This recent volume of the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard offers Rubens scholars another important, well-documented, and occasionally surprising contribution to the invaluable series. With catalogue entries grounded in a wealth of scholarship and the rich archives of the late Ludwig Burchard (1886-1960), Koen Bulckens’s catalogue focuses on 37 Rubens and Rubens studio paintings and drawings, along with their related prints, covering Jesus’s adult public life and ministry, from the preaching of John the Baptist to Judas’s betrayal. Most of the original designs were produced in Rubens’s busy Antwerp studio, c. 1609 – 1620, at a time when he was also executing large-scale altarpieces to adorn newly built post-Tridentine churches. However, related versions and copies extended throughout the master’s career and well beyond, suggesting that Counter-Reformation concerns were less at issue for Rubens in this grouping than it might initially seem.
As we learn from the volume’s preface, the somewhat unusual collaboration between Koen Bulckens and Paul Huvenne, with the former providing the catalogue entries and the latter the substantial introduction, is due to personal history. After having been assigned the subject as a young scholar, Huvenne’s directorship, first of the Rubenshuis, followed by that of the KMSKA, no longer allowed him the time to work on his volume. The job of compiling the catalogue eventually was passed to Koen Bulckens, one of the younger Rubens scholars, currently working on his dissertation on Rubens’s workshop at Brown University, with Huvenne contributing the introduction. Adding to that the task of the translator, Abigail Newman, the project turns out to be the fruit of a successful collaboration between a senior scholar, an emerging scholar, and a gifted translator and art historian in her own right. This is just the sort of joint project that Rubens himself might have greatly appreciated.
As expected from any volume in the CRLB series, Bulckens’s catalogue provides a wealth of carefully researched and useful reference material including provenance, dating, historiography, attribution, iconography, related works, techniques, and discussions surrounding the nature and degree of workshop involvement. The main thrust of Bulckens’s catalogue is iconographic, dealing with Rubens’s underlying textual and visual sources, from gospel passages to hagiographical texts, from Italian Renaissance artists to Rubens’s contemporaries. Bulckens also documents the prints produced after Rubens’s designs by engravers such as Lucas Vorsterman, Scheldte Adamsz. Bolswert, Pieter Claesz. Soutman and lesser known printmakers. The sheer number and variety of names associated with these compositions underscore the breadth with which Rubens approached even his lesser known designs as well as their extraordinary popularity in his own day and beyond.
Bulckens carefully examines the unusually complex attribution questions given Rubens’s collaborative studio enterprise and the multiple extant and known versions and copies of these subjects. Authorship questions, in which artists such as Anthony van Dyck, Jan Breughel II, Abraham van Diepenbeeck, Adriaen van Utrecht, and others are variously implicated, are further complicated by the fact that certain designs, such as the many and varied works associated with the Miraculous Draught of Fishes, were executed in a variety of mediums, by multiple hands, sometimes over decades apart. In many cases Bulckens succeeds in distinguishing between originals, later versions, copies, and hands. These technical notes, often involving x-radiography, underpainting, issues related to medium, and changes in panel size, shed further light on the nature of Rubens’s choices and alterations in first and subsequent versions. Nevertheless, many questions are necessarily left unanswered, even as such issues further draw into question the relevance and relationship of commonly used, functional categories including original model, preparatory studies, later versions, and copies in Rubens’s circle.
In addition to shining an important spotlight on how extraordinarily prolific Rubens and his studio were in executing paintings, drawings, and prints on a variety of subjects related to Christ’s Ministry, the volume also offers some theories as to how and why this was so. As both Bulckens and Huvenne observe, Rubens protected some of the most popular of these designs through prints, some of which were granted early privileges, or patents. One gets the sense that Rubens was at once intent on both short-term and long-term goals in this grouping: that is, on rather quickly executing a body of these works in and through his studio for private collectors and simultaneously protecting his designs so that further versions could be executed and sold into the future as by his own hand. Pointing to Rubens’s more pragmatic business sensibilities, they help to paint a picture of a busy Antwerp studio certainly known to, and perhaps frequented by, individual art collectors such as Sir Dudley Carleton, Gaspar Roomer, and Jacobus de Wit (all of whom were the first known owner of works in this volume) seeking out works already at hand: that is, works executed and stored in the workshop on a non-bespoke basis.
Indeed, in the context of Bulckens’s careful provenance work, Huvenne proffers a fresh view of the grouping in his introduction as the fruit of an extremely busy and business-minded artist who stored stock pictures of the sort alluded to by Rubens himself when he wrote of “the flower of his stock” in his famous letter to Sir Dudley Carleton of 28 April 1618. Huvenne’s compelling discussion of Rubens’s participation in an open and anonymous, supply-and-demand driven market for a wider, local public gives rich food for thought. Ironically, it is the kind of point one expects to be made of Dutch or Flemish Calvinist specialist painters at the time, not of the Catholic humanist court painter Rubens, especially when painting religious subjects.
Related observations concerning a demand for more secular content in such religious pictures also warrant further exploration and discussion. According to the authors, some of these works incorporate moralizing and didactic exempla virtutis with gendered implications, which in the case of scenes of John the Baptist and Salome arguably express warnings against falling to “the guiles of the ‘weaker sex’” (22). Others emphasize dramatic scenes with clear humanist elements, such as those dependent on Rubens’s Leonardo-inspired interests in facial expressions as external markers of the passions of the soul (affetti) like The Tribute Money (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, no. 31); while others treat a particularly violent narrative moment by “presenting figures and various poses and states of movement” (89) as in Christ Asleep During the Tempest (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, no. 13).
True to Rubens early in his career, other compositions, as in the studio version of Jonah Thrown Overboard (Musée de Beaux-Arts, Nancy, no. 23), seem to celebrate the expressive power of the robust male nude above all. Others, such as the memorable pen and wash drawing depicting Salome holding the tongue of an already dead John the Baptist in Amsterdam (Amsterdam Museum, no. 7) focus on unusually innovative and horrific moments which likely appealed to contemporary tastes for memorable, narrative images with unusually gruesome subject matter. It therefore goes to reason that while the Ministry compositions must generally be situated within the context of Rubens’s designs for highly rhetorical, large-scale altarpieces that met new, post-Tridentine devotional requirements, these more human-scale works might also be viewed, as Huvenne seems to suggest, as successful attempts to meet market demands for a less doctrinely concerned clientele looking for moralizing, theatrical, or other more secular features in religious art.
Huvenne’s thought-provoking essay, however, stands somewhat alone, removed from the findings in the volume’s catalogue. This reviewer would have benefitted from an essay by Bulckens analyzing the breadth and content of his own findings. As it stands, readers are left trying to glean Bulckens’s broader conclusions through his catalogue entries. In the end, however, this reviewer is encouraged that the Centrum Rubenianum continues to grant some rising Rubens scholars access to the Burchard archives, while acknowledging their growing contributions to the future of Rubens scholarship. In an important way, this CRLB volume continues the Rubenianum’s long tradition of supporting certain early career scholars dating back to the young Huvenne himself, and promoting serious and productive, inter-generational collaborations for which Rubens himself aptly paved the way.
Catherine H. Lusheck
University of San Francisco