“Like many people, I have trouble with Rubens’s nudes, especially the female ones: all that smothering flesh, vibrantly alive but with the erotic appeal of a mud slide. (Rubens, owing to moral constraints of the time, rarely worked from nude female models, and many of his women are what they look like: male models imaginatively plumped and upholstered, fore and aft.) Nor do Rubens’s characters appear significantly more intelligent than his farm animals. They are puppets of an unrelentingly inflated rhetoricism, numb to pain and immune to wit, that touches ground nowhere in common human experience.” ( Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker )
It was a successful style. A bit of a formula , but the Flemish master’s long, uniformly triumphal career as the leading pictorial decorator, propagandist, and entertainer for a Catholic Europe in the advanced phases of the Counter-Reformation.What Rubens says may not be compelling, but he says it with an unsurpassed eloquence. The art historian Jacqueline Lichtenstein has written, “Standing before the paintings of the great colorists, a viewer has the impression that his eyes are fingers.” So it is with Rubens, who equalled Titian—a painter he came to revere in his twenties, during a decisive, eight-year sojourn in Italy—at merging color with imagined textures of flesh and fabric; if anything, a pivotal artist is broadening the debate on the “aesthetics of the colorists” and its ability to parallel the ethics of polite society through the realm of the commercially viable: sensual pleasure and cosmetics.
…It was a crazy idea. Peter Paul Rubens hoped to transform the ailing Antwerp of the seventeenth-century into a Genoa of the north. The rival city of Amsrterdam, in the northern Netherlands, had siphoned off much of its trade; the growing economic power of the Protestant United Provinces had sapped the vitality of the loyalist south. Under the benign and concerned government of the “archdukes” , Albert and Isabella, the south was gradually beginning to recover confidence, but as long as Spain continued to war with the rebellious provinces of the north, the process would be slow. In 1609, however, mutual exhaustion brought, if not permanent peace, at least a twelve year truce. While the terms of the truce were unfavorable to the economic recovery of Antwerp, peace itself provided a breathing space for the hard-pressed southern provinces. Slowly, coaxed along by Archduke Albert and after his death in 1621, by the benevolent care of Archduchess Isabella, the southern provinces began to coalesce into a society with an identity profoundly different from that of the nascent Dutch republic to the north. The northern provinces were becoming a brash, dynamic protestant society dominated by a mercantile oligarchy, which considered liberty and a fair degree of religious tolerance as the essential ingredients of commercial success. The Spanish Netherlands of the south, by contrast, clung fast to the traditional values. They were monarchial rather than republican, aristocratic rather than bourgeois, and profoundly Catholic.
If economic growth is the measure of a successful society, the Dutch republic wins hands down. But if it is the arts of civilization, the scales are more evenly balanced. The brilliant cultural success of the Dutch Republic, the society that produced Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer, have tended to overshadow the remarkable achievements of the south. If any single figure can be held responsible for developing the richly textured civilization of the Spanish Netherlands, it was Peter Paul Rubens.
In 1608, Rubens, learning that his mother was dying, hurried home from Italy. He may have intended to return to Italy, but his reputation had preceded him to the Netherlands, and Albert and Isabella were quick to offer him the post of court painter. The offer encouraged him to establish himself in Antwerp. Here in 1609, he married isabella Brandt, the daughter of a lawyer, and after the birth of their first child they settled down in a large house to which Rubens added a spacious studio. Years of extraordinary productivity followed. There were commissions from the court; commissions from churches and religious orders such as the Jesuits who requested a vast decorative scheme for their church of Saint Charles Borromeo in Antwerp. Also, there was an never-lengthening list of commissions from an international clientele. Indeed, the fame of his creative genius rapidly transformed Antwerp into Europe’s new artistic center. Promising young artists, Anthony Van Dyck among them, competed to secure entry to his studio, foreign connoisseurs came reverently to watch the great man at work, and the princes and aristocracy of Europe bargained for his masterpieces.
Nor, on the whole, were his patrons disappointed . His prices were stiff, but fair, and what he promised he delivered. Above all, he was prepared to tackle anything, and the larger and more daunting the project the better. So it was that, in the early 1620′s, he threw himself into the great scheme devised by Marie de Medicis, the queen mother of France, for a monumental pictorial cycle that would hang in the Luxembourg Palace in paris and commemorate the events of
career and that of the late king, Henry IV. Since her life history had hardly been glorious, the project required both tact and imagination, but Rubens rose triumphantly to the occasion. His twenty-one vast canvases magnificently celebrate, in a form more allegorical than historical, the triumphs and vicissitudes of Marie de Medicis’s tempestuous life. To his regret, the commission for the other cycle,representing the career of Henry IV, fell through.
Rubens, for example, liked to play the part of lord and master in the realm of art when visitors were present. A Danish doctor named Sperling, who sought him out in his Antwerp studio, reported that while they talked Rubens continued painting, dictated a letter, and listened to readings of classical literature. Much the same was reported of Julius Caesar and later of Napoleon and Picasso. For Rubens, this role-playing afforded a way of concealing creative conflict behind a multitude of masks, and of confirming his own preeminence; a public persona for the occasion that also reveals why his output was so prodigious. ”Though occupied with his painting, he was listening to a reading from Tacitus and, at the same time, dictating a letter. We kept silent for fear of disturbing him, but he addressed us without interrupting his work; all the while having the reading continued and still dictating the letter, he answered our questions as though to give us proof of his powerful faculties”.
Faculties which were impressive indeed. Rubens unparalleled ability to train his memory to recall visual details was reported by Sam van Hoogstraten ( 1627-78) , a Rembrandt pupil. Hoogstraten recounted in 1678 that a fellow artist in Rome criticized Rubens for wandering about and quietly observing his surroundingd, rather than copying directly after the examples of Italian art. Rubens replied in response, ”I am most busy when you see me idle… I believe that I have well retained what I have looked at, than you who have drawn it.” When he was challenged to prove this Rubens indeed surpassed his doubter by relying on the “trasure of his imagination” , an ability to visualize an entire composition in his head, from which his overcharged brain would then drive onto the canvas by a “violent driving on of the passion” . From this, Hoogstraten concluded that “copying everything is too slavish, even impossible; to entrust everything to one’s imagination really requires a Rubens”.
Under the pressure of numerous commissions, he came to make heavy use of his studio assistants; yet the inspiring genius and the controlling mind remained his. Still, this reliance went far beyond that of any other Old Master, and more closely resembled a Damien Hirst or the business model of a Formula I team.
” A Danish visitor to his studio in 1621 reported seeing “many young painters who worked on different pieces on which Sr. Rubens had drawn with chalk and put a spot of color here and there; the young men had to execute these paintings which were then finished off with lines and colors added by Rubens himself.” That is, Rubens provided designs at the start and tweakings at the end while ceding the middle, critical stage of a painting, in which, through innumerable decisions and unplanned impulses, thought and feeling become form. He seems to have especially relished the finishing part. He plainly believed, as did his contemporaries, that he had devised a literally foolproof manner, and he self-replicated to a degree that would be brazened by no other major artist until Andy Warhol—who positively valued, as an aesthetic sensation, the deadening effect of proxy hands in a work’s execution. Rubens’s sole excuse was efficiency.”
“On the advice of an artist friend, I tried for a while to regard Rubens’s art as a force of nature, no more reproachable for its mindlessness than are summer clouds, or a waterfall. This futile exercise convinced me that the Rubenesque is, on the contrary, a force of will. More concocted than cultivated, it has the weakness of all “international styles,” from Hellenism to the modernistic: the exaggeration of generally admired qualities, absent the grit of a particular culture or personality. I suspect that Rubens attracts painters precisely because his style, being synthetic, presents no integral, daunting mystery. It looks like something you might almost learn to do.”
Rubens’s drawings are probably a more accurate reflection of the core talent he possessed; they are consummate and informative and they isolate exciting aspects of the artist’s skills,notably a truthtelling realism that was rhetoric-free when stripped of the heavy reliance of colorist aesthetics that are employed to drive the commercial values.Call it Rubens unplugged. Excessive exoticism that forgoes clear-eyed confrontations with strangeness and blunts any humility that may be present. But, the heightened realism was just a subordinate means for Rubens, as it had been, slightly earlier, for Caravaggio, to accomplish the pictorial revolution of the seventeenth century: eclipsing Mannerism’s distorted figures set in windowlike, perspectival recesses with rounded, convincing bodies in an airy space that opens outward, to envelop the viewer.
Realistic imagery stabilizes the meringues of Italian and Northern Renaissance traditions with which he modelled the Baroque in grandiose, public, polemical glory. Today, most of us far prefer the taut, darkling Baroque of Caravaggio and his followers; but Rubens was the rage in that era, and he affected the development of the two best painters of the seventeenth century and perhaps the best of al time. As Simon Schama suggests, in his richly detailed book “Rembrandt’s Eyes,” the example of Rubens goaded Rembrandt—his younger would-be rival, barely ninety miles but a political world away, in Protestant Amsterdam—toward the revelation of a new social reality that was as personal, dramatic, and profound as Rubens’s artificial paradise was unfelt and arbitrary.
And in the years 1628-29, when Rubens was in Madrid to promote a treaty between Spain and England, he coached the rising court painter Diego Velázquez. Like Rembrandt, Velázquez would comb the bombast from Rubens’s formal innovations and apply them to a lived circumstance—in his case, that of a refined and cruel Spanish monarchy on the brink of decline.