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The importance of being Rubens

by
30 January 2015

Nicholas Cranfield sees the current exhibition at the Royal Academy

Photo © MBA, Rennes, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Adelaide Beaudoin

Animal savagery: Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt, 1616, by Peter Paul Rubens (Musée des Beaux Arts, Rennes)

Animal savagery: Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt, 1616, by Peter Paul Rubens (Musée des Beaux Arts, Rennes)

WHEN I first went to see this exhibition, last year in Brussels, it was entitled "Sensation and Sensuality", as were the Flemish, French, and Dutch versions of the excellently informative catalogue. The focus on Rubens, despite the unlikely nod towards Jane Austen and the world of 1811, was centred on the six heady perennial themes of Violence, Power, Lust, Compassion, Elegance, and Poetry.

We were urged to consider whether the German-born Peter Paul Rubens (1570-1640) was the Quentin Tarantino of his day. As a political apologist for regimes as disparate as those of Catherine de Medici in France and James VI and I in England, was he a propagandist in the style of the later film-makers Sergei Eisenstein and Leni Riefenstahl? Were his voluptuous nudes intended for a lascivious audience, or do they betray the artist as little more than a cunning voyeur?

In the sedate rooms of Burlington House in Piccadilly, the curators cannot ignore these aspects of the exhibition; presumably the RA chose to be more cautious with the title after the unlikely runaway success of the 1997 exhibition of Young British Artists, "Sensation", which, at the time, drew the hostile criticism of even the Mayor of New York, Rudi Giuliani.

The emphasis in the hang has also shifted more to demonstrating the importance of Rubens for the development of Western European art over the past four centuries, both as a collector of art in his own right, and as an artist who deployed earlier classical and Renaissance compositions in his work.

This was always the intention of the Rubens exhibition that was first planned a decade back for Antwerp as a follow-up to the 400th- anniversary exhibitions commemorating Anthony Van Dyck as his most celebrated pupil.

Those shows, in Antwerp and London (Arts, 24 September 1999), suggested how Rubens might come to be seen as an artist diplomat whose career knew no bounds. The current presentation was, therefore, conceived as an appropriate way to celebrate Herman van Rompuy's presidency of the European Council.

Redevelopment and refurbishment of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp has further delayed its reopening to 2018, so that this exhibition had to be shown in the hapless galleries of BOZAR in Brussels. It looks incomparably better in the state rooms of the Royal Academy.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy, lauded Rubens to the skies, and John Constable lectured on his great landscapes, whereas John Ruskin, writing in 1860 in Modern Painters, damned him for being "without any clearly perceptible traces of a soul".

Like him or loathe him, this display offers three rather different exhibitions in one.

In the first place - and perhaps for most visitors this is all that is required to make a great day out -we get to see a large number of works by Rubens and his atelier. This is not, of course, a monographic show on the scale of the Brussels one in the winter of 2007/08, although necessarily it includes some of the same pieces; but the Flemish artist easily dominates the exhibition, despite the inclusion of Picasso, Renoir, Cézanne, Manet, and Kokoschka.

The sheer ferocity of the 1616 Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (Rennes), in which oriental hunters prove no match for the wild cats, is almost overpowering, matched in part by the history of the canvas itself, which was bought from the artist by the Elector Maximilian I of Bavaria. It was confiscated from Schleissheim by the Napoleonic occupying forces in 1800 and taken to France; it has never been returned.

Equally as violent is the later oil sketch that derived from it, in which the turbaned huntsman is trapped beneath his own steed as a lioness pounces. This smaller work (44 × 50cm) had once belonged to Lord Cholmondeley at Houghton Hall, but was sold in 1994, and is now in Munich.

The animal savagery of both immediately brings to mind the popular 19th-century taste for so many of the works on both sides of the Channel of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) and Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73), and the exhibition demonstrates how the contemporary engravings of Bolswaert made The Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt widely known to other artists and collectors. Other engravers continued this process of dissemination, although it is not clear that Soutman or Suyderhof were supervised by Rubens in person.

This interplay, between masterpieces by the Flemish master himself and their wider influence on others, marks the second aspect of the exhibition which I found the most beguiling: the transmission of images and, therefore, of reputations through a variety of media.

When Rubens painted The Crucifixion for the high altar of the Antwerp Church of the Récollets, the Friars Minor, at the invitation of the Burgomaster, Nicolaas Rockox, in 1620, its bold composition of the vivid scene (John 19.34), in which one of the executioners pierces his side with a lance, drew universal praise.

Around 1630 , Rubens asked Boetius Adamsz Bolswaert (c.1580-1633) to draw the work and engrave it for him.

The 1620 modello for the altarpiece is currently on loan to the National Gallery in London from the V&A, but the 1631 engraving by Bolswaert is in the exhibition, while the original altarpiece of the Coup de Lance remains safely in its church in Antwerp.

The engraving circulated widely is best-represented by a porcelain dish made a century later in Jingdezhen in China by an unknown artist at the time of the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, c.1720-30. The unusually coloured dish, which now belongs to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, may first have been used by Jesuit missionaries to proselytise among the Chinese when Christianity was briefly tolerated there. It was later brought back to Europe by the Dutch East India Company, and has now come full circle, as it were, being bought in 2011 for a Flemish collection.

A similar transmission of ideas, from canvas to print to a later canvas by another artist, is responsible for the inclusion here of an altarpiece by Bartlomé Murillo depicting The Conversion of St Paul (Prado), undertaken late in life as a companion piece of The Martyrdom of St Andrew, when Murillo copied a Rubens altarpiece from the Hospital de San Andrés de los Flamencos in Madrid.

The original Rubens painting of Saul's dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus was probably commissioned for King Władyslaw IV of Poland but was destroyed in 1945. Its composition, whose flurry of activity harkens back to the tumultuousness of the 1617 Hunt scene, was widely known through another of Bolswaert's faithful engravings. Although Murillo, who rarely depicted drama in his religious paintings for Seville, has tempered some of the Baroque theatricality of the original, the forceful Conversion is clearly derived from the earlier work.

Other artists were equally fortunate in seeing the originals for themselves; Jean-Honoré Fragonard travelled through Italy after he had trained at the French Academy in Rome, and in Genoa would have seen the artist's copy of his altarpiece of The Virgin and Child with Saints which had been placed above his own tomb in 1644. Fragonard's black-chalk drawing (British Museum) equally captures the soft plasticity of the flesh and the hard reflective surfaces of St George's armour.

As Constable himself observed and often copied, Rubens "delighted in phenomena; rainbows upon a stormy sky - bursts of sunshine - moonlight - meteors and impetuous torrents".

To underscore this, on the heels of the recent remarkable Constable show at the V&A, which made much the same point, visitors in London get to see Constable's large oil sketch for The Hay Wain (1821) and his view of Hampstead Heath, Branch Hill Pond.

The third aspect of this winter treat in Piccadilly which makes it such a rewarding experience is the sheer range of the pictorial devices that Rubens brought to painting, whether of landscapes (here the finest has to be Landscape with Rainbow, even though it was dismissed by Turner, who saw it in the Louvre in 1802, and was underwhelmed), or in his mythological scenes, often an excuse for classical nudity, or his portraits, which, in the subtle reworking of Van Dyck, became the norms of social acceptance in later generations.

It is easy for us to dismiss the Low Countries as flat barren lands, but even a passing visit to Benelux makes one realise the gradations of the land that Rubens came to know well after his return from Italy (1608). Cardinal Mazarin once owned the large panel painting of The Carters which dates from c.1629. In 1726, it passed from the estate of the 1st Earl of Cadogan into Robert Walpole's collection at Houghton Hall, and at the time it was probably the most widely known Rubens landscape in a British collection. It was among the many pictures bought for Catherine II in 1779 (Arts,16 August 2013), and has now been loaned from St Petersburg.

How much of it is observed from life and how much is an allegorical invention remains a moot point, but the trundling wagon appears out of control on a dangerous slope, and the arching foliage above a rocky outcrop appealed to many. Gainsborough, Turner, and Constable, of course, gained much by copying it.

Rubens himself became immoderately successful, and was decorated by princes at the courts of the Empire and here in the UK. He was clearly at ease depicting the Grimaldi countess and her dwarf (Bankes Collection, National Trust), but in Britain his portraits were often later attributed to his pupil Van Dyck, who might be acclaimed as the progenitor of the "swagger" portrait, introducing a style of flattery which has served the rising bourgeoisie and nouveaux riches ever since.

So the exhibition flourishes a full-length portrait by Richard Cosway (George IV commissioned the 1784 portrait of Elizabeth Milbanke, Viscountess Melbourne), and an early work by Thomas Lawrence of a frosty-looking Viscountess Cremorne (1789), who is no longer young. An American arriviste, she has cast aside her coronation robes as if to announce that she had no need for titles in the Irish gazette after 20 years of marriage to Ireland's wealthiest landowner.

Lawrence was perhaps more discreet or sympathetic the following year, when he portrayed Mrs Arthur Annesley and two of her children, in which her younger son, in his red velvet suit, cuddles a rabbit. Ruskin reckoned that Rubens had a soul only when he painted children, a point clearly not lost on Lawrence in this unfinished work.

 

"Rubens and his Legacy" is at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 10 April. Phone 020 7300 8000.

www.royalacademy.org.uk

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