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Art review: Mantegna: ‘The Triumphs of Caesar’ (National Gallery)

10 November 2023

Nicholas Cranfield on three exhibitions that illuminate one another

KBC Bank, Antwerp, Museum Snyders&Rockox House

Peter Paul Rubens, The Virgin in Adoration before the Christ Child, c.1616-19, oil on panel, currently on display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Peter Paul Rubens, The Virgin in Adoration before the Christ Child, c.1616-19, oil on panel, currently on display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

ACROSS the Netherlands, the great artists of the earlier half of the 17th century were Rubens and Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Vermeer. Incredible as it may seem to us today, Hals and Vermeer fell out of favour by the end of the century, and were recovered only in the second half of the 19th century, and how! Those who need to be convinced of Frans Hals need no more than go to the National Gallery in London (Arts, 20 October), while recent shows of Vermeer in The Hague (1996) and this year at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam sold out.

Vermeer turns up again in a new exhibition in Antwerp in the newly reopened Royal Museum of Fine Arts, alongside both Rubens and Rembrandt, as well as artists such as Hieronymus Bosch and Michael Sweerts, who will have heads turning.

Rubens needs no introduction to London, where he worked for King Charles I and was knighted by him, and there is a survey exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, showing him as a consummate artist of the flesh, particularly that of women, even though many were clearly male models to whom he attached mammaries. Only in painting his own wives and children could he exercise a freer observation.

At the National Gallery, an opportunity has been taken from the exhibition of six magnificent canvases from Hampton Court to show how Rubens, diplomat and government agent, as well as painter, was in thrall to the masters of the Renaissance. He had worked at the Gonzaga court of Mantua in the first decade of the 17th century, when he was in Italy.

At the collapse of that ducal family (1627), Rubens wasted no time in persuading Charles I to pay £18,000 for works from the collection, including nine canvases of The Triumphs of Caesar painted by Andrea Mantegna at some time between the 1480s and 1506.

Unlike much of the Royal Collection, these were not sold off by Oliver Cromwell to pay off his army, but were kept at Hampton Court Palace, where the Lord Protector often spent his weekends and kept open house for his officers, the new senate of the emerging Commonwealth. The republican Roman theme would have been seen for what it was.

Now, because of refurbishment there, the King has graciously loaned the first six of them to the National Gallery for the next two years. I hope that the current lighting can be modified in that time, as it is difficult to see many details at the distance that the glare factor demands.

The scale of the canvases inspired Rubens, both for his own grand compositions and tapestry designs, and also in the way in which he grouped figures. Where the Dulwich exhibition brings us face to face, as the exhibition in Antwerp does, with a portraitist at work, his painting of a Roman Triumph (NG 278) showed how deeply he was inspired by classical sources in the Renaissance. Rubens sketched details from copies of the series that he owned, a testimony of the importance to him of his sojourn in Mantua two decades before.

Whether as preparation for visiting Dulwich or for the Antwerp exhibition that transfers next year to the National Gallery of Ireland (24 February to 26 May), this show is to be commended. We, too, can learn from the direct inheritance that artists such as Rubens enjoyed from the Classical (he collected ancient statuary) by way of the Renaissance.


“Mantegna: The Triumphs of Caesar” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, for two years. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

“Turning Heads: Bruegel, Rubens and Rembrandt” is at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp (KMSKA), Leopold de Waelplaats 1, Antwerp, Belgium, until 21 January 2024. kmska.be

“Rubens and Women” is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until 28 January 2024. Phone 020 8693 5254. www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

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