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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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

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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