Rubens Revised

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.

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Peter Paul Rubens, Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon, 1630-40. Oil on panel. 49.5 x 54.7 cm. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. Photo: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam/Photographer: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam

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.

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Peter Paul Rubens, The Carters, 1629. Oil on canvas. 86 x 126.5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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John Constable, Full-Scale Study for The Hay Wain, c. 1821. Oil on canvas. 137 x 188 cm. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

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. Continue reading

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Radical Rembrandt

Rembrandt: The Late Works, The National Gallery

Rembrandt did not invent the selfie: according to the OED, the image must be a photograph.  But if the self portrait is an early version of this twenty-first century trend, Rembrandt may well be one of its forefathers.  Although artists have been painting themselves for hundreds of years, not many did so as often as Rembrandt, who produced 80-odd self portraits; and these are just the ones that survive.  Unlike today’s self-snappers, Rembrandt did not tend to share his selfies, and the finished portraits were seldom bought by patrons.  Luckily for us, however, the National Gallery is doing the sharing for him, and on display as part of Rembrandt: The Late Works, are six self portraits from the last few years of the artist’s life.

Two of these pictures are from Rembrandt’s final months in 1669, and the artist does not look his best.  He may not have been – if you will excuse the pun – an oil-painting to begin with, but in these last works, in which his swollen, aged face seems to belong more to an 80-year-old than a 63-year-old, it is clear that his health is failing.  But not his painting, which is as robust as it ever was.  The artist was fascinated with his ageing appearance, and his self portrait habit peaked in the last two decades of his life.  On loan from Kenwood House, is the intriguing Self Portrait with Two Circles (about 1665-9), in which he paints himself against a backdrop of two perfect circles, the significance of which has baffled art historians for almost as long as there has been art history.  Is he emulating Giotto who could reportedly draw a perfect circle with a free hand, or are they there to counter-balance the massive triangular bulk of his body?   Whatever the answer, here is Rembrandt as Rembrandt.  He wears his work-a-day painter’s garb and has even eschewed the snazzy berets which feature in the 1669 Mauritshuis Self Portrait and the National Gallery’s 1669 version, donning instead a white artist’s cap and holding the tools of his trade.

Self Portrait with two circles (about 1665-69), Kenwood House, London © English Heritage

Self Portrait with two circles (about 1665-69), Kenwood House, London © English Heritage

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669), The National Gallery © The National Gallery, London

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669), The National Gallery © The National Gallery, London

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