Questions of artistic collaboration, rivalry, and dialogue find rich and ample material within Rubens’s career, oeuvre, and afterlife, as the abundance of recent scholarship demonstrates (e.g. Anne T. Woollet and Ariane van Suchtelen, exh. Los Angeles/The Hague, 2006; Reinhold Baumstark, et al., exh. Munich, 2009; Nico van Hout, exh. Brussels/London, 2014). Beyond overseeing his massive studio, collaborating with his colleagues was a fundamental aspect of how Rubens worked. Although various elements of Velázquez’s interest in Rubens have received attention (see e.g. Giles Knox, 2008; Javier Portús in exh. Madrid, 2007; Reinhard Liess, 2003), and articles have treated the Torre de la Parada’s architecture (Iván Bustamante and Claudio Jiménez Camacho, 2014) and decorative cycle, to which both artists contributed (Annegret Glang-Süberkrüb, 2007; Hans-Joachim Raupp in exh. Munich, 1999), the full-length study by Aneta Georgievska-Shine and Larry Silver is most welcome because it takes Rubens’s and Velázquez’s relationship as its fulcrum. In examining this artistic dialogue within and beyond the Torre cycle, the authors compellingly attend to how these artists’ exchanges produced not only an ambitious painting cycle but also a court audience ready to embrace these paintings.
Delving into this 1636 commission for the Torre de la Parada, King Philip IV of Spain’s hunting lodge outside Madrid, the present book principally advances two arguments. The first regards the narrative content of the painting cycle, which includes 63 mythological scenes designed by Rubens and executed by him and his associates. Following the arrival of these paintings in Spain in 1638-39, Velázquez supervised their installation and contributed 11 paintings of his own. Additional decorations for the lodge by Frans Snyders, Vicente Carducho, and others are mentioned but not extensively addressed in this study, which trains its focus squarely on Rubens and Velázquez.
In presenting negative moral exempla to the Spanish king based overwhelmingly on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Rubens and Velázquez, the authors argue, consistently illuminated the fundamental dangers that people pose to themselves, whether through uncontrolled lust or rage or overweening ambition. The artists developed these meanings through the sustained presentation of classical gods and heroes in a decidedly humbling manner, underscoring their fallibility and quintessential humanity. The timbre of Titian’s mythological paintings and indeed of Ovid’s text – as Svetlana Alpers recognized in her seminal study of the lodge (1971) – both provided important models for Rubens.
In the second line of argument, the authors compellingly interpret not only Velázquez’s painted additions to the cycle, but indeed the entire project as a dialogue between Rubens and Velázquez with, as the authors rightly observe, “the ever-present Titian as their ultimate precedent.” The chapters devoted to Velázquez’s painted contributions to the cycle make an effective case for interpreting these works as active responses to those of Rubens. Yet in concluding, the authors take these arguments further, extending their scope appreciably to include not only artistic intention, but more broadly how paintings prepare and affect an audience’s reception of other paintings. They trace the back and forth between these artists from their encounters during Rubens’s second visit to the Madrid court in 1628-29, after which Velázquez became increasingly preoccupied with classical mythology, as his paintings and a contemporary biography attest. The “demystifying” presentation of the ancient gods in Velázquez’s Triumph of Bacchus(1629; Madrid) and Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan (c.1630; Madrid), the authors convincingly assert, effectively prepared the Spanish court audience for the Torre de la Parada cycle’s rhetorical strategy of gods and heroes succumbing to very human failings. They pursue the dialogue further through Velázquez’s thematic and visual allusions to Rubens, both in Las Meninas (1656; Madrid) via the copies of Rubens’s Torre compositions that adorned the pictured (and actual) room and, albeit less directly, in Las Hilanderas (1655-60; Madrid), through the reference to Titian’s Rape of Europa (c. 1560-62; Boston), which Rubens had also copied.
Six chapters provide detailed examinations of Rubens’s paintings for the cycle, with each chapter focused on a pictorial theme, such as the dangers of love, the challenges heroes must confront, and artistic ambition. Three subsequent chapters treat Velázquez’s contributions: his paintings of ancient philosophers; Mars (c. 1638; Madrid); and his portraits of the king, his family, and various court entertainers. A single chapter addresses some of the hunting scenes produced for the Torre.
Seeking to determine the artists’ intended meanings and the earliest viewers’ presumed understandings of the paintings, the authors focus on the paintings’ compositions and their figures’ expressive qualities. They support their close readings with an impressive amount of visual and literary material from across Europe, particularly emphasizing the sources most likely known to Rubens and Velázquez and those that would have conditioned the Spanish court’s viewing experiences. The authors examine individual works but also consider these works in related pairs and groups, returning throughout to paintings discussed earlier to enrich and thicken their interpretative web. This makes for satisfying reading and also, one suspects, echoes how Torre de la Parada visitors experienced the cycle.
Because interpreting artistic invention lies at the heart of their project, the authors usually discuss most closely whichever object – oil sketch or final painting – is generally agreed to be by Rubens himself. While signaling the rare circumstance in the Torre commission in which a number of the final paintings were not only executed by other painters, as was usual, but moreover bear their signatures (or in some cases inscriptions with their creators’ names), the authors do not pursue this thread further than to speculate, following Alpers, that perhaps Rubens wished to have the authors of these works openly identified so as to avoid having works below his standards tarnish his lofty reputation at the Spanish court. Although the authors’ focus on Rubens and Velázquez places their dialogue in welcome relief, one might have wished for further attention to the other players involved in the production process. What if anything did the singular Jordaens bring to his interpretations of Rubens’s sketches and the painting begun by Rubens that he is believed to have finished? Can anything further be said about how such little-known artists as Jacob Peter Gouwy and (a lesser) Jan van Eyck came to translate Rubens’s oil sketches into paintings for so prestigious a commission? By limiting their discussion of the Flemish pictures principally to Rubens himself, the authors sidestep the question of the finished paintings’ quality, long dismissed as mediocre but perhaps deserving a fresh and historicized consideration.
Since the authors adduce a wealth of Spanish literary evidence to support the currency of many ideas espoused in the series, one might also hope to hear a bit more about who – which noblemen, foreign visitors, artists – apart from the king, is known or can reasonably be suggested to have seen this series while it was still assembled in the admittedly quite private Torre.
Both Rubens and Velázquez are too towering, their convergence at the Spanish court in 1628-29 too remarkable a historical conjunction, and their respective contributions to this project too substantive and intertwined, not to be seriously examined. Thus, perhaps this book’s greatest contribution lies in its exploration of how the Torre cycle functioned as a collaboration and a dialogue between these artists, and the implied methodological claim that – with regard to this pictorial project but also much more broadly – the Spanish and Flemish artistic contexts cannot be considered in isolation; attention to the cultural context of each place, and concomitant conversance in the historiography of each, is critical in treating the Torre de la Parada cycle and the many other artistic projects that bestride early modern Spain and Flanders.
Abigail D. Newman