Rubens and His Legacy: From Van Dyck to Cézanne, Royal Academy of Arts
Three, two, one, brace yourself… Rubens is here, at the Royal Academy, in all his gigantic, pulsating, Technicolor glory. But hang on. What’s this? A rural idyll? Some toiling labourers? An atmospheric rainbow? You could be forgiven upon entering the first room of Rubens and His Legacy, for thinking you had got the wrong venue, or had somehow stepped back in time to the V&A’s autumn Constable show. Because the start of this display may come as a surprise: there are no tigers or bare ladies, and the canvases are, well, modestly sized. It is not what the exhibition poster, featuring Rubens’ famously violent hunting scene, suggested we might find; nor does it seem very “Rubensy” in here at all. A glance at the captions, however, confirms that Rubens did apparently do landscapes. He did them very well, in fact; as well as Constable and Gainsborough. Except that it would be more accurate to say that Constable and Gainsborough did them as well as Rubens, for Rubens was painting his craggy rocks and billowing trees some 200 years earlier.
The decision to kick the exhibition off with this lesser known genre of the painter, was a conscious one on the part of the curators. We know all about the fleshy nudes and enormous canvases filled with myriad men and gods that dominate his reputation, but are in danger of forgetting the other areas of his art. And so if this is an exhibition which aims to explore how Rubens touched the generations of artists which followed him, it is also a show which seeks to rehabilitate the painter by highlighting his quieter, informal and more intimate side.
If you saw the V&A exhibition last year, the various old master influences on Constable’s work will be familiar, and seeing Rubens’ The Carters (c.1620) alongside a full-scale sketch for The Hay Wain (c.1821), makes it clear that the English artist looked further afield than just Gainsborough and Claude. “In no other branch of art is Rubens greater than in landscape,” he said in 1833. But what else is to be expected from Constable? He was hardly going to wax lyrical about Rubens’ rippling torsos or shimmering flesh, and while the meteorological elements of the Flemish artist’s Landscape with a Rainbow (c.1630) may have captivated and inspired Constable, we do not find many lounging couples and exposed shoulders in his own works.
And this lies at the heart of the current exhibition. Artists, especially those working decades and centuries after Rubens, did not adopt his style wholesale: note that the show is not called Rubens and Rubenism. It was a case of picking and choosing. Certain things appealed to certain painters, and they were happy to scavenge these, while discarding the rest. So for Jean-Antoine Watteau it was the lyrical fresh air partying in Rubens’ Garden of Love (1635) which captivated him, inspiring him to go on to create his famous Fête Galante scenes; Rubens’ rowdy hunting scenes did it for Eugène Delacroix; for Sir Thomas Lawrence it was the portraits; while Cézanne was drawn towards the artist’s weighty, moving bodies and glowing flesh-tones. Not that these artists simply saw something they liked and plonked it into their own work; rather they drew upon and adapted Rubens’ precedent, which in itself was often based on some earlier painter. It was Titian’s cavorting outdoor scenes, for example, which moved Rubens to produce his own alfresco shindig, and Michelangelo and Raphael, amongst others, who partly inspired his famously voluptuous ladies. And having taken something from Rubens, painters might later decide to drop it: the bright colours of Manet’s Fishing (c. 1862-63) or Study for ‘The Surprised Nymph (c.1860) – works produced at a time when the artist was following Delacroix’s advice to copy Rubens – are soon replaced by his trademark darker Velasquez-inspired palette.
But where did these artists find Rubens? Although there were no national museums until into the nineteenth century, painters such as Constable, Gainsborough and Sir Thomas Lawrence would have seen the collections of their patrons: A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (1636) was owned by Constable’s friend and client, Sir George Beaumont, while The Carters was part of Sir Robert Walpole’s collection, and was well known to Gainsborough. Rubens’ portrait of Susanna Fourment, Le Chapeau de Paille, was acquired in 1823 by Sir Robert Peel, one of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s most prolific patrons. In 1827 Lawrence painted Peel’s wife, Julia. But instead of the stiff formality of traditional depictions, Lady Peel seems relaxed and approachable and the influence of Rubens’ portrait is palpable.
Engravings and woodcuts of many of Rubens’ works meant that prints were widely available in Europe and beyond. Rubens, in fact, actively sought to ensure that prints of his works were created, recognising their money-making potential. In 1631 the printmaker Boetius Adamsz. Bolswert made an engraving of Rubens’ grisly Coup de Lance altarpiece (1620). Some one hundred years later, a strikingly similar composition appears on a Chinese porcelain plate produced during the reign of the fourth Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, based, presumably, on a Rubens print brought to China by a Jesuit missionary. And closer to home, it was to a Bolswert engraving of Rubens’ Conversion of St Paul that Murillo looked when painting his own Conversion (c.1675-80). Rubens’ sketches also made their way into collections and institutions across Europe, where they could be scrutinized and ransacked by later artists: Watteau did not see The Garden of Love itself, but sketches Rubens had made of the painting, owned by his friend, Pierre Crozat; and it was an oil sketch of St Cecilia (1620) in the Vienna Academia, that inspired Gustav Klimt when he came to draw the saint in 1885.
It was easier for Cézanne and friends, who could wander down to the Louvre and spend a few hours in front of Rubens’ epic 24 painting cycle of the life and times of Marie de Médicis, a work which provided them with a ready catalogue of motifs, poses and palette ideas. That Rubens had been able to execute so vast a project within two years was, of course, because he had not – at least not alone. The painter’s output over the course of his career was huge – a fact which in itself helps explain the artist’s widespread and lasting legacy – and he was assisted at all times by a slick and professional operation: his studio. Ever the canny businessmen, Rubens’ workshop resembled what we might today see as a multi-national corporation. Rubens was the brand, painting was the business, and money and fame were the objectives. Artist’s studios had been around for hundreds of years, but few had been as large and efficient as the Flemish painter’s. It was big enough to cope with projects such as Marie de Medicis’ or, later, Charles I’s homage to his father, James I, on the ceiling of Whitehall’s Banqueting House, a commission which Rubens himself suggested and pursued. And the calibre of his assistants could be relied upon; they were, in fact, queuing at the door, “I can tell you truly, without exaggeration that I have had to refuse over one hundred [assistants], even some of my own relatives…,” he wrote in a letter as early as 1611. Rubens also knew his market. In Antwerp he concentrated on replacing the many altarpieces destroyed by Protestant iconoclasm at the end of the sixteenth century, while amongst Europe’s nobility he promoted his hunting scenes and grandiose portraits, including, in the first years of the seventeenth century, cornering the portrait market for the Northern Italian bankers’ wives and girlfriends. Nor was he afraid to subcontract: knowing, for example, his friend Jan Brueghel the Elder was, at the time, the more accomplished at painting wildlife and scenery, he employed him to paint the marshy background of his Pan and Syrinx (1617).
If this is an exhibition which, with its inoffensive scenes of rural life, might in room one be categorised with a U-certificate, by the end of the show we are watching a certificate-18 (and if you look closely enough at Jacob Jordaens’ Pan (1620), you might say X-rated). It is as if the curators have arranged the show so that the temperature rises in a steady crescendo. After nature there is religious gore, which turns into violent hunting and culminates, in the final rooms, with unabashed steaminess. Here Rubens and friends – even Van Dyck and Watteau – have got sexy, and perhaps this is what the crowds were expecting all along. There are curvy ladies and love scenes and lots and lots of beautiful bare flesh, which Rubens painted with the skill of a gentleman who has spent his fair share of time observing the real deal. Except that sometimes these women look too good to be true: yes, they are real in the sense that they are soft and round with lumps and bumps that you won’t see downstairs on Allen Jones’s golden Kate Moss. But they glow in a way that all the Eve Lom cream in the world could not achieve, and it was this which so appealed to later artists, such as Daumier and Cézanne, who would apply reds and blues to their flesh-tones, just as Rubens had.
This was always going to be a delicate show to stage, and perhaps that is why galleries, to date, have steered clear of the subject. If Rubens paints a meaty, lounging nude, an attacking tiger or a rainbow, and, down the line, someone else does something similar, who is to say definitively whether or not it was to Rubens that they looked? This is the flimsy point that has been made by certain reviewers, who have cast doubt on the research behind the exhibition. And yet we must hand ourselves, to some extent, over to the curators, or what would be the point in going? It is clear enough that styles, motifs and techniques have not been picked at random from works by Rubens and then arbitrarily tracked down in pieces by subsequent artists. Nor at any point does anyone claim that Rubens was the sole influence on any of these painters: the point is made again and again across the exhibition, this was a process of selection and elimination. As to whether Rubens changed the course of art history, as one enthusiastic critic claims in the Royal Academy’s magazine? Possibly not; but at least this exhibition gives viewers the chance to change the way they view him.