detail from ‘Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt’, 1616; Oil on canvas, 256 x 324.5cm; Rennes, Musée des Beaux Arts; Photo c. MBA, Rennes, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Adelaide Beaudoin

The Ultimate Old Master

30th January 2015

Peter Paul Rubens was the most influential of Flemish Old Masters, casting a spell over legions of later artists. Jack Watkins went along to the Royal Academy’s new show focusing on the prolific and versatile painter.

“My passion comes from the heavens, not from earthly musings,” Peter Paul Rubens once said. That remark, with its grandiosity of intent beyond the solely spiritual, seems emblematic of the life and work of the ultimate Old Master. While we live in the time of navel gazers and narrow specialists, his was still the age of ‘Great Men’, when explorers were singlehandedly claiming to ‘discover’ new lands, and Sir Christopher Wren could create a visual masterpiece like St Paul’s Cathedral and yet be considered an important scientist. Rubens, for his part, was not only the most feted artist of his day, but a leading courtier, diplomat and scholar. He was, above all, the prime artist of the wealthy, both of the landed rich and of the Church, and it was through his paintbrush that the language of the Catholic Counter Reformation, that bombastic, confident restatement of muscular Christianity in the face of all the equivocations and dreariness of Protestantism, received its most flamboyantly Baroque expression.

He was the complete antithesis of the locked-in-the-garret penurious painter, suffering for his art. He was a charmer, who moved with smiling ease through all the social divisions. Born into the middle class in 1577 in Westphalia (now in Germany), his family had moved to Antwerp when he was ten. His artistic training came via apprenticeships to several leading artists not much remembered today, but fashionable figures of the time. Then, in 1600, Rubens travelled to Italy, and he was so taken by the art and culture of that charming country that he began to sign his name Pietro Paulo Rubens.

He loved the colours of Titian, Tintoretto and Raphael, and soon he settled in Mantua, winning himself a wealthy patron who shared his enthusiasm. The fascinating north Italian city state of Mantua may look a little faded to the modern day tourist, but in the 17th century it was one of the region’s ‘big operators’ on the political front, and its duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga was intent on turning the place into one of the leading cultural centres of the age. Rubens was one of his main men and, thanks to the patronage of the duke, the young artist was able to travel across Italy, gaining access to the highest circles and attracting lucrative commissions. For the rest of his life, even after he returned to Antwerp, he would be the go-to man for any diplomat or merchant looking to refurbish their homes with lavish paintings or mural decorations, or to commission a splendid altarpiece in their local church. He even secured business in London, painting the splendid panelled ceiling at the Banqueting House in Whitehall in 1635, the very building at which, with horrible, tragic irony, Charles I was beheaded thirteen years later on a platform suspended from one of the windows.

The immensity of an artist’s past standing isn’t necessarily enough to secure a major London exhibition these days, however, and the Royal Academy is at pains to point out that Rubens’ advocacy of the Divine Right of Kings and the Counter Reformation was but one facet of his output, and that there was a more informal side to be seen in his family portraits, rural scenes and landscapes – ‘poetic Rubens’, as they put it. The aim here is to showcase the artist’s work across six areas – Poetry, Elegance, Power, Lust, Compassion and Violence – and at the same time reveal how profound his influence was on subsequent generations.

If there’s a criticism of the exhibition to make it’s that there isn’t really enough of the man himself: very often the major work on the wall in a particular room being that of another artist. The Rubens piece which might have inspired the painting turns out to be a tiny canvas on a side wall. Still, you can’t have everything, and the Rubens works which are on show here are very fine indeed. They offer a taster of his versatility, if not much more.

Enjoyable beyond words is his 'Evening Landscape with a Timber Wagon', with its contemplative air and nostalgic feeling of the sun going down at the end of the day, as a cart disappears into a sunken hollow lane below a mellow treescape. The work clearly foreshadows Constable’s 'The Hay Wain', present on the wall here in its full-size study form, and even more so, Turner’s magical 'The Forest of Bere'. Less enchanting is 'The Garden of Love', a huge oil painting reckoned to have influenced 18th century French artists such as Watteau and Boucher. It shows courtship and love among the fashionable citizens of Antwerp, and is a case study in everything you might hate about this school of painting, with its pink-buttocked cherubs, whey-faced women, and foppish males, all cuffs and ruffles. Watteau’s 'La Surprise' and 'The Pleasures of the Bal'l are duly to be found along a nearby wall and are just as ridiculous.

Later generations of French painters, or ones working in the country, cottoned on to Rubens too, after many of his works were brought back to France by Napoleon Bonaparte as trophies from his European wars. In Belgium, Rubens and his studio produced a stream of altarpieces for Flemish and Northern French churches. Scenes from Christ’s Passion were designed to elicit an emotional, sympathetic response. Christ on the Stone is one such example here. Van Gogh was among those to be moved, regarding Rubens’s draughtmanship to be ‘phenomenal’, and being particularly impressed by the lifelike way in which he rendered heads. Sketches like 'Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints', commissioned by Antwerp’s Augustinian friars, have a delicacy of expression and posture which back up the Van Gogh viewpoint.

It was as a dramatic painter that Rubens really came into his own, however. The most exciting painting on show here is 'Tiger, Leopard and Lion Hunt', which leaps off the canvas at you with all the cartoonish brio of a modern 3D film, all colour and bold effects. A tiger leaps up to sink its teeth into the shoulder of a mounted huntsman, who is so astonished that his eye looks like it is about to pop out of his head. Another fearless individual tears back the jaws of a lion with his bare hands to release a prostrate friend.

It’s not surprising this painting had a major impact on that fine old Victorian animal painter Sir Edwin Landseer. What a joy to see one of his works, 'The Hunting of Chevy Chase', given an outing at a major show. In Landseer’s work, it is a stag which is the quarry and hounds causing the carnage, of course. Even better is a piece by another personal favourite, Eugene Delacroix, who framed his lion-hunting scene even more tightly and excitingly, with huntsmen and prey skirmishing in a whirling circular pool of movement and frenzy. Forget the rooms of ‘Rubenesque females’ or the yawningly dull portraits of Reynolds and Lawrence, inspired by Rubens’s superior portraiture. This room alone is worth the price of the entry ticket.

Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cezanne is at the Royal Academy of Arts until 10 April 2015

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