vittet, eds., La tapisserie hier et aujourd’hui, Paris, 2011, pp. 35-42; “A case of mistaken identity: Rubens’s so-called Constantine and Crispusoil-sketch in Sydney,” The Burlington Magazine, 153 (2011), pp. 86-89). By returning to the primary visual and documentary evidence, and above all by introducing new archival evidence about Comans and de la Planche, Brosens convincingly unveils the probable circumstances in which they were working: immigrant Flemish tapestry entrepreneurs, as much international businessmen as weaving directors, who recognized their need for the type of high-quality, modern cartoons to which their countryman Rubens was so well-suited, courageously parrying the unexpectedly lukewarm response from the French savants(who found fault with the proportions of Rubens’s figures), pithily promoting the Constantine series to both the Queen Mother and Louis XIII, and already producing at least two further editions on-spec in the 1620s.
Brosens’s interest and expertise in the fields of art market and strategy are clear from the decided tilt of the book’s contents. Although Brosens is careful to include analysis of Rubens’s artistry and iconographic choices, the real meat of this book lies above all in the second chapter exploring the circumstances in which the cartoons were commissioned and the tapestries were produced. Indeed, it might be observed that the true hero of this book is not Peter Paul Rubens, but rather the duo of Marc Comans and François de la Planche. As such, it is commendable of the Corpus Rubenianum to have taken what some might regard as a leap of faith, and offer Brosens the opportunity to elucidate this key set of circumstances around the series’ design and creation. The result pays off magnificently, resulting in a book which not only contributes another installment to the worthy Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, but should also be recognized on its own merits as a vital account of the virtual rebirth of tapestry production in Paris, which would ultimately set into motion the foundation of the Manufacture Royale des Gobelins just over forty years later: an ironic twist in which the royal yoke was once again applied to what Brosens unveils to have started out as daring and innovative speculative production.
Metropolitan Museum of Art