Titian, Rembrandt, and who? Several years ago I read an assessment of Peter Paul Rubens in the New Yorker which called him “history’s chief painter’s painter,” while snatching back the compliment in the next breath, dubbing him “the leading pictorial decorator, propagandist, and entertainer for a Catholic Europe.” Since depreciation is more fun than appreciation, the magazine’s art critic says, of Rubens’ female nudes, “all that smothering flesh, vibrantly alive but with the erotic appeal of a mud slide.” As zingers go, here’s another goodie: “Nor do Rubens’s characters appear significantly more intelligent than his farm animals.”
The final impression one got was that a simple drawing of an ox – the most highly praised work in the article – surpasses Rubens’ vast output of oil paintings, which is like dissing Alain Ducasse except for his appetizers. Unassailable reputations are waiting to be assailed, I suppose. Like a master chef, Rubens was guaranteed to serve up a feast for the eye, and he worked rapidly, as if the customer was impatiently tapping his wine glass. He died in 1640 at the age of sixty-two, and it’s startling to consider that when he was around thirty, Rubens could have come to London to see the first performances of Hamlet and King Lear. His style seems at least a century ahead. So prolific was he that London abounds in Rubens, major and minor. The works were well worth pausing over this summer, when the big museums seemed empty of important, intriguing shows.
It takes a conscious effort to recover Rubens as you walk past acres of his Biblical and historical scenes. He has the disadvantage shared with Tiepolo and Watteau, for example, that a single style, sweeping through multiple canvases, sums him up too quickly. A typical Rubens is crammed with figures in billowy, fleshy abundance, as witness The Conversion of Saint Paul at the Courtauld Institute on the Strand. Here we have the risen Christ illuminating the apex of a tumultuous scene, while the blinded Saul, lying flat on his back in the foreground, is almost lost in the welter of confused and amazed figures. A crowd is sharing his epiphany, or at least its repercussions. The event isn’t seen with mystic awe; rather, it affords a reason for Rubens’ familiar way of tangling a host of characters into a Baroque pile-up of passion and posturing.
In an era where a couple of black lines descending down a white canvas by Barnet Newman constitutes a Station of the Cross, Rubens possesses too many negative virtues: he’s generous, rich, theatrical, and rhetorical in his florid imagery. Or we could employ less positive terms: fulsome, congested, histrionic, and fake. There are more economical ways to treat any given Rubens subject but few that are more complicated. If you must give us (yawn) another Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, plop him front and center, strike him with a shaft of divine light, and decorate the foreground with maybe a surprised spaniel or whippet – we want the English gentry to buy these paintings.
Rubens’ propensity for sweeping compositions cannot be separated from the heritage of fervent, romanticized, even lurid religious imagery we associate with the Counter-Reformation. But he doesn’t give me the impression of propaganda so much as of perfecting how Christian tropes should be delivered. The Courtauld owns an illustrious Descent from the Cross that can strike you as pure Verdi opera, the image dominated by a diagonal white drapery that serves as a stage for Jesus’s pale corpse (Adonis-like in its muscularity), attended by eight supporting figures, each striking a different pose of grief and shock. It’s too knowing technically to be innocent devotionally, and yet, who are we to say that the tragedy isn’t sincerely felt?
Comparison with Rembrandt’s night-lit Descent in the Hermitage are fascinating, but Rembrandt wasn’t capable of the slavish accommodation to royalty that produced The Apotheosis of James I, also at the Courtauld – the title says it all – a gaze heavenward with the ascending monarch packed into a swirling host of angels, the whole turbulent array painted as gorgeously as the mourners attending Jesus on the Cross. Thus questions of insincerity arise, and a hint that anybody depicted by Rubens could be turned into Saint Furbelow.
I supose that taste will never retrace the adulation that once paired Rubens with the greatest geniuses on canvas like Titian and Rembrandt, even if his Massacre of the Innocents is the fourteenth most expensive painting ever sold at auction (the buyer, at $95 million, was the late businessman Ken Thomson, the richest man in Canada). In Rubens’ lifetime, which was richly spent as a scholar, art collector, architect, linguist (he spoke five languages), and diplomat as well as artist, all of Europe clamored for his paintings, admiring their grandiosity – he was knighted by both Charles I of England and Philip V of Spain – and we are fortunate that he was much more than his cover-the-wall style, just as Tiepolo is more than cover the ceiling and Watteau more than cover the boudoir.
One of his most admired portraits, of young Susanna Lunden, with her swan neck, bounteous satin wrap, and huge feathered hat, stops everyone walking past her in the National Gallery. She isn’t quite a beauty; the eyes are a bit anxious, the lips pursed. But there’s an appealing shyness about her. As pure painting, this one seems to emerge in one sunny stroke that envelops flesh, feathers, fabric, and sky. It’s all of a piece, evoking simple summer joy.
Does it matter that Susanna isn’t the ne plus ultra of portraits, even portraits with prominent hats? Qualifiers would be unthinkable gazing at Vermeer’s Girl in a Red Hat at the National Gallery in Washington, which carries the medieval obsession with jewel-like craftsmanship into a transcendent realm of mystery. At the other extreme, technically, Rembrandt’s loving portrait of his doomed son Titus, also in a red hat, which hangs in the Wallace Collection, is practically daubed on the canvas, without the most basic concern to show what the hat is made of. Yet it’s a triumph of essence over technique – love can’t be measured by counting brushstrokes.
Vermeer’s exquisite detailing and Rembrandt’s heartbreaking tenderness are not traits common to Rubens. Not for want of talent, however. He would be considered a great painter, and a touching one, too, solely for a family grouping hanging in the Courtauld, showing Jan Breughel the Elder, his wife, and two young children posed with such intimate, loving contentment that they could be living in a Dutch Eden where wide lace collars grew on trees. Does it matter that the two children almost cross the line into being porcelain dolls? I think there’s a point to be made, but not before mentioning one last painting, The Rainbow Landscape, at the Wallace Collection, which is the largest canvas being discussed. It depicts a bucolic idyll straight out of Constable (another hint that Rubens painted ahead of his time), ticking the boxes with the requisite cows, haywain, peasants at harvest time, and so on.
The scene is a tribute to Rubens’ acquisition, when he was fifty-eight, of the chateau of Het Steen, halfway between Brussels and Antwerp. A pendant work, showing the chateau itself, can be found in the National Gallery; the two are considered his most magnificent landscapes (not to mention that the chateau, an actual castle, is the most lavish home ever owned by an artist). Commentators with symbolism on the brain consider the rainbow arching over the scene to be a sign of the new covenant between God and man, thus tying Rubens’ personal pleasure with the deity’s. I’m not so sure. The point that sticks in my mind is that these two highly personal pictures don’t feel personal at all, which may be the root of doubts over Rubens.
Painting for at least five hundred years in the West has been a record of artists as supreme individuals, and the traits we associate with becoming a person – struggle, suffering, rebellion, daring, risk, and above all self-discovery – are the most highly prized. We could be fooling ourselves when we project Van Gogh’s torment into every canvas (maybe it was a rainy day, so he decided to enjoy himself by painting some worn workboots or a chair sitting alone in a small bedroom). More crucially, the implied connection between what an artist feels and what the paint says is murky at best. A masterpiece takes time, usually a lot of time, too much for a single mood to be sustained by the artist. In the case of someone like Seurat, attaching a personal mood to thousands of tiny dots is absurd.
Seurat subsumed himself, as do almost all Eastern artists (there’s pride in replicating the same divine image of the Buddha or dancing Shiva, just because the imperfection of the individual has been expunged, or transcended). Rubens’ mastery consists in how magnificently he spread himself into a kind of cultural universality. His impersonality is either a flaw (if you see him as entrepreneur of a made-to-order image factory) or a mark of genius (if you marvel at his inclusion of every aspect of life around him). It must count for something that an artist could depict “our” soul, as opposed to “my” soul, even if he seems like a passionate eye rather than someone we really know.