Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 10, 2019
Sasha Suda and Kirk Nickel, eds. Early Rubens Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2019. 296 pp.; 183 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9783791358444)
Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, April 6–September 8, 2019; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, October 12, 2019–January 5, 2020

The Early Rubens exhibition organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) is surely a visual feast to behold. With works drawn from a dizzying oeuvre that, given its prodigiousness and complexity, demands serious distilling, the exhibition succeeds in tackling key aspects of the monumental artistic output of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) during his early mature period in a strikingly condensed and accessible manner. Surely, this is no small feat; for to paraphrase the erudite Rubens, one of the artist’s greatest ambitions was to provide future historians, and apparently future audiences too, with an overwhelming wealth of material to consider.

Organized by curators Sasha Suda of the AGO and Kirk Nickel for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor (the exhibition’s first venue), this rare showing of Rubens in the United States and Canada features both large and smaller-scale paintings, oil sketches, prints, book illustrations, and drawings spanning the artist’s characteristic genres of history painting and portraiture. Focusing primarily on the decade after Rubens permanently returned home to Antwerp from Italy in late 1608, it highlights newly mature signature works dating from the period when his beloved hometown enjoyed renewed economic and political optimism in the wake of the signing of a pan-European truce (1609–21) that the artist-diplomat helped broker. Drawing explicit parallels between Flanders’s fortunes and Rubens’s own, the exhibition further attributes some of his early success to the ambitions of a newly confident Catholic Church in Flanders intent on (re)building and decorating churches in the wake of the Protestant iconoclasm (beeldenstorm) and Dutch Revolt of the 1560s, and Rubens’s unique backing by a constellation of some of the city’s most important church, court, and lay patrons. In this larger context, a savvy and ambitious Rubens built his Antwerp studio into one of the largest in Europe with apparent ease and alacrity.

While such extraordinary circumstances help account for Rubens’s early celebrity and aspects of his artistic content too, the curators nonetheless thankfully accord center stage to the sheer visual wonders of Rubens’s early artwork, mostly allowing the work to stand pictorially on its own. And stand on its own it does. In addition to large-scale, coloristically sophisticated pictorial dramas that bowl one over from the start (e.g., the Ringling Museum’s Flight of Lot and His Family from Sodom, 1613–15, and the Marseille Musée des Beaux-Arts’s Boar Hunt, ca. 1615–17), the exhibition features many monumentally intelligent and important smaller-scale canvases, panels, and works on paper. Among the standouts is an impressive group of portraits, including the Wallraf-Richartz Museum’s Self-Portrait in a Circle of Friends from Mantua, circa 1602–5 (exhibited only in San Francisco), and numerous immediate portraits from his Antwerp years. Of special note are the unusually fresh, sprezzatura tributes to his brother Philip Rubens (Detroit Institute of Arts) and the painter’s first wife Isabella Brant (Cleveland Museum of Art), and, perhaps most memorably, the Mauritshuis portrait of the Dominican Michael Ophovius (dated 1615–17). Labors of both love and sheer humanist ambition, these works foreground Rubens’s natural talents for simultaneously capturing warmth of personality and depth of intellect, in addition to individual appearances, particularly when he was painting intimate reflections of those closest to him. 

Other standouts in the exhibition highlight Rubens’s other key artistic preoccupations in this period. These include the showstoppingly confident and luminous Annunciation (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), which seamlessly fuses the coloristic richness of Venetian colore with Florentine disegno; the magnificent, optically minded Entombment, circa 1612 (J. Paul Getty Museum; exhibited only in Toronto); the 1618 Michielsen Triptych (“Christ on the Straw”), which merges northern traditions with an inventive, intellectual approach; and a series of preparatory works (including a particularly strong oil sketch from the Cincinnati Art Museum) for the well-known Nicolaas Rockox collection’s Samson and Delilah, which together reveal the flexibility of Rubens’s creative process and his penchant for coyly playing with narrative moments and meanings. The exhibition also represents a public debut, of sorts, for major works that have recently been on the market. These include the memorably lewd Lot and His Daughters, circa 1613–14, that emulates Michelangelo’s portrayal of Noah’s drunkenness on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (tantalizingly now listed as belonging to a “Collection of an anonymous charitable foundation”), and the classicizing, Senecan-inspired biblical tragedy of the Massacre of the Innocents, circa 1611–12 (AGO), which suggests that the ideas that Rubens engaged in Italy from 1600 to 1608 were anything but left behind.

Works dating from this earlier Italian period are some of the exhibition’s most interesting, particularly given that they highlight just how quickly Rubens assimilated an astounding range of pictorial and sculptural models from antiquity and the Renaissance into his own newly mature and fluid signature style. Together the wonderfully striving Galleria Borghese Lamentation of Christ, circa 1602–6, and the emulatively minded early Conversion of St. Paul, circa 1601–2 (Princely Collections, Liechtenstein), make this point, especially when considered alongside slightly later works, including the exquisitely painted Saints Gregory, Domitilla, Maurus and Papianus, 1606 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin), related to Rubens’s major Chiesa Nuova altarpiece commission in Rome. Indeed, the earlier Italian work might have been even further highlighted to help assert the astounding ascent and virtuosity of Rubens’s Antwerp period, while simultaneously linking his unusually confident painting of the second decade to his initial tutelage under Otto van Veen and his serious study—and highly intellectual assimilation—of classical and Renaissance models in the Eternal City.

One of the exhibition’s finest moments in San Francisco resided in its highlighting of Rubens’s penchant for rhetorical antithesis. The installation of a gallery of religious compositions dominated by powerful images of the living and dead Christ—Rubens’s spiritual exemplar of heroic virtue—positioned adjacent to another main gallery replete with scenes of overt moral violence and moral flabbiness (e.g., Lot, Silenus, Samson, Medusa, the Massacre of the Innocents) was nothing short of inspired through its curatorial reenvisioning of the fundamental moral oppositions found in Rubens’s own rhetorically motivated art. Whether intended or not, this idea then served to inflect back on other works too, including the large-scale paintings like Daniel in the Lions’ Den (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), the FAMSF’s own Tribute Money, and a Stoic-inspired engraving of the morally sound Dying Seneca—all of which might otherwise appear to be merely products of a desire to picture dramatic narratives of the distant past. In this light, Rubens’s tendency to look backward in his art took on a distinctly moralizing and paradoxically forward-looking cast. 

Early Rubens also benefits from the inclusion of numerous drawn and printed book illustrations and “Rubens School Engravings,” such as the Battle of the Amazons, which places the consummate printmaking skills of some of Rubens’s best engravers, including Lucas Vorsterman, Hans Witdoek, and Theodoor Galle—as well as Rubens’s own desire to compose works with the reproductive dissemination of his ideas in mind—on full view. This body of printed work also further underscores how frequently Rubens returned to some of his favorite emulated models from his Italian period in more or less overt guises. Updated motifs grounded in the Laocoön, the Belvedere Torso, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and even Rubens’s own self-imitations resound throughout the show, reminding us that no matter how modern Rubens wanted his art to be, it always already involved an ever-evolving repackaging of some of the best ideas of the past in newly powerful—and ultimately meaningful—visual forms. Conspicuously missing, however, were examples of Rubens’s new genre of proud, classically inspired Flemish landscapes developed in the second decade, his large-scale tapestry designs, and examples of his copious handwritten correspondence with other erudite scholars, connecting him with the larger intellectual community of the European Republic of Letters. The relatively meager showing of drawings—so critical to Rubens’s mature artistic formation—also left this reviewer wanting more.

Thankfully, the beautifully illustrated exhibition catalog bridges some of the exhibition’s larger interpretative gaps. An introductory essay by Suda further contextualizes Early Rubens in the “Jewel of Antwerp”’s own fortunes, while Nickel’s contribution unmasks often fundamental paradoxes in Rubens’s art between pictorial appearances and essential truths he arguably wished to convey. Significantly, David Jaffé keeps Rubens’s classically inspired Italian lessons and “allegiance to the pagan world” (42) in the picture, while David Franklin’s essay on the AGO’s Massacre of the Innocents offers a useful case study highlighting the artist’s cerebral approach to emulating a wealth of “raw material” from his Italian period to new northern ends (59). Alexandra Libby highlights the role that correspondence between the artist and collector Dudley Carleton in 1617 played in the artist’s growing success by revealing how Rubens “collaborated, delegated, priced, and marketed” (73), while Jaco Rutgers further explores Rubens’s early approach to printmaking, particularly related to the spread of his ideas through virtuoso studio engravings and his desire to legally protect them from being copied by others. Two further contributions are particularly exciting: an essay by Bert Timmermans arguing for Rubens’s strategic approach to building his reputation in and through the studio and his conscious creation of highly public, large-scale “multimedia” works especially for the Antwerp Jesuits (67–68), and Koen Bulckens’s fine essay dealing with how Rubens designed space in his new Antwerp studio to accommodate such monumental productions.

Still, the portrait that the exhibition and catalog together so ably paint of the early Rubens can only ever be a partial one, with more going unsaid than said, and with the works still more or less having to speak for themselves—much as the painter himself would almost surely have preferred. That said, it is precisely the material and interpretative lacunae that necessarily characterize all exhibitions of Rubens that in part continue to extend his success meaningfully into the future, by inevitably begging for something more, especially for those willing to move beyond the works’ often all-too-seductive surfaces.

Catherine H. Lusheck
University of San Francisco