Five masters who looked to Rubens

Published 19 March 2015

Rubens was one of the most influential artists of all time. Here, we profile his relationship with five major artists that came after him.

  • Rubens was one of the most famous artists of his day, but his influence extended way beyond his death. Over the centuries, each generation looked to him for his vibrant colours, his grandiose compositions and vigorous painting technique. From his pupil Van Dyck to 19th-century painters Constable and Cézanne and artists working today, Rubens left a distinct mark on art history. It’s often said that, without him, there could have been no Rococo, Romanticism nor even Impressionism.

  • I can tell you truly, without exaggeration, that I have had to refuse over one hundred [assistants], even some of my own relatives or my wife's, and not without causing displeasure among many of my best friends.

    Rubens, letter to Jacob de Bie, 11 May 1611

  • Rubens and Van Dyck


    As the above quote attests, Rubens was not a master who was easy to please – yet he described Anthony Van Dyck as “the best of my pupils”. At the time, Rubens was in his early forties and the leading painter in Antwerp and Van Dyck was just 19 and Rubens’s chief assistant. But as well as learning from his master, Van Dyck also departed from his example.

    Their close artistic relationship is illustrated in two portraits of Genoese noblewomen. Rubens painted his in 1607, during his four-year stay in Italy in his thirties. In Genoa, he portrayed the city’s aristocrats, using a grand, full-length format usually reserved for rulers and king. But he introduced to this a sense of drama and movement through the play of light and anecdotal details. Notice the playful dog at the sitter’s feet and the servant, who enhances his mistress’s beauty.

    Twenty year later, Van Dyck followed in Rubens’s footsteps, visiting Genoa and painting its aristocrats with the same elegance. He adopted the same full-length format and included similar classical columns and luxurious fabrics. There’s even a dog. But he also transformed Rubens’s example. He turned his sitter’s face to a profile view, giving her greater distance and reserve, and pared down his master’s exuberance.

  • In no other branch of art is Rubens greater than in landscape.

    John Constable

  • Rubens and Constable

  • John Constable was a great admirer of Rubens’s landscapes, and shared with him a deep appreciation of the poetry of nature. If Rubens’s rural retreat was northern Flanders, Constable’s was his native Suffolk, where he was born and spent much of his life. These two artists, born two centuries apart, were drawn to similar aspects of nature: on the one hand, its suggestive appeal, and on the other, its changeability and atmospheric effects.

    Rubens’s Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon reveals his close observation of nature. The dusk sky contains the last embers of the setting sun, while in the foreground a lone man heads home, taking his timber wagon down a steep riverbank. His red jacket stands out in the evening light: a strong colour-contrast that would later strike a chord with Constable.

  • Constable came across Rubens’s landscapes through engravings and through paintings owned by his patron, Sir George Beaumont. In The Haywain, he followed Rubens’s example by painting a strong dash of red on the horse’s saddle. This contrasts with the surrounding green landscape, intensifying its visual effect. Constable was also drawn by Rubens’s choice of subjects, which were similar to his own. He wrote, “Rubens delighted in phenomena – rainbows upon a stormy sky – bursts of sunshine – moonlight – meteors – and impetuous torrents mingling their sound with wind and wave.”

  • I like his emphasis. I like his exaggerated and loose forms.

    Eugène Delacroix on Rubens

  • Rubens and Delacroix

  • When it came to capturing drama, Rubens’s true heir was perhaps the French Romantic painter, Eugène Delacroix. During his lifetime, Delacroix made nearly 100 drawings and 30 oil copies after Rubens. He was a great colourist himself, and was drawn to the vibrant colours of Rubens’s work. As well as studying Rubens’s religious paintings – he saw the great altarpieces in Belgium during the summer of 1850, Delacroix also admired Rubens’s exhilarating depictions of wild animals.

    Rubens’s Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt centres on a violent trial of strength between man and beast – a theme he returned to repeatedly. Like a filmmaker, he captured the drama of the scene through his treatment of light, his contrasting colours and forceful composition. The action emanates dynamically from the centre, where a horseman is attacked from behind by a ferocious tiger. The man’s wide eyes convey his sheer terror.

  • A similar painting by Rubens made a deep impression on Delacroix. “I like his emphasis. I like his exaggerated and loose forms,” he wrote. In his Lion Hunt, Delacroix adopted a similar circular composition, with a golden lion encircled by turbaned horsemen. Their oriental-style outfits are also indebted to Rubens, as are the colours. Indeed, in his use of colour Delacroix passed on Rubens’s legacy to the subsequent generations of French artists, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

  • From the circle, or the perfect sphere, is created all that is feminine, and all that is of the flesh, twisting, rounded, curved and arched.

    Rubens, from his anatomical treatise, De figuris humanis

  • Rubens and Cézanne

  • Rubens is known for his full-figured nudes and his convincing depiction of human flesh. His female figures were an inspiration for generations of artists that followed, among them Paul Cézanne. In later life, Cézanne became absorbed with the theme of female bathers, and admired in particular the way Rubens placed his nudes within nature and captured them in motion.

    Both are features of Rubens’s Pan and Syrinx. The action takes place on the banks of a river, where the nymph Syrinx flees from the grasp of the lecherous Pan. Unable to escape, she is transformed by the river nymphs into a reed, like those that surround her. Despite her convincing appearance, Syrinx’s dynamic pose is adapted from a classical sculpture, which Rubens brilliantly transformed into living, pulsating flesh.

    Cézanne’s nudes don’t conform to classical ideals of beauty, like Rubens’s, nor was he interested in capturing the texture of flesh. What he shared with Rubens was a desire to convey the volume and solidity of the human body. His depiction of the skin too, with tinges of blue combined with red, recall Rubens’s technique of painting flesh.

  • Whether you think you like Rubens or not, his influence runs through the pathways of paintings.

    Jenny Saville

  • Rubens and Jenny Saville RA

    • Jenny Saville RA, Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela)

      Jenny Saville RA, Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela), 2014 – 15.

      Private Collection /© Jenny Saville. All rights reserved, DACS 2015/Photo Mike Bruce/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

      Rubens’s influence continues to touch artists today, as shown in the last room of the exhibition, curated by Royal Academician Jenny Saville. Saville is known the large, fleshy nudes, which recall Rubens’s approach to the female figure. But for the exhibition, she produced something darker, both in style and subject: a large charcoal drawing showing two severed heads on a pile of bodies. It tackles a theme often treated by Rubens. “The abduction of a woman’s body, that’s a very difficult to deal with in a painting, so I wanted to have a go at it one way or another, and that’s what led me to deal with the myth of Philomela.” Philomela, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is raped and mutilated by her sister’s husband, and gains revenge only after she is transformed into a nightingale.

      While Saville confronted one of Rubens’s themes, other artists in the display share his painterly technique. Among them are Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and contemporary artist Cecily Brown. Brown’s painting, The Young and the Restless shares an affinity with Rubens’s nudes and his technique of painting. Like Rubens, she conjures up an impression of pulsating flesh through her vibrant colours and vigorous application of paint.

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