Few artists enjoy the accolade of appearing in the dictionary, though perhaps by following the Oxford English’s definition of Rubenesque as ‘designating a woman with a voluptuous, full figure’ we are doing Peter Paul Rubens a disservice.
That could certainly be one subtext to the Royal Academy of Art (RA)’s forthcoming exhibition Rubens and his Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne. Opening on 24 January, this is the first major show in the UK to bring together some of the Baroque painter’s greatest works alongside pieces from later artists that admired Rubens and were inspired by his genius.
It is a dazzling array, ranging from early 19th century painters Turner and Delacroix, through impressionists Manet and Cézanne to Klimt and Picasso, and other key figures from the last century. Their works are just some of the highlights in a show jointly organised by the RA, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp (KMSKA), and BOZAR (Centre for Fine Arts Brussels), where the exhibition is on display until early January.
Curators Dr Nico Van Hout, based at KMSKA, and the RA’s Dr Arturo Galansino, believe the Antwerp-based artist was the greatest of his age and has since been undervalued, though not just because of our limited use of the word ‘Rubenesque’. ‘[Rubens's legacy] is vast in the number of artists, time and geography,’ Van Hout explains. ‘Art history is still largely studied according to national schools, yet Rubens’ impact on art history transgressed frontiers.’
Peter Paul Rubens, The Triumph of Henri IV, 1630 (with detail below).
Oil on panel, 49.5 x 83.5 cm. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942.
Photo © 2013. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence.
Rubens was comfortable moving among Europe’s most influential elites: he worked for both the Catholic church and the continent’s most powerful royal families, including the monarchs of England, France and Spain. Meanwhile, prints and reproductions spread his fame across Europe.
The artist’s subject matter ranged from religious to libidinous, savage to graceful, including portraiture, hunting scenes, devotional works and landscapes. To reflect such breadth, Van Hout and Galansino have divided their exhibition thematically, with rooms dedicated to Poetry, Elegance, Power (history paintings), Lust, Compassion (religious paintings) and Violence.
Peter Paul Rubens, Pan and Syrinx, 1617.
Oil on panel. 40 x 61 cm. Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel.
Photo: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister/Ute Brunzel.
As for the choice of other artists on show, the curators have combined their erudition to demonstrate how Rubens’ forebears have gone straight to the source material — the works themselves — often with sketchbooks in hand, before discussing them in letters and notebooks.
As a student of Rubens, Van Dyck has the most direct relationship with the 17th century master, as shown in the exhibition's section on Elegance, where the curators compare two portraits: Rubens’ Marchesa Maria Grimaldi and her Dwarf with his former pupil's A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son (see below).
Sir Anthony Van Dyck, A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son, c. 1626.
Oil on canvas. 191.5 x 139.5 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection.
Photo Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.
In Poetry, the exhibition focuses on Rubens’ landscapes and bucolic scenes, which had a particular impact in England due in part to the influence of Charles I, who used the artist as a propaganda painter (commissioning him to paint the majestic ceiling of his Banqueting House in Whitehall, London), and Protestantism, which meant Rubens’ religious works were not shown.
Van Hout explains: ‘Rubens’ landscapes were already being collected by English aristocrats during his lifetime and these collections in country estates acted as private museums for visiting artists like Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence and Constable. Most of these artists wrote about the much admired landscapes in their letters or journals.’ Accordingly, Rubens’ The Garden of Love is to be displayed alongside The Harvest Wagon by Gainsborough, Constable’s Cottage at East Bergholt and The Forest of Bere by Turner.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Love, c. 1633 (with detail below).
Oil on canvas. 199 x 286 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid.
Photo c. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado.
If any facet of Rubens’ talent can unite such disparate themes, it is his use of colour. For Christie’s deputy chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art, Conor Jordan, Rubens was a ‘first love’. ‘For late 19th century artists, Rubens was the hero of colourism, a tradition that came to the Impressionists via Delacroix,’ says Jordan. ‘They saw his use of colour as something worthy and admirable.’
Eugene Delacroix, Crucifixion, 1846.
Oil on panel. 37 x 25 cm. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photographer: Studio Tromp.
This group of painters also learned from Rubens’ ability to marshal huge spaces and knit them together, especially Cézanne, who sketched the Flemish master's epic Marie de Rubens’ Medici cycle at the Louvre.
‘Cézanne is utterly different to Rubens — a misanthrope rather than a society figure — but he studied Rubens intently, focusing on details like the three nereids at de Medici’s disembarkation,’ Jordan says. Van Hout, meanwhile, describes Rubens as a ‘painter’s painter’, explaining how artists have looked to him for guidance in both the use of colour and the realistic representation of animals.
In the exhibition’s Violence segment, the curators link two visceral scenes of human/animal conflict: Rubens’ Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (see below) and Delacroix’s mid-19th century The Lion Hunt. As for Cézanne, he appears under Lust, admittedly a section that does bring us back to those voluptuous women, with Rubens’ Venus Frigida in a section that explains how its erotic charge has been passed down through Manet and Renoir to Cézanne’s Three Bathers (see below) and, perhaps more unexpectedly, Picasso’s Faun Uncovering a Sleeping Woman.
Paul Cezanne, Three Bathers, c. 1875.
Oil on canvas. 30.5 x 33 cm. Private Collection. Photo: Ali Elai, Camerarts
Peter Paul Rubens, Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt, 1616.
Oil on canvas. 256 x 324.5 cm. Rennes, Musee des Beaux Arts.
Photo c. MBA, Rennes, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Adelaide Beaudoin.
While the Impressionists saw much to admire in Rubens’ formal abilities, Picasso was inspired by his more earthy qualities, Jordan notes. ‘Picasso is not great at referencing sources, but [Faun...] is a lusty narrative that Rubens also covered, even if he dressed it up in more respectable clothes,’ he says. ‘Rubens was always a worldly painter; there is always a sense of blood and guts in his work.’