From the Winter 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
Coming to clear conclusions about Rubens is a challenge. He was many things: so many, that not all of his aspects are easy to admire. Take his women. Not to be too polite about it – because politeness is not an obviously Rubensian quality – his women are usually thought too fat. In our world, we admire size 6, but not size 16. Dawn French, who fronted a documentary about him once, summed it up with the excellent quip: ‘If I had been around when Rubens was painting, I would have been revered as a fabulous model. Kate Moss? Well, she would have been the paintbrush.’
However, if you look through the entirety of Rubens’s extraordinary career, you will find plenty of females crowded into his art who are not particularly fat. You cannot say that Marie de Medici, the focus of no less than 24 paintings at the Louvre in Rubens’s momentous telling of her life story, is noticeably fat. Yes, the mermaids who greet her when she arrives in Marseilles to marry Henry IV of France are sizeable and solid – built for underwater survival – but Marie herself is slight. At the beginning of the cycle, she is downright willowy. And when Rubens painted his first wife, the enchanting Isabella Brant, sitting under the honeysuckle bower with him in their lovey-dovey wedding portrait of 1609, is she fat? Not at all. She’s petite, demure and charming.
My point is: Rubens could do it all. He could do fat, he could do thin. He could do noisy, he could do silent. He painted landscapes, portraits, altarpieces, mythologies, gentle scenes of love and violent scenes of hate. For me, he was the greatest of all painters of physical action. But I would also dub him a master of stillness and poetic tranquility. He invented the disaster movie; the cast of thousands; the gory fight-sequence. But he also gives us moments of romantic hesitancy worthy of Hugh Grant himself.
All this is impressive. But it is also confusing. The RA’s exhibition Rubens and His Legacy, which sets out to tackle the particularly uncertain subject of Rubens’s influence on other artists, certainly has its work cut out. Having spent the past year making a film about Rubens, just about the only thing I can pass on to you with cast-iron certainty is that he divides opinion. And we are not talking here about small shifts in attitude or differently nuanced interpretation. We are talking about love vs. hate: a passion for Rubens vs a loathing of him.
I remember, for instance, coming across a letter written by that cocky English romantic, Byron, to his publisher, John Murray, in which the great swimmer of the Dardanelles splutters: ‘I never was so disgusted in my life, as with Rubens and his eternal wives’. Ouch. William Blake hated Rubens with such a rare determination that he wrote several long and spiteful verses on the subject, culminating in the assertion:
You must agree that Rubens was a fool,
And yet you make him master of your School,
And give more money for his slobberings
Than you will give for Raphael’s finest things.
Slobberings? A fool? This is criticism of rare directness.
Ingres – who perhaps can be expected not to admire Rubens at all because his great rival, Delacroix, admired Rubens so much – was notably snippy on the subject, even by Ingres’ snippy standards. ‘In front of Rubens,’ he snarled, neoclassically, ‘put on blinkers like those a horse wears.’ Horse blinkers? Ouch again.
Fortunately every coin has a reverse, and for all the Rubens knockers who have piped up in history to abuse him there have been larger numbers of admirers keen to signal their affection and admit the reach of his influence. Which is what the RA’s show is about. Here, however, another obstacle needs leaping over. Unfortunately, Rubens’s influence isn’t always that obvious. Sometimes, it needs to be looked for and understood.
When you wander through the great central gallery at the Louvre, and gaze up at the huge paintings by Delacroix gathered there – The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), The Massacre at Chios (1824) – the Rubens impact is unmissable. Delacroix’s sense of action, the energetic crowding of his effects, the thunderous busyness of his brushstrokes, all that is Rubensian. The sheer height of Delacroix’s art – Chios is more than four metres high – is Rubensian. That screaming red in which Sardanapalus’s bed is draped as he lounges so voraciously, calling for his concubines, is a Rubens red. As you’ll see in this show. No mistaking that.
But what about Constable? I would argue that the single greatest influence on Constable was not Claude, as people usually insist, but Rubens. And without Rubens, the English landscape tradition would not be what it was. Here, though, his lessons need seeking out. Constable did not copy the unmissable scale of Rubens, or learn how to paint nudes from him, or fill his pictures with bulging Rubensian gladiators. What he took, instead, was a set of delicate insights into how nature unfolds, and a remarkable confidence in the act of painting – a love of brushstrokes – that transformed his art.