In contrast to the many Rubens exhibitions from 2002 to 2006 that were attempting to give an overview of the artist’s work or some section of it, the Brussels exhibition Rubens. A Genius at Work, concentrated on the museum’s own holdings. It began as a four-year multi-disciplinary research project around the collection; the exhibits were cleaned and conserved, and a thorough technical analysis was undertaken, helped by x-rays and infrared photography when necessary; the latter material was much in evidence during the specialist ‘Rubens Day’ in early December.
The exhibition offered an extraordinary opportunity to study various types of Rubens’s sources. All the loans were chosen because they related to works in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. The goal was to investigate the artistic process in Rubens and his workshop, exemplified in about 120 paintings, oil sketches, drawings, prints and a tapestry from the Triumph of the Eucharist series (no. 82). The exhibition and excellent, lavishly illustrated catalogue represents a collaborative effort of twelve authors, introduced by five essays (Sabine Van Sprang: Rubens and Brussels; Michèle van Kalck: The Rubens collection in the Brussels museum before 1880; and after 1880 by Joost Vander Auwera; Arnout Balis: Rubens and His Studio; Tine Meganck: Rubens and the Human Figure). The actual catalogue of works is divided into twelve different sections, each prefaced by a short introductory text (in addition to the editors and Tine Meganck, authors of the catalogue are: Christine van Mulders, Natasja Peeters, Hélène Dubois, Bert Schepers, Véronique Bücken, Nora de Poorter, Inga Rossi-Schrimpf, and Nico Van Hout).
The works were installed roughly chronologically in accordance with the six main sections reflected in the catalogue, beginning with the artist’s visual and theoretical sources, his collaboration with other artists such as Jan Brueghel the Elder, Frans Snyders, and Anthony van Dyck, his role in the studio, and the monumental altarpieces that were restored for the occasion, mostly in situ in the museum’s upper floor where they have been exhibited for years in the large hall (nos. 45, 47, 51, 55, 61, 64, 68). The altarpieces were not however reunited with their respective frames, which the museum apparently also preserves. Natasja Peeters discussed the influence of Rubens’s change to the portico altarpiece and the resulting emphasis on the drama of the theme depicted – predominantly New Testament scenes from the Life and Passion of Christ, the life of the Virgin Mary, especially her assumption into heaven as well as lives of the saints. Among the large altarpieces, works related to the Ascent of Calvary were especially instructive in showing Rubens’s working process, from initial oil sketches to late copies (nos. 68-74). One wonders whether Rubens relied as heavily on studio assistants for his large Martyrdom of St. Livinus of 1633 (no. 64), painted for the Ghent Jesuit church, as the catalogue suggests. Besides the saint’s face, his garments and some of the bandits, it looks as if Rubens also intervened in the rearing white horse, for example. Also problematic from my point of view is the proposal that Rubens reused part of his Study of Two Half-Nude Men(early 1610s; Stockholm; no. 67) for the tormentor on the very left. Even in the 1630s Rubens’s preliminary chalk studies are much closer to the final painting – his beautiful drawings for the Garden of Love are an example that comes to mind.
Rubens’s large-scale projects were represented by sketches for the Whitehall Ceiling (nos. 86-88), among them the Glynde sketch with the Apotheosis of King James I (no. 85; the work is now on permanent view at Tate Britain after funds were secured to keep it in Britain) and by works for the Pompa Introitus Ferdinandi of 1635, among them several portraits by Cornelis de Vos (1585-1651), often retouched by Rubens (nos. 89-96). The twelve sketches for the Torre de la Parada series (nos. 97-108), which were preliminary to eleven paintings, three of them by Rubens himself, concluded the main section of the exhibition. Conservation showed that the Fall of Icarus (no. 107) and the Birth of Venus (no. 103) were cut from the same panel and that no panel had a guild mark. Except for the Medici cycle all of Rubens’s major projects thus were represented and the visitor could follow the artist’s oeuvre from early copies to mature works, ending with paintings that showed his continued authority even after his death. Eugène Delacroix’s (no. 119) copy after Rubens’s Miracles of St. Benedict (no. 119) is vivid testimony to the latter’s lasting influence.
Christ and the Adulterous Woman of ca. 1615, the painting chosen for the cover of the catalogue, introduced the goal of the exhibition. Exhibited in close proximity were related works such as individual head studies (no. 4), an engraving related to the head of Christ (no. 5) and drawings after Rubens’s preliminary studies attributed to Willem Panneels (ca. 1600?-1634). Oil sketches, prints, and drawings by or after Rubens thus were interwoven and allowed for direct comparisons with the Brussels painting. The Copenhagen head study of a Young Soldier (no. 3, right) actually is closer to the painted Head of a Young Soldier in a private collection (Fig. 4; the illustration is reversed; the soldier’s right hand was removed during a recent restoration). Of interest is Tine Meganck’s identification of the Head of a Heavy-set Man in Copenhagen (no. 2) as a copy after the dwarf in Rubens’s Genoese portrait of Caterina Grimaldi (?) at Kingston Lacy. This shows that the artist brought preliminary work from his Italian years back to Antwerp.
Rubens’s early copies after Northern artists, such as hisPortrait of Paracelsus (no. 7), here compared to an anonymous copy from the Louvre (no. 8), and the Ansegisus and Begga (no. 11), the latter represented by the museum’s enlarged copy after Rubens’s original of ca. 1612-15 in Vienna, together with The Feast of St. Martin (now Rubenshuis, Antwerp) by a follower of Marten van Cleve (no. 9) that Rubens retouched, introduced the exhibition. These works (excluding Ansegisus and Begga) will be published shortly in Kristin Lohse Belkin’s Rubens’s Copies and Adaptations from Renaissance and Later Artists: German and Netherlandish Artists (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, XXVI, pt. 1).
In her essay ‘Rubens on the Human Figure: Theory, Practice and Metaphysics,’ Tine Meganck takes up and expands on the topic previously addressed by Arnout Balis (in Rubens Passioni, eds. Heinen & Thielemann, 2001) concerning Rubens’s so-called theoretical notebook, preserved in fragmentary form in the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London, at Chatsworth, and reflected in the De Ganay manuscript and the 1773 publication of the Théorie de la Figure Humaine. Ideas she expressed here are referred to throughout the following catalogue texts. A recent article by Juliana Barone on “Rubens and Leonardo on Motion: Figures, Inscriptions and Texts,” further elaborates on the subject (Raccolta Vinciana, fasc. XXXII, Milan, 2007, pp. 343-393).
As expected, special attention was paid to the apprentices and assistants in Rubens’s studio. The difficulty in naming these studio assistants is discussed in Arnout Balis’s valuable essay ‘Rubens and His Studio: Defining the Problem,’ where he builds on his earlier article in the 1993 Tokyo exhibition catalogue The Flight of Lot and His Family from Sodom. Here now he investigates further the early sources for Rubens’s pupils, beginning in 1649 with Johannes Meyssens and ending with F.J. Van den Branden in 1883. A chronology of Rubens’s studio concludes the essay.
Hélène Dubois’s research has contributed much to identifying and differentiating between Rubens’s hand and the work of the studio (pp. 160-63). The descriptions of the panels and canvases used in the works on view and the explanation of the working process from the application of the imprimatura to ‘dead-coloring’ to Rubens’s retouches or his wet-in-wet highlights are much appreciated. The realization that poor quality wood for paintings or oil sketches would signal a work that Rubens intended to keep for himself was another valuable observation. Christ and the Adulterous Woman for example, was painted on mediocre quality oak (no. 1). Infrared photography also clearly revealed Rubens’s initial rough, abstract lines in black chalk that outline the principal figures in his Triumph of the Catholic Faith oil sketch in Brussels (no. 84, Fig. 1).
One should be aware that the catalogue text at times is more critical than the caption to individual works lets you believe. In Hélène Dubois’s opinion, for example, the Pietà with St. Francis (no. 55) is painted by assistants only (p. 162) and the Intercession of the Virgin (no. 61) is described as the work primarily of assistants with coarse retouches by Rubens. Once, in the Ascent to Calvary (no. 68), commissioned in 1634, a studio assistant is introduced other than Van Dyck: the women of Jerusalem at the right are tentatively ascribed to Jan van den Hoecke (no. 68, Fig. 5 and p. 39, Fig. 4).
Van Dyck’s participation in Rubens’s studio was investigated fully in the analysis of the Adoration of the Magi of ca. 1618-1620,formerly in St. Martin’s Abbey in Tournai (nos. 51, 53, 54), an altar considered to have been largely executed by Van Dyck while in Rubens’s studio (Joost Vander Auwera). However, despite the various in-depth technical analyses a clear opinion whether a work was by Rubens or Van Dyck remained elusive for at least some portraits (nos. 35-37), which were exhibited as ‘by Rubens or van Dyck.’ Vander Auwera’s contribution on the boundaries of connoisseurship also discusses this topic (pp. 125-28), while Nora de Poorter believes no definite solution is possible (p. 143). She identifies the Shepherdess (no. 30, private collection) as Rubens’s first wife Isabella Brant instead of Suzanna Fourment (1599-1628), an older sister of Rubens’s second wife. The painting in her opinion therefore dates from a decade earlier, ca. 1612. Van der Auwera’s discussion of the two portrait drawings in Budapest and Vienna, traditionally believed to represent Albert Rubens (nos. 53-54), and their association with Rubens’s paintings of the Madonna with Penitent Sinners in Kassel and the Madonna in a Flower Garland in Munich may be too rigid, since, as Konrad Renger pointed out, the identity of the Rubens child with Albert really is not securely established.
The panel with the fancily dressed, smiling woman called Helena Fourment (?) (no. 32) dates from 1634 at the earliest as the dendrochronological analysis showed. Previously attributed to Jan Boeckhorst or even Rubens, it is in the catalogue attributed to the Rubens studio, while Arnout Balis suggested Theodoor van Thulden (1606-1669) as author of both the Brussels panel and the related version in the Rubenshuis, Antwerp (no. 33; Antwerp school, 17th-century).
A number of examples from the so-called Rubens cantoor, the collection of some 500 drawings in the Copenhagen print room based almost exclusively on Rubens’s work, were interspersed throughout. The majority is attributed to Willem Panneels, a Rubens pupil who began his apprenticeship in about 1624, became a master in 1628, watched over Rubens’s house and studio while the artist was away on diplomatic missions, and left Antwerp in 1630. During the ‘Rubens Day’, the St. Sebastian Assisted by Three Angels in the Brussels collection that Arnout Balis had attributed to Panneels in 1994 (Van Dyck 350, CASVA, Symposium Papers 26, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1994, p. 188, fig. 12) was brought from the storeroom for comments (no securely attributed paintings by Panneels are known). The figure of the saint indeed resembles the St. Sebastian figure known from Panneels’s etching (Hollstein, XV, p. 116, no. 15, repr.); the painting should therefore be kept in mind as a possible work of the artist.
Missing in the exhibition was Rubens’s Massacre of the Innocentswhich was still on loan to the National Gallery, London, but will move to Toronto, where it will be one of the highlights from the Thomson collection when the Art Gallery of Ontario reopens on November 14, 2008 with an extension by Frank Gehry (www.ago.net; see David Jaffé and Amanda Bradley, Rubens’s Massacre of the Innocents in the Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2008. ISBN 9781903470817). The copy after it in the Brussels museum (no. 41), now attributed to the Rubens studio, earlier was accepted as an original by both Julius Held (Oil Sketches, 1980, I, p. 278 and Thoughts on Rubens’s Beginnings, Sarasota, 1983, p. 18) and Michael Jaffé (Catalogo Completo, 1989, p. 170). A direct comparison might have provided a nice lesson in connoisseurship. The drawing after it, once believed to be by Van Dyck, is here attributed to the French painter Pierre Antoine Augustin Verlinde (1801-1877), a previous owner of the Brussels Massacre (p. 152, Fig. 3). A close comparison between a Rubens original and a copy was nevertheless made possible by the juxtaposition of the master’s portrait of Petrus Pecquius, Chancellor of Brabant of 1615, lent by Edinburgh, and the museum’s own copy, tentatively attributed to ‘ Rubens studio (?)’ (nos. 39-40).
An interesting result of the restoration efforts was the realization that the museum’s panel Venus and Cupid in the Forge of Vulcan (no. 115) was drastically altered in the eighteenth century as shown by a comparison with the studio copy of the same size from the Mauritshuis, The Hague (no. 117). It is believed that the artist and restorer Jacques Ignatius de Roore (1681-1747), a former owner of the painting, cut off the left section of the panel showing an old woman, a boy, and a youth warming themselves by a brazier (today in Dresden [no. 116, also reworked by De Roore but not exhibited]), attached a new panel and painted the figure of Vulcan at his forge. (A digital montage of the x-rays shows the cut of the panel. It also reveals that Rubens painted Venus over his earlier figure of a young woman, whose meaning is unclear).
All the exhibits are reproduced in fine color plates, at times with details. A Biography with the highlights of Rubens’s life and a Bibliography follow at the end. The catalogue will serve as a most valuable resource for the Rubens collection in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. The museum has set up an on-line collection database called Fabritius (www.opac-fabritius.be/fr/F_database.htm) in French and Flemish for further updated research on the works exhibited here. (See also the database of the Royal Institute of the Study of Belgium’s Artistic Heritage, Brussels: www.kikirpa.be).