- - Thursday, January 23, 2020

Peter Paul Rubens was one of art’s great masters in the Flemish Baroque tradition. 

He was thoughtful, intelligent and enormously talented. He devoured his early studies in Antwerp, Belgium, in classical antiquity, and used this vast knowledge to create exquisite paintings of historical scenes. His other works, including self-portraits and tapestries, exhibited a great eye for detail and brilliant brushstrokes that captured the essence of his subjects.

A recent joint exhibition by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (April-September 2019) and Art Gallery of Ontario (October 2019-January 2020) was the first to properly explore Rubens’ post-Italian period between 1609-1621. The catalogue, “Early Rubens,” edited by Sasha Suda (CEO, National Art Gallery of Canada) and Kirk Nickel (assistant curator of European Paintings, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), is the perfect accompaniment for this personal artistic journey of self-discovery.  

In Ms. Suda’s essay, she notes that Rubens and his friend, writer/poet Carlo Scribani, were “part of a broader community” in Antwerp “who saw the city’s potential to rebuild itself.” She felt Rubens’ leadership “in this moment of transition is remarkable - his entrepreneurial, diplomatic, intellectual, and artistic abilities eclipse those of any artist throughout Western history.”

Ms. Suda also suggests, “Antwerp was Rubens’s stalwart partner in this artist’s endeavour to revitalize the city … Without one, the other would have never achieved the singular success that the two enjoyed together.”

Indeed, the dramatic shifts in art, business and intellectual life in Antwerp gave Rubens a raison d’etre, or sense of purpose, to create his masterpieces. Brilliant paintings like “The Adoration of the Magi” (1609, later reworked in 1628-29) and “The Four Philosophers” (1611-12) displayed a rich, vibrant artistic style that focused on historical moments and captured the facial gestures and body movements to near-perfection.

Nevertheless, there are different interpretations of Rubens’ work.

Mr. Nickel acknowledges “Rubens’s return to Antwerp initiated in the Low Countries a triumphalist Catholic art steeped in the priorities of the Roman Church” in his essay. However, he also suggests that “routinely in Rubens’s paintings from the first years after his homecoming, we find him encouraging the viewer to question the relationship between visual appearance and essential truth.” 

How so? In paintings such as “The Return from War: Mars Disarmed by Venus” (1610-12), Mr. Nickel proposes there’s “dramatic resonance in the sort of narrative misalignments” that are present in them. Moreover, he argues “the burden of interpretation that Rubens’s pictures place on viewers is often substantial” and the paintings also contain “troubled assumptions about a simple relationship between sight and truth.”

Even if you have Mr. Nickel’s breadth of knowledge on this particular subject (and I don’t), it’s a fascinating analysis. Art is in the eye of the beholder, as the old saying goes. Most people who visit museums and galleries would assume sight and truth usually go hand-in-hand. Yet, there have always been artistic interpretations of historical scenes, portraiture and color schematics. 

Did Rubens take the occasional artistic liberty? It’s certainly possible, but this shouldn’t ruin the enjoyment of his great masterpieces included in this catalogue. 

Stunning paintings like “Portrait of Isabella Brant” (1620-25), Rubens’ first wife, along with the side-by-side husband and wife display of “Portrait of Rogier Clarisse” (1611) and “Portrait of Sara Breyel” (1611), are powerful, personal and extremely well-detailed. Meanwhile, brilliant historical/religious paintings such as “The Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth, Saint John, and a Dove” (1608-09), “The Massacre of the Innocents” (1611-12) and “The Lamentation” (1612) are strong testaments to his religious upbringing and the glory of the Roman Catholic Church.

Other highlights include “The Boar Hunt” (1615-17). It’s one of four paintings commissioned by Duke Maximillian I of Bavaria, and the image is described by Corrinne Chong and David Jaffe as one in which the “claustrophobic concentration of figures and compaction of terror are unparalleled.” There’s also “Head of Medusa” (1617-18), a gruesome image in classical literature after Hermes had cut her head off. As Ms. Chong and Petr Tomasek write, “Rubens’s arresting image of Medusa lies in the tension between attraction and repulsion. Emotions oscillate between delight in the vestiges of beauty remaining on the victim’s face and disgust at the hyper-realistic entanglement of grisly snakes and bursting arteries.”   

“Early Rubens” is a magnificent encapsulation of Rubens’ artistic brilliance and creativity. Although the exhibit has concluded, this book will become a permanent component of our understanding of the early works of an Old Master. 

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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Edited by Sasha Suda and Kirk Nickel

DelMonico Books/Prestel, $50, 295 pages

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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