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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