Rubens and his Age
Apes in the Kitchen (detail)
Toronto is enjoying a three month long visit of Treasures from the Hermitage at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The first of three exhibits from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg scheduled for the AGO over the next few years, Rubens and his Age focuses on the master painter and his circle of superb students and associates from the great period of Flemish Baroque Art. Apart from the rare opportunity to see works from the vaults of the Hermitage, many of which have never been exhibited outside Russia, the exhibit provides a wonderfully rich history lesson of the kind which only great paintings can teach us.
The 17th century was the last period of political and artistic greatness for Flanders. The southern Catholic part of the Netherlands, which had remained loyal to the Spanish Crown while Northern Holland successfully rebelled was soon strangled by their Northern neighbors and then stagnated until the late 19th century when an artist of the caliber of James Ensor and later Rene Magritte emerged from the rubble. For most of us Flemish Art is unknown territory, an undiscovered country from which no traveler has recently returned. Thus the exhibit asks us to take an imaginative leap into a time and place very different is some ways form the way we live now.
Peter Paul Rubens was the painter of the first part of the 17th Century in Catholic Europe. How he became so is an interesting story.
Rubens was educated to be a humanist but like all great artists choose his profession for himself. The combination of first-rate classical education with an innate visual genius made for an unprecedented combination in an artist.
It has been said that no artist has ever been as well educated as Rubens. After training with three minor artists in Antwerp. Rubens set off for Italy to complete his education; a position at the court of the Duke of Mantua was quickly accepted and he stayed in Italy for eight years. His job was to travel to all the major artistic collections, especially Rome and Venice painting copies of famous works of art, especially paintings of beautiful women, for the Duke's collection. He was also sent to Spain where he had an opportunity to study the enormous collection of Titian masterworks in the Royal Collection in Madrid.
Copying the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance especially and the recently unearthed sculptures of classical antiquity, Rubens sketched and painted and encompassed all that was best in Italian and Classical art. Rubens combined the lessons of Antique Sculpture with the vaunting ambition of the High Renaissance giants in an unprecedented way. He used the plastic lessons of sculpture as a composition model but insisted that flesh should look like flesh in a painting thus developing his breakthrough approach to the naked body. In this he never forgot the earthy luminous realism of the old Netherlandish tradition of the 15th and 16th century (Van Eyck, Van Weyden, Breughel). You won't appreciate Rubens the master of the female nude until you consider that he was the greatest influence on French painting from the 18th to the 20th century: Watteau, Fragonard, Delacroix, and Renoir were his among his loyal followers.
Rubens was to develop a phenomenal ability to analyze the different styles of painting and sculpture and then synthesis them into whatever his clients wanted. His clients included just about every Catholic monarch, as well as Catholic leaning Protestants like King Charles I of England, and every major religious order in Western Europe. Not to mention every wealthy connoisseur of painting. To satisfy an ever growing demand Rubens opened the largest art workshop Europe has ever seen: he would paint an small initial oil sketch which when approved and contracted for would be given over to one or more of his students to paint the full length canvas, finally Rubens would add the finishing touches and sign it. Thus he became both a teacher and a hugely successful businessman.
The Union of
Earth and Water
But Fame was for Rubens something that went beyond material worldly success; he sought above all to bring the blessings of humanistic reason to bear on the Europe riven by religious and dynastic wars. In 1609, because he spoke several languages and was so well educated, Rubens was appointed court painter to the Archduke Albert and his wife the Infanta Isabella, the Spanish Viceroys in the Netherlands. Isabella became his close confidant and sent him on important diplomatic missions to Spain, Holland and England. One of the best paintings in the exhibit is The Union of Earth and Water, which celebrates the opening of the Scheldt River to Flemish commerce after having been closed by the Dutch. The past and future prosperity of Antwerp depend on free access through this river to the North Sea.
Rubens went to England to negotiate a peace treaty with the King of England and Spain and while there became a favorite of the court of King Charles I - as did his most brilliant student, Anthony Van Dyck, in the next decade. The marvelous work of Van Dyck are well represented in this exhibit, including the brilliant religious painting of Christ Showing His Wounds, his own self-portrait, and a final gallery devoted to his English portraits.
When Rubens retired from public life he wrote about ripping off the golden chain that had bound him to the courts of Europe. In his last years, remarried to a young beautiful wife, retiring to his estate, he painted some of the most astonishing paintings. Two of these gorgeous landscapes are in the exhibit.
Landscape with a Rainbow
Peace, harmony, abundance, and love these are the great themes of Rubens and his age, which this exhibit illustrates so well. I have not begun to tell you about all the wonderful still lives, flower paintings and genre scenes in the exhibit from less well known artists working within Rubens circle.
Take this as a very good introduction to Rubens and Van Dyck, to Catholic Europe in the 17th Century and finally to the Hermitage that great museum which Catherine the Great founded in the 18th century.
Rubens and his Age: Through August 12 at the Art Gallery of Ontario
This article is copyright 2001 by Joseph Phelan. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.
Joseph Phelan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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