Baroque ‘n’ roll: Rubens and his enduring artistic legacy

Published 5 December 2014

From his battle scenes to royal portraits, landscapes and altarpieces, Rubens’s extraordinary output occupies a uniquely heroic position in the history of art. Waldemar Januszczak argues that art was one thing before him – and another thing after.

  • 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.

  • Peter Paul Rubens,  Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon

    Peter Paul Rubens, Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon, 1630-40.

    Oil on panel. 49.5 x 54.7 cm. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, inv. 2514. Photo: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam/Photographer: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam. Exhibition organised by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Royal Academy of Arts, London, and BOZAR (Centre for Fine Arts), Brussels.

  • Compare Constable’s early work – timidly and woodenly marking out the spaces of the English landscape – with Constable at the end of his career – sending the paint skipping and flying across the trees and lakes (Cottage at East Bergholt, c.1833) – and the influence of Rubens becomes strongly tangible. Hanging above Constable’s bed, waiting for a nightly examination, was a print of Rubens’s magnificent Landscape with Moon and Stars (1637-38) that now hangs at the Courtauld Galleries. When Constable went to sleep, Rubens went with him.

    The courage of Rubens’s brushstrokes, their energy and fearlessness, was what many important painters took from him. And to make sense of this huge and tumultuous influence, Rubens and His Legacy is divided into six helpful categories. One section is titled Violence. No arguments there, surely. All over Rubens there is stretching, pulling, yanking, thrusting, biting, stabbing, pinching going on. Often, in hilarious detail. This particular show has no interest in looking beyond art to measure his impact, but were it to do so, it would surely have to conclude that Rubens invented nine out of ten Bruce Willis films. And most of Mel Gibson’s output. Whenever you see crowds of bodies – blood, swords, horses, helmets, limbs, popping madly across the screen – you are watching his example.

  • Peter Paul Rubens, Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt

    Peter Paul Rubens, Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt, c.1616.

    Oil on canvas. 256 x 324.5 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes, inv. 1811.1.10. Photo © MBA, Rennes, Dist.RMN-Grand Palais / Adélaïde Beaudoin. Exhibition organised by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Royal Academy of Arts, London, and BOZAR (Centre for Fine Arts), Brussels.

  • It is not merely a question of subject, either. It is also a question of technique. Before Rubens painted his Hunts (Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt, c.1617, above) and The Fall of the Damned, (1621) no-one in art had painted action as vividly as this. Michelangelo was certainly a master of flayed bodies. But fresco cannot do what oil paints do. That slippery, vivid, shiny frenzy that Rubens gives us on his wooden panels, glossed with oils, serves up violence of an altogether different intensity.

    The show’s section on Power must have been the toughest to achieve. Not because Rubens was a stranger to power – for most of his career, he was up to his neck in it. Add his most powerful patrons to the list of kings and queens he painted, and you have virtually the entire power elite of Europe passing through his art: Marie de Medici, France’s Henry IV, Philip of Spain, Charles I, Isabella of the Netherlands, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Unfortunately, the resulting art was often so huge, or so diplomatically embedded, that bringing it into this show is impossible. The famous Banqueting House ceiling with which Rubens managed somehow to effect a peace between England and Spain – a truly remarkable piece of cultural diplomacy – cannot be moved to the RA. Only the sketches for it.

    Go, though, to Versailles, go to any English country house in which Verrio or Laguerre have painted, and you will witness his mighty guidance in art of mighty dimensions. His religious pictures appear mostly in a section devoted to Compassion. Having encountered Caravaggio in Rome, he began producing religious art that was intensely and unusually personal. His madonnas are often modelled by his wife. His Jesuses are frequently posed by his greatest pupil, Van Dyck. By using real people, and observing them with real emotion, Rubens yanked the Bible out of the clouds, and pushed it under our noses.

  • And when you seek to understand the impact of these revolutionary methods, it is not enough to look only at the religious art of Murillo or Delacroix. Any art that brings something from over there to over here, has been shown the way by Rubens.

    In matters of Lust, his example is again unmissable. Rubens was a very sexy painter. Flesh was his metier. Disapprove if you wish of his many vivid evocations of female cellulite (Fortuna, c.1636-37, above left), but no-one can complain that the bulging nakedness was badly observed or unrecognisably captured. Has any painter in the history of art been quite as good at painting naked flesh as Rubens? Not that I have seen. He had an instinct for it. And, you sense, plenty of personal experience to draw on. From Renoir to Boucher, from Courbet to Cézanne (Three Bathers, c.1875, above), from Watteau to Manet, none of the artists who followed him down the path of flesh painting were as obsessed as he was. Well, maybe Picasso.

    All this is exciting – Rubens is always exciting – but it may not yet be paradigm-shifting. We know Rubens adored flesh. We know he painted power. We know he loved action. Artistic influence, though, does not always travel in straight lines, and this show’s more elusive sections, devoted to Elegance and Poetry, may surprise visitors with their convolutions.

    Without Rubens, the English portrait tradition could certainly not have achieved what it did. Either directly, or through the influence of Van Dyck (A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son, c.1626, above), Rubens transformed British portraiture from toe to crown. All of our finest portrait painters – Dobson, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence – are his heirs. Again, it is his women who stand out as they rustle silkily through the garden, eyelashes fluttering shyly, in the Lady Di manner (Portrait of Maria Grimaldi and her Dwarf, c.1606, above). Silky female movement arrived in British portraiture with Rubens. But he could do powerful men too, and by putting them high up on a pure white horse, knew exactly how to imply their power instantly.

    But it is in the show’s most vaporous category, in the celebration of Rubens’s Poetry, that the keenest rewriting is called for. A couple of years ago, upstairs at the Royal Academy, you may remember a display of Watteau’s drawings that caused some of us to shiver with delight. What a draftsman. Watteau’s drawings, in the difficult three-coloured chalks technique he perfected so fully, were a masterclass in chalky sensitivity. Who then was Watteau’s own master? Rubens of course.

    Rubens did not invent the three chalks technique – that was perhaps Leonardo – but he was unquestionably the first great master of it. And, just as unquestionably, Watteau learned how to do it from Rubens. I would actually insist that the entire French Rococo can be understood as a Rubensian achievement. Fragonard’s slyly winking shepherdesses are certainly descended from him. So are those flashing Fragonard brushstrokes that seem to settle on the canvas more lightly than anyone else’s. Less successfully, but no less obviously, the manga-like physiognomies with which Boucher saddled his girls and goddesses – wide-eyed and oval faced – are Rubensian. So it wasn’t all good news with his impact.

  • Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Love

    Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Love, c.1633.

    Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid/Photo © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado.

  • Much more healthily, he was the inventor of Rococo’s greatest subject, the fête galante, in which whispering couples glide mysteriously through parks and forests while an invisible clock counts down the moments of their love. Watteau may have been the master of the fête galante (The Pleasures of the Ball, c.1715-17, above), but Rubens was its originator. In the intimate and delightfully private pictures he painted of himself and his second wife, Hélène Fourment, strolling though the gardens of their house in Antwerp (The Garden of Love, c.1633, above), Rubens found a subject that was entirely new, but whose significance was universal: anyone who has ever been in love will recognise immediately these powerful yearnings and dreamy sighs. These days, of course, the French Rococo is viewed with considerable artistic suspicion. No one likes Boucher. Few trust Fragonard. But as you wander through this event, following its romantic meanders, you will notice that Rubens’s influence didn’t always result in an obvious quid pro quo. Sometimes it worked with subtle seepages and clever infections. Thus Rubens influenced Gainsborough. And Gainsborough influenced Constable. And Constable influenced Lucian Freud. And Lucian Freud influenced Jenny Saville RA.

    Rubens threw the pebbles in a pond and the ripples radiated gloriously. His influence on Cézanne was career-changing and profound. Cézanne’s early paintings, those darkly disturbing rapes and violations of the late 1860s and early ’70s, are Rubens themes that have passed through the prism of a highly problematic psychology.

    Rubens himself was never spooky. He loved women. He loved sex. He loved flesh. His art always makes that obvious. But these same impulses, when bounced through Cézanne, result in paintings that are darkly weird and sinister. That said, when we ask ourselves where Cézanne’s courageous brushstrokes come from – who taught him to be utterly fearless as a painter – you get the same answer: Rubens.

  • Edouard Manet, Fishing

    Edouard Manet, Fishing, c.1862-63.

    Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Mr and Mrs Richard J. Bernhard gift, 1957 (57.10)/Photo © 2014. Image copyright the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence.

  • It doesn’t stop there. Among the more surprising paintings included in Rubens and His Legacy is a curious picture by Manet called Fishing (above), which usually hangs at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It’s an early work, from 1862-63, showing Manet and his mistress, Suzanne Leenhoff, strolling through a riverside meadow dressed in 17th-century costumes, while their son, an illicit product of an illicit relationship – Suzanne was the teenage Manet’s piano teacher – sits on the grass on the other side of the river, fishing morosely.

    Although this, too, is based on those views that Rubens painted of himself and Hélène Fourment in the garden, it is, in this instance, an unsettling tribute. Rubens’s delicate moods of love have been transformed by Manet into atmospheres of strange sexual conflict. Jump forward a couple of months to the production of Manet’s most notorious picture, Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, which scandalised French audiences when it was rejected from the Paris Salon of 1863, and you can witness Rubens’s influence exploding into a force that changed the course of modern art. The nude by the river. The costumed frisson. The sense of outdoor naughtiness. Those outrageously brave and unrealistic brushstokes. They all came from him. When Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe tore up the rule book on how art should behave, and led quickly to Impressionism, it did so with Rubens’s distant blessing.

    So what was his legacy? Everything, that’s what. The whole caboodle. Art was one thing before him. It was another thing after him. Rubens and his astonishing slobberings changed it all.

    Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne is in the Main Galleries from 24 January — 10 April 2015.

    Waldemar Januszczak is a broadcaster and Art Critic of The Sunday Times. His films for the BBC include Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness (2014) and the forthcoming Rubens: An Extra Large Story (2015).


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