Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 27, 2008
Lisa Rosenthal Gender, Politics, and Allegory in the Art of Rubens Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 312 pp.; 8 color ills.; 85 b/w ills. Cloth $91.00 (0521842441)

As everyone who studies and loves the art of Rubens knows, the essential challenge posed by his work is a tension between the colorful, dynamic sensuality of his figures and the abstract concepts they often represent. Lisa Rosenthal’s ambitious, beautifully wrought study reveals that this tension is not only Rubens’s deliberate project but an especially fruitful one. In a felicitously tight structure, Rosenthal concentrates on just five paintings: four political and mythological works and a family self-portrait. She offers bold yet extraordinarily subtle and sympathetic readings of the pictures and other related images, marshaling semiotics, feminist, and psychoanalytic approaches in her account of an artist whose work she sees as too complex to be encompassed by traditional iconographic study.

Like Rubens’s five paintings, which she chooses for their engagement with the themes of war and peace, her discussion is dominated by concepts of gender. The paintings she has chosen are especially fraught with the ideals and anxieties of masculinity. For Rubens, the genders are associated with conflicting ideas: manhood is linked with nobility and reason, statehood and fatherhood, as well as violence and war. Femininity signifies peace, pleasure, and fecundity, but also threats to manhood. The works in question feature several interrelated types of heroic masculinity: warrior, hunter, lover, ruler, father, and artist. In Rosenthal’s analysis, all five pictures combine “narratives of inclusion and exclusion, authority and disempowerment, and the pull of regression and the costs and rewards of resisting it” (62).

What lies behind this exploration of Rubens’s pictures is an exploration of method. In the first chapter, a lengthy and thoughtful rationale, Rosenthal explains her use of semiotic, feminist, and especially psychoanalytic theory in interpreting works of art as expanding the notions of “meaning” and artistic intention. Psychoanalysis is conceived here as an interpretive model, “a kind of 21st century version of Panofsky’s iconology . . . [focusing on] aspects of the pictures that remain unspeakable within Renaissance art history’s humanistic discourses” (12). By “unspeakable,” Rosenthal means the sensual and psychological world of the pictures beyond their acknowledged symbolic program: the mise-en-scène of gestures, gazes, motifs, and compositional effects.

This book is ultimately a study of allegory itself. Rosenthal makes a strong case for the complexities of allegory as inherent to seventeenth-century thinking. She cites Roger De Piles’s descriptions of allegory (1708), which she calls “prescient” because he advocates the conjunction of narrative and allegorical language, thereby creating a more complex type of image. Rubens’s sophisticated audience for images like this, the international humanist elite, were likewise well aware of this complexity. Beyond the unpacking of heroic masculinity is a meditation on allegory––and its psychoanalytic subtext––as a visual language for playing out great themes of public and private identity.

The first case study is Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (1629–30), painted for Charles I. This typical allegory employs mythological figures to create images of elaborate topical significance. At the same time, the abstract political drama becomes a family drama as well. The Minerva painting uses the closed female-dominated family group (employing the Balthasar Gerbier family portrait as a model) as a central structure for a realm of peace, prosperity, and fecundity from which Mars is banished. Mars is a figure at once violent and tender, destructive and benign; his implied replacement is Charles himself. It reveals the idea of fatherhood, standing in for statehood itself, as dispossession and loss.

Further exploring “the problem of male identity and authority in relation to a peaceable bacchic world” (62), Rosenthal turns to the trope of the heroic warrior rather than the father as a sign of political might, focusing on two works that she sees as dramas at once reinforcing and undoing this authority. She reinterprets Hero Crowned by Victory (1612) and Drunken Hercules (ca. 1612), a pendant pair usually associated with traditional moralizing opposites: the Christian Knight and Hercules at the crossroads. Beyond this idea of opposites, with their positive and negative connotations, the juxtaposition of a celebrated hero with a drunken, debilitated Hercules, surrounded by women, “exposes to us the fragility of the heroic construction of masculinity. . . . The problem of virtù, that is, of being masculine, is construed here as a choice between domination over others or infantilizing dependence on them” (105). The feminized bacchic peace is “castrating”; Rubens “makes accessible the anxieties fueling, or at least attendant on, the wish for female engulfment” (110).

Rosenthal explores another scenario of such female engulfment in Hercules Mocked by Omphale (ca. 1606), this time enacted as marriage. She sees this image as a “drama of loss and recuperation. . . . In the language of seventeenth-century humanism the drama turns on the mastery of the passions: to give over to love, to seduction, to feminine charms and to one’s own unruly appetites is to be undone and humiliated” (143).

The next chapter, exploring further the tropes of violence and possession, concerns Rubens’s Occasio picture (a workshop painting, based on his lost original) Victorious Hero Seizes Opportunity in Order to Conclude Peace (ca. 1636). Opportunity (Occasio): a traditional figure, reinvented by Rubens as the bride offered to the hero by time. But the hero has a Medusa on his shield. (Medusa’s head, evoking the violence of concluded war as well as the act of grasping, is linked with Occasio, her desirable double.) Rosenthal sees this painting also as an allegory about allegory, wondering if this partly accounts for its great fame in the seventeenth century: the idea of seizing something as possessing meaning, “while intimating . . . what allegory cannot contain, control or bend to its purposes” (170).

The final chapter returns to the theme of fatherhood. Just as Rubens’s political allegories rely on notions of marriage, family, and gender, Rosenthal proposes that the family portrait, while ostensibly a private genre, needs to be understood in relation to public and political ideas. In the late self-portrait with Hélène Fourment and their son Paul, the figure of Rubens himself is considerably reworked. Rosenthal infers that Rubens had difficulty “finding and establishing his place among them,” which jibes with the difficulties of “the representation of social status, paternity, and theories of art-making and the artist” (200–1). This image is another motif of fatherly exclusion, as in the Minerva painting: Rubens-the-father is not banished, like Mars, but placed in the role of “witness to the mutual absorption of mother and son,” hence establishing “masculine empowerment in the early modern family as a site apart from those pleasures” (226).

While Rosenthal’s method looks inward rather than being overly contextual, she is always aware of the artist and his audience. Before confronting an artwork, she briefly attends to the historical and political circumstances in which Rubens created it. She also takes note of Rubens the businessman. He sought to sell a previously commissioned altarpiece to a private collector, pointing out that the imagery was not exclusively or overtly religious. His letter to the collector is “a reminder that artistic intention, never easily established in any case, was not unduly valued by seventeenth-century artists and audiences who were quite ready to reframe their understanding of works of art when circumstances invited it” (160).

While the thirst for “artistic intention” may not be satisfied by this example of allegorical sensibility tempered by pragmatism, Rosenthal points out the ultimate futility, even irrelevance, of such a thirst. Her focus on the hidden subtexts of desire and fear in Rubens’s visual language makes a strong case for the similarities between seventeenth-century modes of thinking and our own. Early modern skeptical engagement with meaning, as well as an understanding of the relation between a self and its rhetorical presentation, are paralleled today. Comparing neo-stoicism with psychoanalysis, for example, we read that:

both discourses image masculinity as a culturally privileged category, but one achieved only through a struggle against powers coded as feminine. However, what is valorized in Rubens’s humanist culture can be read symptomatically in our post-Freudian one. Thus the theme of mastery of the passions aptly engages with our notions of repression, castration anxiety, and the function of the fetish: in both discourses bodily pleasures and desires conflict with and endanger masculine autonomy. (143–44)

The latter passage shows how Rosenthal, generally a judicious and elegant writer, sometimes struggles to articulate ideas for which conventional interpretations of art often have no language, and for which there are only the borrowed, overused terms of poststructuralist critical theory. (This suggests, in general, that the keenness and vigor of poststructuralist thinking have outworn the limits of its once-revolutionary vocabulary.) The book suffers from some repetitiveness. She restates her points at the end of every chapter, as if anticipating a skeptical or even indignant response. Given the reasoned and convincing introduction, and the authority and sympathy of her analyses, this defensiveness is unnecessary. Rosenthal’s rich and unusual study is an apt account of an artist who she persuasively sees as essentially too big for art history.

In a crude physical sense, any book on a painter incidentally diminishes her or his creations, in terms of scope. Enormous panels, canvases as large as sails, are reduced to virtual postcards; visually, they can seem hardly worth our sustained attention. Color plates of the five pictures, with a few others, are grouped before Rosenthal’s text and on the front and back covers. It is a measure of her complex engagement with Rubens’s art that her writing restores the works to something like their original sensual and heroic stature.

Martha Hollander
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Art History and Humanities, Hofstra University