Early Rubens – scholarship and transformation


I caught a fantastic show at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Friday evening – and until January 05 2020, you can see it also (and if you can make it, you really should). Art students especially will bring much useful treasure and inspiration away from this interesting selection of important works.

The title of the show “Early Rubens” is just a bit funny – because the period of work represented is actually from the time he was age 32 to the time he was 44. This sounds like ‘early’ work for a guy who lived to be 63 years old – but the average lifespan of the time (as pointed out in a biography featuring his impressive diplomacy and espionage work) was only 35.

I suppose “Rubens after a family emergency brought him back to Antwerp from eight years of studies and work in Italy, where he was beloved, well rewarded, and could happily have stayed his whole life – thus causing him instead to synthesize Italian and Flemish styles, and go on to transform art for all time,” wouldn’t have fit so easily on the poster and ticket-stub. Still…

The flight of Lot and his family from Sodom (detail) – Top Photo – check out those hands!

This scene of Lot fleeing from Sodom is familiar even to those who don’t read the bible, or have only passing knowledge. Lot’s misgivings here, and the daughters varying attitudes are fascinating (inheritance, and practical dutiful sacrifice?)

But this scene – Lot and his daughters – very much surprised me.

As explained in the card – “God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as punishment for the sinful behaviour of their citizens. Lot and his two daughters escaped and took refuge in a mountain cave. Convinced that no other men had survived, the young women decided to become pregnant by their father to sustain their lineage.”

They do go on to note Lot’s predatory leer in this depiction of the less told aftermath scene – but the creepy shift of agency to victim isn’t mentioned. As an outsider, one wonders – wait a minute, everyone in their old town was just killed en masse for being judged unacceptably sinful, and their first plan after escaping is incest? The old testament can be very dramatic – but it is often more opaque, than clear, inspiring and hopeful.

The tribute money – (Render unto Caesar)

A tiny observation on the place of this gem in Christianity – I know a few cynics who use this famous quote to say – this is why the Roman’s adopted Christianity in the first place – because Christ said – “pay your taxes.”   But there is still an important spiritual point here, which many outside Christianity would accept more easily, if it was coming from a trendy foreign figure or faith.

Money is a property of reality which will always be dominated by the state and the wealthy in combination. Matters of the soul are quite separate – and ought to be kept that way, to avoid contaminating integrity with desire.

Painting wise – I’ve been a huge fan of Rembrandt since I was little, this piece has the virtues I most adore – such specific characters and personalities – no fall back cliche ‘type or ‘tude’ so it was no surprise to learn that Rubens work was a huge influence on young Rembrandt, though they also made the point that Rubens was far more consistently successful.

Rubens early diplomatic (great-war prevention) work, happened almost spontaneously, because he was such a court favourite around Europe. Thanks to the popularity of his paintings, his curious observational mind was offered rare access which many others were denied outright.

The entombment

As thrilling as the beatitudes and manifested generosities can feel, even for outsiders, when encountered in the right state and moment (open minded and/or desperately needy), there is also plenty of heavy stuff to contemplate in the new testament. Betrayal and death itself – then life.

Dramatically speaking – the weight of the death beat helps give the transcendence which follows, a dynamic of rising power – lifting right over the greatest obstacle and fear of all – mortality – which scales everything else down to a more manageable size than it can sometimes feel.

Mary’s paleness in grief, approaching Christ’s own, feels appropriate and sort of beautiful – even as the others feel grief and shock in their own way.

The dreaming Silenus
(When drunk-dreaming, the satyr Silenus was prophetic – naturally, Bacchus was glad to help)

You only have to look at Rubens work to realize he has amazing technique – often imparting more life, narrative and attitude to a single hand, than lesser artists can breathe into an entire figure – and brilliant at materials rendering also – as here, the difference between silver and duller alloys.

He was also an intellectual, who soaked up knowledge everywhere he travelled worked and studied – so by this period he was able to offer scenes from the bible and classical Greek mythology with equal ease, richness and precision, as well as adding mythic dimension to the lives of comparatively boring royals, who often sought the prestige lift of his work.

Hero and Leander
(Leander would swim the straight to be with beautiful Hero every night – guided by her lantern. One night she fell asleep without lighting the lantern – he drowned – she jumped into the sea to join him forever)

Rubens stayed seven months on diplomatic assignment in Spain, working slowly to earn enough trust to carry out a peace mission. During this period, he spent much of his time in the royal gallery, painting his own copies of masterworks by Titian (who was a great and lasting influence), while the young Diego Velasquez watched (no doubt learning much).

The raising of the cross (oil sketch – detail)

Part of the AGO permanent collection – stolen twice since 1950, found in a garbage can, both times!

But this is the side of his work which most surprised me, and as impressive as the grand pieces in the show are, his studies are what will stay with me forever – their ideas and energy so fundamentally powerful.

Rubens is one of those great painters who is also outstanding when drawing, making ink-wash studies or oil sketches. He does not need colour and finishing detail to make his important points, and like Holbein (an early influence who he copied many times, while studying), we do not feel a lessening of intensity or a sloppiness of observation, even when he makes comparatively linear depictions of form, with straightforward light and proportions, often lulling us into the illusion of easiness – the subtle natural qualities of the gestures being underplayed by the overall mastery.

Samson and Delilah – pen and ink study

But of course – it is exactly when your fundamentals and subtle perceptions are ultra tight, that you can really go to town when you do make use of all available means to create dramatic effect – as this master of the Baroque did, like no one else in history. In his works we encounter figures tumbling into every kind of motion and repose – sometimes suspended off balance, just an instant before certain calamity, and sometimes so much at ease we despair of ever awaking them from their slumber (in common with the surly cherubim, presumably so assigned).

Samson and Delilah – Oil sketch

On his return to Antwerp in 1608, when this symbolic selection from his vast output began, he also got into designing prints (thanks to his friend Balthazar Moretus, who inherited an already great printing house, and was determined to make it much greater still, under his direction). This meant a very useful extra source of money, but also let him communicate with a far wider range of people than his royal and religious commissions ever could have allowed – encouraging him to reach ever further for understanding.

The capture of Samson – Oil sketch – astonishing energy – minimal means

Rubens was also one of the great early masters of the studio system – and before we assume that was a familiar modern kind of exploitation – one person with a famous name (and big contracts) exploiting others to do his work without getting any credit, it’s worth remembering how common it was to serve a challenging apprenticeship, as opposed to purely academic training, back then. For many, the only way into a skilled trade.

Daniel in the lions den – detail of sarcastic and anthropomorphic lions
(One of very few Rubens pieces which was done entirely in his own hand)

It is also worth remembering that one of his best “assistants” – who painted-in a lot of the surface, overtop of his layout drawings, guided by his oil-studies, only to have their best work ‘corrected’ by his finishing overpainting at the end, was Anthony Van Dyck – who Rubens called “The best of my pupils”.

St James the greater (Anthony Van Dyck – copied/interpreted from Rubens)

Like most artists, Rubens did some pieces which were intended for others from the start, and also did some which he kept for his own enjoyment, and to help inspire his students. His version of St James the greater is famous – austere and powerful – and it was kept hanging in his Antwerp studio for many years.

But for me, the most arresting and quietly powerful piece in the whole show was this – Van Dyck’s own copy and reinterpretation of his master’s work.

Private, very helpful missions to defuse war pressure between Spain and England would be a pretty great accomplishment, taken all on their own. But a master great enough to train a student who can kick their ass?

That may well be the highest level of artistic skill there is. One might almost call it a practical way of transcending artistic mortality.

Whichever way you take him – philosophically, diplomatically or artistically – Hats off to Rubens (clothes too, rather often, but then, he is awfully good with flesh, don’t you think?)

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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