Rubens and his Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne – a stunning exhibition heading for Brussels and London, By James Brewer
Few painters were as influential in life as was Rubens, and so few after their death, says Arturo Galansino of the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Dr Galansino is one of the curators of the blockbuster exhibition Rubens and his Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne, to run in Brussels from September 25 2014 to January 4 2015, and moving to the Royal Academy onJanuary 24 until April 10 2015.
“If Rubens had lived today, he would have become a film director, ” adds his fellow curator, Nico van Hout of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. “His themes were so wide and so broad.” Six of those themes are taken for the exhibition: poetry, elegance, power, lust, compassion and violence.
Each thematic section links the work of Rubens to subsequent generations of great artists, from his assistant Van Dyck onwards to Boucher and Watteau in the 1700s, Delacroix, Constable, Manet and Daumier in the 1800s, to Cézanne and Picasso three centuries after the death of the master. Every section of the exhibition, which totals 166 works, is supported by one or two key works of Rubens.
Lust is probably the theme with which Rubens is most associated today, admits Dr Van Hout, lust in the form of bacchanalia and women fleeing from satyrs, but his output encompassed every genre of painting.
Artist/entrepreneur and diplomat, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) imparted an overwhelming dynamism to his canvases, altarpieces, ceiling extravaganzas and even his portrait studies. In his time he was greatly revered, receiving knighthoods from Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England. His renown reverberated down the centuries, affecting consciously and subconsciously a galaxy of great practitioners. In his 20s he was a hit in Italy under the patronage of the Duke of Mantua, but in the mercantile atmosphere of his home city of Antwerp he came into his full glory.
Although the recapture of the southern Netherlands by Spain put a damper on Antwerp’s role as the world’s leading seaport, and temporarily closed the Scheldt, wealthy merchants went on building their private art collections, and the churches were resplendent with new art.
The return of Rubens from Italy coincided with renewed prosperity for the city after the Treaty of Antwerp in April 1609 which initiated the Twelve Years’ Truce. In September of that year Rubens was appointed court painter by Albert and Isabella, the governors of the southern Netherlands. He was granted permission to base his studio in Antwerp, rather than at their court in Brussels, and was allowed to work for other clients.
After spending time in Spain and England engaged in diplomacy and his artistic career, he returned to Antwerp to marry his second wife, the young Hélène Fourment, the daughter of a silk merchant. His muse inspired him to become “the inventor of the Italian diva, ” as Dr Van Hout puts it. This last is exemplified for the forthcoming exhibition by his 1607 oil on canvas depiction of the presumed Marchesa Maria Grimaldi shown with a dwarf attendant, and which usually hangs in the National Trust property of Kingston Lacy.
Over the years, said Dr Van Hout, the French focused on his erotic works, the Spanish on his religious side, the Germans on the liveliness of his images, and the British on his landscapes and portraits.
A work with an arresting title given the Scottish independence debate is King James the First Uniting England and Scotland, from Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery. This was prepared in 1632 or 1633 for the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Rubens was thought to have been commissioned while in London as a diplomat to embellish the new building.
Such figures as Delacroix, Joshua Reynolds and Pierre-Auguste Renoir wrote admiringly about the virtuosity and confidence of the brushwork of Rubens and his use of colour after being trained by studying his altarpieces, allegories, portraits and landscapes. Each artist focused on different aspects of his oeuvre.
Dr Van Hout said: “Only the best artists were able to translate Rubens’s visual language into a personal idiom, and we were delighted to bring together such a rich selection of works to showcase the ongoing strength of his legacy.”
Amid his baroque ingenuity, Rubens was perhaps even more influential than Rembrandt, but Dr Van Hout said that the aim of the latter was to emulate and surpass Rubens, which he did by introducing far more studied emotions to his work.
Sponsor for the exhibition is BNY Mellon, which has had a close relationship with the Royal Academy since 2007. The global investments company has $1.6trn in assets under management. Its chairman for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Michael Cole-Fontayn, said: “We firmly believe cultural places and events contribute to making our communities vibrant, welcoming and desirable.”
The exhibition Rubens and his Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne is at the Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, from September 25 2014 to January 4 2015, and the Royal Academy, London, from January 24 to April 10 2015.