Rubens and his Legacy: Royal Academy’s new show celebrates the propagandist supreme, By James Brewer
Peter Paul Rubens was one of the greatest European propagandists of all time, and his influence on generations of artists is coruscating. He wielded his brushes and marshalled his workshop squad in such a way that, consciously and unconsciously, later followers have patterned themselves on aspects of his multitude of paintings, sketches and prints, and made their way into the best of the rest. The new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, lucidly demonstrates how they did so.
Rubens (1577-1640) had a deeply felt impact on portraiture, depiction of landscape, religious art, the interpretation of mythology, feminine fashions, and the role of women (unlike many men of his epoch, he readily acknowledged the intelligence and abilities of the female sex).
How subsequent great artists owe much of their artistic language to Rubens is explored expertly and illustrated lucidly by Rubens and his Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne.
This endeavour has resulted in a fabulous assemblage of masterworks. The supremely self-assured “master of special effects” (as one of the curators put it) would himself surely have been delighted to see his legacy celebrated in this enthusiastic manner with a total of 166 works. The organisation that goes into putting such a show together is breathtaking, especially when one counts all the potential hitches – for instance what was described as “some difficulty with the Customs” that delayed the arrival of loans from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg including a 1620 canvas The Carters, “but they will be here shortly, ” quoth an official optimistically just ahead of the opening.
Within a few paces, we have Van Dyck, Watteau, Gainsborough, Turner, Constable, Delacroix, Manet, Cézanne, Renoir, Klimt, Kokoschka and Picasso. The RA rooms are so arranged as to develop six themes perceived in the work of the Antwerp master – and his successors – of poetry, elegance, power, lust, compassion and violence. We move from bucolic scenes of countryside plied by sturdy carters, to naked corpulent gluttons tormented by demons (notably in Fall of the Damned), to Bacchanalian energy and orgy.
There is the utter charm of aligning Chapeau de Paille, a 1630 painting by Rubens thought to be of Susanna, the younger sister of the painter’s second wife Hélène, with the homage paid to it by one of the great female painters of the 18th century, Paris-born Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.
Mme Vigée Le Brun had seen the Rubens portrait while visiting Antwerp in 1781, and shortly afterwards came up with her own jauntily stunning Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, which makes her out to be what she probably was, nonchalant and captivating. With his contacts at French court (and in many other quarters of Europe, this networker of the newly globalised age), Rubens had an influence on fashion at Versailles, and it seems that Vigée Le Brun (a teenage prodigy who achieved a stellar career and who is surely overdue for a celebratory exhibition in the UK) was just as skilled a promoter and publicist (she was close to Queen Marie Antoinette, of whom she painted some 30 portraits).
Both Vigée Le Brun and Rubens were adept at setting down on canvas an informality of pose and when occasion demanded a simplicity of costume, which while combined with an air of elegance became the former’s great contribution to female portraiture.
Unto power, Rubens spake with silver tongue and silver brushes. He was a propaganda painter, and one the best that ever lived, maintain the curators Arturo Galansino of the Royal Academy, and Nico van Hout of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp.
Marie de Médicis (1575-1642), who as the wife of Henry IV (assassinated in 1610) was queen of France, commissioned from Rubens a whole gallery of depictions of her life and his triumphs, for the Palais de Luxembourg in Paris. Henry was hardly the most popular of monarchs, and his consort’s life had elements of a soap opera, but Rubens acted as ever the diplomat (which was one of his professions) and publicist in producing two dozen romanticised paintings. The spin-doctored cycle was to inspire absolutist adulatory painting throughout the 17th century, such as can be seen on the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Westminster.
The sea nymphs in the de Médicis panels were admired by Cézanne and this shows in the figures in the Frenchman’s painting Three Bathers, now in a private collection.
Given his association with one of Europe’s most important ports, there is a relative dearth of maritime elements in the work of Rubens. The paying and religious commissions kept his feet on the ground, but Fortuna (1636-37) by Rubens and his workshop is a compelling image of the Roman goddess Fortuna as mistress of the sea, in confident demeanour as she balances a little insecurely on an orb floating on the swirling waves.
He treated of a voyage from Barcelona to Genoa through rough seas by Cardinal Infante Ferdinand in an oil work on panel Neptune Calming the Tempest. Some 300 years later, in 1942, Oskar Kokoschka echoes the composition in his satirical Loreley, oil on canvas, in which Queen Victoria sits on a shark, feeding it with seafarers – implying that Britannia no longer ruled the waves.
In the maritime republic of Genoa, Rubens painted in 1607 Countess Maria Grimaldi in what today might be called Holywoodian grandeur, in a splendid Renaissance palace, with a Dwarf servant at her side. This is paired in the exhibition with his pupil van Dyck’s 1626 less ostentatious Genoese Noblewoman with her Son.
More medieval Hollywood is present in Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt executed in 1616 as a hunting scene typical of those loved by aristocrats of the era. This image is appropriated for the publicity poster for the exhibition, and Rubens himself did a kind of copy and paste, grafting the skin of a tiger onto the body of a lion. The white horse in the picture looks familiar – ah, yes, he used it in several of his other works. In addition to the violence central to the huge canvas, there are qualities of mercy as on the lower left a strongman grapples with a ravenous beast threatening to devour his companion. In 1847, Delacroix paid tribute with his more realistic Lion Hunt among dozens of his works evoking a sense of exotic danger.
The exhibition Rubens and his Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne is at the Royal Academy, from January 24 to April 10 2015. It is organised by the Royal Academy; the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp; and BOZAR (Centre for Fine Arts), Brussels.
* continuation of caption in picture 3:Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942. Image copyright the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence.