With this new title from the Reaktion series ‘Renaissance Lives,’ Alexander Marr continues his exploration of a topic that has preoccupied him for a number of years: the early modern discourse on the interrelated notions of ‘genius,’ ‘ingenuity’ and ‘spirit,’ as reflected both in period writing and artistic practice. His published works on this subject to date include two edited volumes and numerous essays. Nor does this volume suggest that he is reaching the end of this research trajectory. One of his current projects is a critical edition of the first English translation of Lomazzo’s Trattato dell’arte de la pittura, scoltura, et architettura (1584); another one is a monograph on Hans Holbein the Younger, which explores the role of ingenious word play and wit in his oeuvre.
Anyone familiar with the critical reception of Rubens, from his contemporaries who praised him as a ‘new Apelles’ to writers like Goethe, for whom his artistry surpassed nature itself, is aware of the importance the idea of ‘genius’ was for his artistic identity. It is thus all the more surprising that Marr’s study is the first one to focus our attention on this issue and the ‘extent to which Rubens was used to fashion ‘genius’ itself into a powerful critical category’ (p. 7).
This is certainly an ambitious goal, given the sheer scope and variety of the works associated with this veritable ‘Homer of painting,’ as another nineteenth-century critic, Jacob Burkhardt, would famously describe Rubens. No less daunting is the task of wading through the mountain of secondary literature, making sure to give due credit to the most relevant sources. One can thus understand Marr’s decision to look at exemplary works from different points of the artist’s career, rather than aim for comprehensiveness. The same applies to his use of the literature. He relies largely on primary sources from the period, or secondary literature that refers to them in a more substantive manner.
Though modest in format and written with an eye towards broader readership, this study is also packed with original insights that can prompt further scholarly discussion. It begins with a preface in which Marr reviews the main episodes of Rubens’s rich life, taking us from his childhood to his final resting place in the Antwerp church of St. James. As he reminds us through the words of the epitaph inscribed upon the artist’s tomb, this Apelles for all times was exalted for his innate talent (gift), a quality that encompasses the closely associated notions of spirit, ingenuity, and genius.
Each section of Marr’s book looks at the different ways in which these notions relate to a facet of the artist’s work. In the introduction, for instance, he considers Rubens’s own reflections on these ideas – both in his paintings and his writings – as well as their importance within the writings of his early biographers and critics, most notably Giovanni Bellori and Roger De Piles. Within this context, Marr tackles one of the more confounding aspects of Rubens’s character: the seeming contradiction between his swift, bold, and impassioned manner of painting, synonymous with the idea of ‘genius,’ and his oft-noted qualities of self-control and moderation, informed by the Neo-stoic ideals of spiritual calm and equanimity that were so important within his intellectual circle.
The first chapter deals with the idea of ‘spirit’ as it applies to the genre of religious painting. Here Marr focuses his attention at some of Rubens’s first major commissions, such as the altarpiece for the Oratorian church in Rome (Santa Maria in Vallicella) and his portrait of members of the Gonzaga family adoring the Trinity. As these carefully chosen examples of sacred painting demonstrate, the notion of genius is closely aligned with the ‘spiritus’ or the force that powers the body and mind of an individual, but also, with the divine presence in the world itself.
The second chapter provides a complementary perspective on the ‘spirit’ as it relates to creative ingenuity. The reader may be initially surprised that his case study here is not a work by Rubens but by one of his contemporaries, Willem van Haecht the Younger: The Picture Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest (ca. 1628), Rubenshuis. Yet, as Marr persuasively argues, this imaginary gathering of artists, collectors, patrons, and amateurs functions as a visual manifesto on the collaborative and sociable aspects of ingenuity in the visual culture of Antwerp – while also highlighting the ‘singular wit’ of Rubens, even though he appears as merely one participant within this learned ‘conversation’ on art. Though much of this analysis draws on one of his recent publications focusing specifically on this gallery picture, it is central to his argument within this book, especially as a counterpoint to his discussion of ‘spirit’ within the genre of sacred art.
This insightful account of the culture of collecting and the ways in which works of art, their creators, as well as their viewers, are engaged in various dialogical exchanges provides a bridge to chapter three, where Marr considers the idea of ingenuity within the discourse on originality and imitation. Many of the examples in this section of his study underscore Rubens’s lifelong engagement with the world of antiquity: his desire to reanimate that world through the robust (especially male) figures that populate his paintings, and his tacit acknowledgment that those ‘vital spirits’ of that past are ultimately irretrievable.
With chapter four, Marr comes back to those seemingly incompatible qualities of sensuality and sobriety of Rubens’s ‘ingenium’ and the way in which this apparent contradiction is resolved within his work. His objects of choice here are among the most fascinating of Rubens’s paintings where ideas about abundance, fertility and feasting seem inseparable from the larger theme of creative agency. This discussion also extends, in a sense, to the concluding segment of the book, where Marr looks at Rubens’s ingenium in relation to the genius loci, or the spirit of the place – as thematized by his magisterial landscapes from the final years of his life. As Marr reminds us, the Flemish character of these scenes signals a return to a vernacular language despite Rubens’s identity as a truly international painter, and a sense of cultural belonging closer to the notion of Romantic genius than to early modern ingenuity.
Much of the material in this study will be familiar to Rubens specialists, as well as scholars of early modern art in general. Yet Marr’s imaginative approach and skillfully composed narrative consistently makes this ‘old matter’ seem fresh with new insights. He looks carefully and connects images to literary sources, motifs, and ideas with admirable fluency. Indeed, sometimes these connections rush forth like a stream, leaving the reader wish for a more sustained discussion.
Though this more essayistic approach accords with the goals of the editors of this series, Marr’s study is an important contribution to the literature. By inviting us to consider the importance of spirit, ingenuity, and genius for Rubens himself, as well as for his critical reception, he makes us aware once more of the difficulty of describing the creative processes they refer to.
Given the uncertain future of academic publishing, one should commend the editors of this series for including so many high-quality images of the works that Marr refers to in his discussion – though it is frustrating that in the interest of space, the labels do not include the collections. However, it is the writing itself that counts the most – and which makes this book enjoyable from cover to cover, even for readers like myself, who have spent years thinking and writing about Rubens.
University of Maryland
 Alexander Marr, with Raphaële Garrod, José Ramón Marcaida, Richard J. Oosterhoff, Logodaedalus: Word Histories of Ingenuity in Early Modern Europe (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2018); Alexander Marr, with Raphaële Garrod (eds.), Descartes and the Ingenium. The Embodied Soul in Cartesianism (Leiden and Boston, Brill, 2020). Cf. Alexander Marr, “Locus genii: Placing Genius in Roger de Piles’s Criticism”, in Alexander, Gilby and Marr (eds.), The Places of Early Modern Criticism, pp. 232-50; and “Working by Wit Alone: Aspects of Ingenuity in Dürer”, in Julian Luxford (ed.), Tributes to Paul Binski. Studies in Gothic Art, Architecture and Ideas (London – Turnhout: Harvey Miller – Brepols, 2021), pp. 372-85.
 Alexander Marr, “Ingenuity and Discernment in The Cabinet of Cornelis van der Geest (1628)”, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, vol. 69 (2019), pp. 106-45.