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

Grand Designs: The Wallace Collection

If Sir Richard Wallace’s ghost passes through Hertford House’s Great Gallery on its nightly rounds, it must be feeling pleased.  Faded fabric walls have been replaced with a crimson silk damask, the ceiling – which was lowered in the 1970s to make space for air conditioning ducts – has been raised to allow in natural light again, gilded wainscot panelling now runs along the length of the walls and the old wood floor has been replaced with spanking new parquet.  Ghosts do not probably understand the need for air-conditioning, and although the 1970s Great Gallery revamp was seen as state-of-the-art at the time, Sir Richard may have wondered why his cleverly designed ceiling, which allowed daylight into the room, but only indirectly so as to protect the artworks, was ever removed.

Great Gallery, &copy The Wallace Collection

Great Gallery © The Wallace Collection

Over the past few years the Wallace Collection has played host to its fair share of workmen, and the Great Gallery refurbishment is but one of several major overhauls to take place in the gallery.   In May 2009, Lady Wallace’s Boudoir, the West Room and the Landing reopened; the Study, the Oval Drawing Room and the Small Drawing Room have been subject to an ongoing program of redecoration; in August 2010 the West Galleries I and II and the Nineteenth Century Gallery opened for business; and in March 2012, it was the East Galleries’ turn to show off their new look.   And although the unveiling of the Great Gallery in September 2014 may have marked the pinnacle of the Wallace Collection’s grand design, the workmen have not yet quit Manchester Square for good, with plans afoot to finish the refurbishment of the first floor galleries, as well as to reconfigure the museum’s lower ground floor to make space for a lunch area and film room.

West Gallery &copy Wallace Collection

West Room © The Wallace Collection

Richard Wallace was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, and although when his father died in 1870 he did not get the title, he did get the house, even if he had to buy it from his cousin, the 5th Marquess.   The art and furniture at Hertford House is known today as the Wallace Collection, but it might just as well be called the Hertford Collection, for in large part it was acquired by the 3rd and 4th Marquesses during the mid-19th century.  Continue reading

Nail to Nail

The National Gallery’s Veronese spectacle, opening this month, will include a host of borrowed works from abroad.   But what did it take to get them to London?

It is hard enough arranging shipment to the UK of the marble statuette which, while you were on holiday, looked so wonderful in its Italian showroom.  But as the storerooms in the National Gallery’s basement fill with crates containing Paolo Veronese’s 450 year old canvases, arriving from Spain, France, Italy, Austria and the USA, you could be forgiven for wondering how on earth they got to Trafalgar Square.  Except that one rarely does spend much time thinking about the logistics behind a major exhibition.  And rightly so, for curators have not gone to all that trouble (and it is a lot of trouble) for us to spend our time inside the show focusing on negotiations, shipping, security and insurance.  The eve of the National Gallery’s Veronese extravaganza, however, when one hopes that the scene inside the gallery is one of cool efficiency and careful stage-management, seems like a good time to consider what goes on backstage.

Martyrdom of Saint George (c. 1565), San Giorgio in Braida, Verona

Martyrdom of Saint George (c. 1565), San Giorgio in Braida, Verona
Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

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