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Peter Paul Rubens





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Peter Paul Rubens





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Marie de' Medici cycle

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Peter Paul Rubens




 

 
 

PETER PAUL RUBENS

By the age of 20, the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a member of the Antwerp painters' guild. Between 1600 and 1608, he lived in Italy, studying the example of Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, the Carracci, and Caravaggio, and on his return to Antwerp was appointed court painter to Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella. He also completed important commissions for Marie de Medicis, Regent of France, and for the wealthier churches and members of the bourgeoisie. A polished and thoroughly cultivated man, he served as Ambassador to the Netherlands and to Charles I of England, had many friends among scholars and artists, and made two happy marriages. Van Dyck was one of his many pupils. Rubens was a very prolific artist with an astonishing ability and great inventiveness. His daring compositions gave his paintings and drawings a tremendous vitality.



 


Peter Paul Rubens
Pausias and Glycera or Pastoral Idyll
c. 1613
John and Mabel Rlngllng Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida.

Rubens was always happy to collaborate with other artists, and the flowers.
In this picture were painted by Osias Beert the Elder.

 

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Peter Paul Rubens
Rape of Ganymede

c. 1637-38
Museo del Prado, Madrid

The painting's subject is taken from
Ovid's Metamorphoses. The figure of the
young man is reminiscent of one of the
sons in the ancient Roman group statue
of Laocoon, and the harsh, bright colours
recall Caravaggio's naturalism. Rubens
was often to return to these sources in his
more sensual paintings, translating them
into images of dazzling sensuality.


Peter Paul Rubens


born June 28, 1577, Siegen, Nassau, Westphalia [Germany]
died May 30, 1640, Antwerp, Spanish Netherlands [now in Belgium]


Flemish painter who was the greatest exponent of Baroque painting's dynamism, vitality, and sensuous exuberance. Though his masterpieces include portraits and landscapes, Rubens is perhaps best known for his religious and mythological compositions. As the impresario of vast decorative programs, he presided over the most famous painter's studioin Europe. His powers of invention were matched by extraordinary energy and versatility.

Education and early career.

Rubens was born in the German town of Siegen, in Westphalia. His father, Jan Rubens, a lawyer and alderman of Antwerp, had fled the Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium) in 1568 with his wife, Maria Pypelinckx, and four children to escape religious persecution for his Calvinist beliefs. After Jan's death in 1587, the family returned to Antwerp, where young Peter Paul, raised in his mother's Roman Catholic faith, received a classical education. His artistic training began in 1591 with his apprenticeship to Tobias Verhaecht, a kinsman and landscape painter of modest talent. A year later he moved on to the studio of Adam van Noort, where he remained for four years until being apprenticed to Antwerp's leading artist, Otto van Veen, dean of the painters' guild of St. Luke. Van Veen imbued Rubens with a lively sense of painting as a lofty humanistic profession.

Most of Rubens' youthful works have disappeared or remain unidentified. The “Portrait of a Young Man” (1597; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) is his earliest dated work. In 1598 Rubens was admitted into the painters' guild in Antwerp. He probably continued to work in van Veen's studio before setting off on a sojourn in Italy in May 1600. In Venice he absorbed the luminosity and dramatic expressiveness of the Renaissance masterpieces of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. Hired by Vincenzo I Gonzaga, duke of Mantua, Rubens proceeded to Mantua, where his chief duties were to make copies of Renaissance paintings, mainly portraits of court beauties. In October 1600 Rubens accompanied the duke to Florence to attend the marriage-by-proxy of Gonzaga's sister-in-law Marie de Medicis to King Henry IV of France, a scene Rubens was to re-create a quarter-century later for the queen. By the end of the first year he had traveled throughout Italy, sketchbook in hand. The copies he made of Renaissance paintings offer a rich survey of the achievements of 16th-century Italian art.

In August 1601 Rubens arrived in Rome. There the new Baroque style heralded by Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio—a bold naturalism coupled with a revival of the heroically idealized forms of Michelangelo and Raphael—was quickly assimilated by Rubens. His first major Roman commission was for three large paintings (1601–02) for the crypt chapel of St. Helena in the Basilica of Santa Croce. In 1603 Gonzaga sent him on his first diplomatic assignment to Spain to present a shipment of paintings to King Philip III. For Philip's prime minister, the duke of Lerma, Rubens painted his first major equestrian portrait (1603; Prado Museum, Madrid), which took the Venetian tradition of Titian and Tintoretto a giant step forward in the conveyance of physical power and psychological confrontation.

Toward the end of 1605 Rubens made his second trip to Rome. With his brother Philip he undertook an intensive study of ancient art and philology and began to amass a sizable collection of Roman sculpture, reliefs, portrait busts, and ancient coins. In 1606 he received his crowning commission in Rome: the painting over the high altar of the Chiesa Nuova (Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella), whose precious icon Rubens enshrined in an apotheosis borne aloft by a host of putti—a quintessentially Baroque conceit that was later adapted in sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.


Return to Antwerp.

In October 1608, having received news that his mother was gravely ill, Rubens rushed home to Antwerp—but too late. Yet despite his personal loss, his arrival was otherwise timely. His brother Philip had been appointed secretary of Antwerp. More important, negotiations for the Twelve Years' Truce (1609–21) were being concluded between the Dutch separatists and Spain, which raised the prospects of peace and economic recovery for war-torn Flanders. Rubens was commissioned to paint for the Antwerp Town Hall a celebratory “Adoration of the Magi” (1609; Prado), which quickly established his fame at home. Though he still yearned for Italy, the Spanish Habsburg regents of Flanders, the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, made him an offer too good to refuse. As their new court painter, Rubens was exempted from all taxes, guild restrictions, and official duties in Brussels. He could remain in Antwerp and organize his own studio. In October 1609 Rubens married the 19-year-old Isabella Brant, and he celebrated their happy union in his “Double Portrait in a Honeysuckle Bower” (1609–10; Alte Pinakothek, Munich). In 1610 Rubens bought a magnificent townhouse to which he annexed a palatial studio, classical portico, and garden pavilion—an Italian villa transplanted to Antwerp.

The Twelve Years' Truce prompted a major refurbishing of Flemish churches. The first of Rubens' two great Antwerp triptychs, “The Raising of the Cross” (1610–11; Antwerp Cathedral), combined Italianate reflections of Tintoretto and Caravaggio with Flemish realism in a heroic affirmation of redemptive suffering. His second triptych for Antwerp's cathedral, “The Descent from the Cross” (1611–14), is more classical and restrained in keeping with its subject. This work reflected Rubens' vigorous renewal of the early Netherlandish tradition of Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, and Rogier van der Weyden. Its widespread fame was insured by the publication of an engraving; among its future admirers was the young Rembrandt.


The decade from 1610 to 1620 witnessed an enormous production of altarpieces for Roman Catholic churches—powerful, emotive images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints—as Rubens became the chief artistic proponent of Counter-Reformation spirituality in northern Europe. Among his more important religious compositions from this period are “The Last Judgment” (c. 1616, Alte Pinakothek) and “Christ on the Cross”(also called “Le Coup de Lance,” 1620; Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp [see photograph]). Yet during this same decade Rubens also produced many paintings on secular themes—mythological, historical, and allegorical subjects, hunting scenes, and portraits. Among the finest of his mythological paintings is the “Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus” (c. 1617–18; Alte Pinakothek), while the “Hippopotamus Hunt” (c. 1615–16; Alte Pinakothek) typifies his vision of wild animal hunts.

Rubens was able to maintain this tremendous output owing to his large studio of assistants, apprentices, collaborators, and engravers. A major painting would often begin as a modello—i.e., an oil sketch painted by Rubens on a small panel, after which he would make preparatory drawings of individual figures within the composition. The execution of the full-scale work would often be entrusted to assistants, though Rubens would usually paint key areas and thoroughly retouch the finished painting. Many of Rubens' paintings were then reproduced in engravings, thereby guaranteeing the wide disssemination of his compositions throughout Europe.

Rubens' most talented assistant was the young Anthony Van Dyck, 22 years his junior, who arrived at his studio as an apprentice about 1616 and stayed for four years. A true prodigy, Van Dyck quickly absorbed Rubens' robust style—his muscular, graceful physiques and sensuous interplays of light and colour—and faithfully imitated it under the master's supervision. Rubens' own coproductions with specialists such as the animal painter Frans Snyders and the flower-landscapist Jan Bruegel mark the Baroque zenith of artistic collaboration. At the same time, his “Four Continents” (c. 1615; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), “Lion Hunt” (1621; Alte Pinakothek), “Landscape with Carters” (c. 1618; Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), and his many sketches from nature reveal his own versatility in the specialized areas of landscape and animal painting.

In 1616 Rubens received his first tapestry commission, a series depicting the life of the legendary Roman consul Decius Mus. For each scene he painted a modello, which his assistants then enlarged into a full-scale canvas whose imagery was then duplicated in a tapestry by weavers. From Sir Dudley Carleton, the English ambassador to The Hague, Rubens acquired in 1618 a vast collection of ancient sculptures. His interest in sculpture was not limited to collecting. He designed monumental sculpture for the facade and interior of the magnificent new Jesuit church (now St. Charles Borromeo) in Antwerp, which was dedicated in 1621. He also contributed to the church's architectural design. Its high altar, enshrining his two interchangeable altarpieces devoted to Saints Ignatius and Francis Xavier (1617–18; Kunsthistorisches), was crowned by a semidome and illuminated by an oculus, resembling Rubens' own recently completed “pantheon” for sculpture in his home. In 1620 Rubens contracted to design 39 ceiling paintings for the Jesuit church, to be executed by Van Dyck and other assistants after his oil sketches revealing “the great speed and frenzy of his brush.” Finished within a year, these paintings justified Rubens' claim to be “by natural instinct, better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities.”

In 1621, following the expiration of the Twelve Years' Truce and the death of Archduke Albert, the widowed infanta Isabella engaged Rubens as her confidential agent in Spain's diplomatic search for peace between Habsburg-controlled Flanders and the independent Dutch Republic to the north. (The war between the Protestant Dutch and the Catholic Flemings resumed, however, and was sadly to continue for the rest of Rubens' life.) By this time Rubens' widespread fame as “the painter of princes and the prince of painters” permitted him to travel freely among royal courts for discreet meetings with sovereigns and their ministers, who would discuss matters of state while sitting for portraits.

In 1622 Rubens was called to Paris by the queen mother of France, Marie de Medicis, to decorate one of the two main galleries of her newly built Luxembourg Palace. The widow of Henry IV sought to promote, in 21 huge canvases (1622–25; Louvre Museum, Paris), her life and her regency of France in epic fashion. Marie's thwarted career required an unprecedented exercise of poetic license, but by exploiting his encyclopaedic knowledge of classical mythology and allegory, Rubens raised her life to a mythic plane on which mortals mingle freely with the Olympian gods. At the same time, he designed for Louis XIII a tapestry cycle on the life of the Emperor Constantine (1622–25; Philadelphia Museum of Art). During the 1625 marriage-by-proxy in Paris of King Louis's sister, Henrietta Maria, to King Charles I of England, Rubens met the duke of Buckingham, who commissioned Rubens to paint his equestrian portrait (1625; destroyed; oil sketch in Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth, Texas), the epitome of High Baroque flamboyance in that genre.

Rubens complained that he was “the busiest and most harassed man in the world,” yet he continued to accept important ecclesiastical commissions. His “Adoration of the Magi” (1624; Antwerp Museum) for the Abbey of St. Michael was crowned by three monumental sculptures of his own design. For the high altar of Antwerp's cathedral he framed his “Assumption of the Virgin” (1624–27) with a marble portico that featured a typically Baroque interplay of painting and sculpture, spiritually “charging” the surrounding space.

Nor did Rubens neglect private patrons. In the 1620s he executed masterly portraits of his physician and friend Ludovicus Nonnius (c. 1627; National Gallery, London), his future sister-in-law Susanna Fourment (“Le Chapeau de Paille,” c. 1622–25; National Gallery, London), and of his sons Albert and Nicolaas (c. 1624–25; Liechtenstein Collection, Vaduz). His “Landscape with Philemon and Baucis” (c. 1625; Kunsthistorisches) reveals, in a poetic vein, his heroic and cataclysmic view of nature. In 1625 the infanta Isabella commissioned from Rubens a vast tapestry cycle, the “Triumph of the Eucharist” (1625–27; Descalzas Reales, Madrid). For these 20 separate hangings, which form his most elaborate and complex program of religious art, Rubens invented a two-tiered architectural framework featuring tapestries-within-tapestries, an unprecedented display of Baroque illusionism.

In 1626 Rubens' domestic happiness was shattered by the death of his wife Isabella. He soon embarked on a diplomatic odyssey in search of a peace between England and Spain as a first step toward negotiating a settlement with the Dutch Republic, which was England's ally. The duke of Buckingham, who was the favourite of King Charles of England, was negotiating to purchase Rubens' entire collection of antiquities. In the course of their meetings, Rubens tried to convince the skeptical Buckingham that England should cease supporting the Dutch in their struggle against Spanish rule in Flanders. Initially the Spanish king, Philip IV, was aghast that such diplomacy be entrusted to a mere painter. But in August 1628 Rubens left for the Spanish court in Madrid en route to England.

During his seven months in Madrid, besides pleading for a peace treaty with England, Rubens spent his time in the royal art gallery painting copies of masterpieces by Titian, tow hose style he was now completely attuned as he explored the great Venetian's fluent brushwork, vibrant colours, and luminous modeling. Looking over his shoulder was Philip IV's young court painter, Diego Velázquez. By April 1629, England was ready to negotiate, and Charles I sent for Rubens directly, indicating his eagerness to meet a man with his international reputation for intellect and artistic genius. Philip IV gave Rubens the title of “secretary of the king's privy council of the Netherlands” in order to elevate the standing of his painter-envoy at the foreign court.

In London, Rubens encountered a maze of factions and intrigues through which he had to negotiate. Yet he prevailed, and it is to him personally that the peace treaty of 1630 between England and Spain can be attributed. He was awarded an honorary master of arts degree from the University of Cambridge. Awaiting the arrival of the Spanish ambassador, he painted his effusive “Allegory of Peace and War” (1629–30; National Gallery, London) as a memento of his successful diplomacy and gave it to the admiring English king. In turn, Charles awarded Rubens a long-coveted commission to decorate the ceiling of the royal Banqueting House, which had recently been designed by the architect Inigo Jones as part of the Whitehall Palace complex of buildings in London. On the eve of his departure from England, Rubens was knighted by King Charles.

 

Later career.

Back in Antwerp, Rubens was finally able to devote himself to his “beloved profession” again. In December 1630 he married the 16-year-old Helena Fourment, youngest daughter of the silk and tapestry merchant Daniel Fourment. Helena was to inspire some of the most personal and poignant portraits of Rubens' later career, and their marriage was as fruitful as it was blissful, producing five children. Rubens often identified Helena with the goddess Venus, as in his glowing “Venus and Adonis” (c. 1635; Metropolitan Museum). In 1631 Philip IV knighted Rubens—the only painter so honoured by the kings of both England and Spain. Having lost all taste for politics, Rubens finally retired from his diplomatic career.

The twilight decade of 1630–40 witnessed some of the most exuberant works of the rejuvenated master as he broadened his painterly style with looser, more tactile, almost “impressionistic” brushwork. In his “Garden of Love” (c. 1630–32; Prado), a marital allegory imbued with personal significance, an invented statue of Venus presides over a gathering of lovers, while in his more archaeological “Feast of Venus” (c. 1636; Kunsthistorisches), another statue of Venus presides over a clamorous, pagan bacchanal. With similar abandon, Rubens' “Kermesse” (c. 1630–35; Louvre) evokes the spirit of the painter Pieter Bruegel in the joie de vivre of its dancing peasants.

For his new father-in-law, Rubens designed his fourth and final tapestry cycle, the “Life of Achilles” (c. 1631–32). After completing a radiant, autumnal vision of Roman Catholic spirituality in the triptych of the “Ildefonso Altarpiece” (1630–32; Kunsthistorisches Museum), he turned his attention to glorifying the reign of King Charles's father, James I, in nine huge canvases for the Whitehall ceiling (1632–34), his translation of Italianate ceiling painting into England.

In December 1633 the infanta Isabella died. Her nephew and successor, the infante Ferdinand, was welcomed as the new governor by a series of triumphal arches and stages designed by Rubens and erected along the processional route through Antwerp. These temporary monuments of architecture, sculpture, and painting required a virtual army of carpenters, sculptors, and painters all working under Rubens as impresario. This grandest, though somewhat ephemeral, of all his undertakings was later preserved in a volume of etchings by Theodoor van Thulden. On a smaller scale, Rubens continued to design book title-pages for the Plantin-Moretus Press in Antwerp, owned by his childhood friend Balthasar Moretus.

At his country estate, Het Steen in Elewijt, which he purchased in 1635, Rubens painted his glowing “Landscape with a Rainbow” (1636; Wallace Collection, London) and its pendant “Landscape with Het Steen” (1636; National Gallery, London). These complementary views of a countryside teeming with life celebrate the natural order of creation and present an Arcadian vision of mankind in harmony with nature. Such pictures alone, permeated with shimmering colour and light, would ensure Rubens' fame as a landscapist, if no other works survived. For Philip IV's hunting lodge outside Madrid, the Torre de la Parada, Rubens painted more than 60 oil sketches inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses in which he reinterpreted the loves, conflicts, and passions of ancient gods and mortals.

Despite frequent incapacitating attacks of “gout” (which was probably arthritis), Rubens continued to accept a wide range of commissions. In 1638 he designed a triumphal carriage, or parade “float,” in the form of a ship to celebrate the Spanish naval victory over the Dutch forces at Calloo. Yet his personal view of war remained deeply pessimistic, as revealed in his painting “The Horrors of War” (1637; Palazzo Pitti, Florence), a precursor of Picasso's “Guernica.” Two of Rubens' late portraits now in the Kunsthistorisches Museumin Vienna contrast the public man and his private world. His stately “Self-Portrait” (c. 1638) presents Rubens not as an artist but as a self-confident and proud—if aging and visibly weary—knight wearing the sword of Charles I. By contrast, “Het Pelsken” (c. 1636–38) reveals an intimate view of a nude Helena modestly wrapping herself in fur. Rubens' final“ Self-Portrait with Helena and Peter Paul” (c. 1639–40; Metropolitan Museum) features his youngest son and namesake, born in 1637. Despite the rejuvenated visage Rubens here gave himself, death was not far away. After a severe attack of gout, he died in May 1640 and was buried in the Jacobskerk in Antwerp. His eventual successor as Flanders' premier painter was Jacob Jordaens, Van Dyck having died little more than a year after Rubens himself.


Assessment and influence.

The art of Peter Paul Rubens is a fusion of the traditions of Flemish realism with the classicizing tendencies of the Italian Renaissance. Rubens was able to infuse his own astounding vitality into a powerful and exuberant style that came to epitomize the Baroque art of the 17th century. The ample, robust, and opulent figures in his paintings generate a pervasive sense of movement in vivid, dynamic compositions. Rubens was one of the most assimilative, versatile, and productive of all Western artists, and his almost limitless resources of invention enabled him to become the master of the greatest studio organization in Europe since that of Raphael in Rome a century before. The larger the scale of the undertaking, the more congenial it was to his spirit.

The epic quality of Rubens' art represented only one side of his multifaceted genius. A celebrated diplomat in his time, he was also a scholar and humanist, a learned classicist and antiquarian, a prodigious correspondent in several languages, and even an amateur architect. His profound learning enabled him to draw upon a wellspring of Biblical narratives, Roman Catholic theology and hagiography, and Greek and Roman history and mythology for the subject matter and iconography of his art. A devout Roman Catholic, a loyal subject of the Spanish Habsburgs, a devoted husband, and the father of eight children—this prosperous, energetic, thoroughly balanced man presents the antithesis of the modern notion of struggling artist.

Rubens' profound stylistic influence extended over three centuries—from Van Dyck to the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir—and ranged far beyond Flanders. In Italy his influence was decisive on the Baroque painters Pietro da Cortona and Luca Giordano. In Spain, his early impression on the young Velázquez was later superseded by his pervasive impact on Bartolome Esteban Murillo, the most Rubensian of Spanish painters. At the Royal Academy in France, the champions of colour over line—the Baroque over the Classical—found their model in Rubens. The advent of the Rococo style, heralded by Antoine Watteau early in the 18th century, coincided with the triumph of these Rubenists. Among Rubens' English beneficiaries were Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds. The 19th-century French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix wrote that Rubens “carries one beyond the limit scarcely attained by the most eminent painters; he dominates one, he overpowers one, with all his liberty and boldness.” Rubens' recurrent impact on artists was almost as universal as the talents of the man himself. Painter, diplomat, impresario, scholar, antiquarian, architect, humanist—Rubens embodied the Baroque fulfillment of the Renaissance man.

Charles Scribner III
 


see also collection:

Peter Paul Rubens
 

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Peter Paul Rubens


Rubens and Isabella Brant under the Honeysuckle



 


Peter Paul Rubens
The Artist and His First Wife, Isabella Brant, in the Honeysuckle Bower
1609-10
Oil on canvas, 178 x 136,5 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

 


Peter Paul Rubens
Isabella Brant, the Artist's First Wife
c. 1622
Black, red and white chalks, pen and ink on light brown paper,
38.1 x 29.2cm
London, British Museum


Peter Paul Rubens
The Artist and His First Wife, Isabella Brant,
in the Honeysuckle Bower
(detail)
1609-10

 
Rubens married Isabella Brant (1591-1626),
the daughter of the Antwerp patrician and humanist Jan Brant (1559-1639),
on 3rd December 1609. The double portrait which he painted to mark
the occasion is set against a natural background,
a pastoral idyll emphasising the happiness and loving tenderness
of the moment rather than the offical ceremony.
  


Peter Paul Rubens
The Artist and His First Wife, Isabella Brant, in the Honeysuckle Bower
(detail)
1609-10
         

 

Following his return from Italy, Peter Paul Rubens married Isabella Brant, the daughter of a respected patrician and secretary of state. To mark the occasion, he painted this double portrait. He had spent the previous eight years working for the Duke of Mantua, in whose service he had been sent on diplomatic missions to Spain, Venice, Rome and Genoa. Rubens, the son of an Antwerp lawyer, had graduated as master of St. Luke's painters guild in Antwerp in 1598. Since then he had come into frequent contact with courtly society, developing manners that would have been becoming in a person of aristocratic birth, while maintaining his bourgeois sense of freedom and independence of mind. Intellectually, he had reason to be grateful to Justus Lipsius, the teacher who had schooled him in Stoic philosophy.
In his portrait Rubens transforms the joining of hands - the "dextrarum junctio", still considered a legally binding, ritual gesture of betrothal in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini-portrait - to a sign of loving tenderness, playing down the more official aspect of the ceremony without losing respect for the gesture's legal and symbolic significance. Love and affection are shown as the basis of the union, and the free decision of each of the spouses to enter marriage is underlined, irrespective of legal relations governing their property. It is nonetheless apparent that affluence, luxury, rank and reputation ultimately form the material basis of their union. This is especially evident in the couple's clothes. Rubens himself, his left leg crossed casually over his right, is wearing an elegantly fashionable costume with a pressed lace collar, while Isabella Brant wears a long, voluminous, red silk skirt, with a lace ruff encircling her lace bonnet and high yellow hat. Her bejewelled bracelet displays her family wealth. The sword hilt nonchalantly held in Rubens's hand - his hand partly hides it, partly attracts the spectator's attention to it - is a casual reference to the quasi-aristocratic status of the artist. The relationship between the sexes initially seems egalitarian; a hierarchy is suggested, however, by the fact that he is sitting, while she kneels on the grass.
The couple is posed in an arbour under some honeysuckle. Traditionally, in Italian betrothal and marriage portraits of the Renaissance-in Giorgione's Laura, for example - bushes and other such settings or backdrops were included as symbolic attributes or emblematic decorations, while here the honeysuckle appears natural, a bush blossoming in a real garden or landscape. The symbolism seems quite coincidental: "longer-the-better" was a popular name for the shrub. Whereas the couple in van Eyck's Arnolfini-portrait is seen in a parlour, Rubens's double portrait suggests that "his" couple has left the interior for a "love garden", or pleasance, a sphere of human happiness in the natural world. The tradition of the pastoral idyll, with its Utopian allusions to a Golden Age and the Garden of Eden, had been revived in the literature of the period.
                  


Jan van Eyck
The Arnolfini Marriage
(detail)
1434
National Gallery at London


Giorgione
Laura
1506
Art History Museum, Vienna

 

 

 

In 1622, almost two dacades later, Frans Hals returned to Rubens's subject of the seemingly unconstrained and unconventional couple under the honeysuckle, exploring the theme in a portrait which probably shows Isaak Massa and his wife. The pose of the recently married couple, leaning against the trunk of a tree, emphasises the casual air of the portrait. The ivy twining itself around the tree and curling round at the woman's feet, who, in turn, has her hand negligently resting on the man's shoulder, symbolises the permanence of marriage. The thistle growing next to the man in the bare patch of ground at the bottom left of the picture may be an allusion to God's words to Adam after the Fall: "Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee." (Genesis 3,17f.) Thus, the thistle may symbolise labour, itself a consequence of the Fall. In puritanical Calvinist ethics, which had already gained considerable currency in the Netherlands, work was considered a cardinal virtue, and achievement a central aspect of personal conduct.
While Peter Paul Rubens found it neither desirable nor necessary - at least in his Honeysuckle painting - to add ennobling background scenes, Frans Hals's work for his Dutch bourgeois couple included an Italian landscape background on the right - a sunlit villa, marble statue and spring - whose purpose was to create the impression of elevated rank and dignified elegance. However, the background features are fanciful, bearing no relation whatsoever to the real world of the couple. Rather than the couple's country residence, scrutiny of iconographical details shows the villa to be the temple of Juno, the goddess of marriage, whose attribute was the peacock.
 


Frans Hals
Isaak  Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Lean

1622


Frans Hals
Isaak  Abrahamsz Massa and
Beatrix van der Lean
(detail)
1622

 


Peter Paul Rubens
Rubens, his wife Helena Fourment, and their son Peter Paul
1639
Oil on wood, 203.8 x 158.1 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Tempestuously Voluptuous



Turbulent painting


 

 


Castor and Pollux, Zeus's sons abducted Both Leucippus's daughters.
The two brothers, Aphareus's sons, mighty Idas and Lynceus,
In love with the girls, stormed after them:
"Friends, it is indecorous for men of breeding
To woo women wedded to others."

Theocritus, The Dioscuri (Idyll XXIII), third century BC
 

 

Rubens is said to have painted with blood on occasion. He certainly loved excitement, dramatic scenes and passion. He exuded limitless vitality, as shown in his paintings of drinking and dancing scenes, of robbery and death. A bloodbath of colour out of which spectacularly voluptuous bodies rise up from a sea of Baroque turbulence — eyes speaking helplessly of fear or lascivious lust, figures swooning in desperation or ardently passionate. His trademark is sensuality and voluminous nudity. When he painted the Last Judgement for a high altat in a Jesuit church, the work had to be removed because the priests could no longer officiate at mass or concentrate on hourly prayers as long as those "disgusting nudes" were there. It was not only critics of the period who were repelled by the carnality of his work; even today his pictures are occasionally derided as "sides of ham".
Peter Paul Rubens, from 1598 a master of the Antwerp St Luke's Artisans' Guild, ignored the ironic comments of his detractors. Politically committed, the Flemish painter acted as a diplomat for the Spanish Governors of the Netherlands, which enabled him to travel often and extensively. He soon made enough money with his painting to be financially secure. After serving several royal Courts, he realised that he "could not stand Court life", although he did accept an appointment as Court Painter to the Spanish Governors of the Netherlands. Rubens built a house in Antwerp, where he lived and worked most of the time. Elevated to the peerage, he even bought a castle, leading the life of a country gentleman. His meteoric rise to fame and fortune was only possible because he was showered with commissions. Over 3,000 paintings are known to have left his studio, where he employed a great many assistants. Only some 600 of these works were painted by his own hand. Sharing a love of Greek and Roman literature with many of his contemporaries, Rubens gleaned the motif for The Rape of the Leucippidae from mythology. Malicious contemporaries regarded it as "a bundle of bodies tied up in a knot". Again, Rubens chose to illustrate a dramatic event. The nude women are the daughters of Leucippus, King of Argos. The Hellenistic pastoral poet Theocritus told a late version of the story of how they were kidnapped from their wedding feast after marrying Idas and Lynceus. The miscreants, the twins Castor and Pollux, were demigods who had also fallen in love with the sisters. Rubens does not depict the sequel to the kidnapping, although it would certainly have been a classic motif for the artist: the bridegrooms' pursuit of the kidnappers ended with both bridegrooms and one kidnapper dead. Zeus, the demigods' father, executed Idas with a thunderbolt. Pollux, who was immortal, was the only survivor of the slaughter.

 


Peter Paul Rubens
The Rape of the Lecippidae
(detail)
1618

   


Rubenesque figure:
From Big Women by Herlinde Koelbl



see also:

"Rubenesque"

proportions


Peter Paul Rubens
The Rape of the Lecippidae
(detail)
1618


see collection:

Peter Paul Rubens




see also:

Marie de' Medici cycle

by

Peter Paul Rubens


 
 

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