Sunday, 20 September 2009






The new exhibition at the National Gallery in London ought to be yet another triumph for an institution that is now running a very ambitious exhibition program. Who can forget the shows recently devoted to Titian, El Greco and Vermeer? Yet this event makes a curiously uneasy effect.


There are several, not just one, reasons for this. The first is that Rubens, of all great artists the one who enjoyed the greatest degree of worldly success, had distinctly uneasy beginnings. Of sound Flemish bourgeois stock, he was born in 1577 at Siegen in Westphalia. His parents had fled there to escape persecution, because they were Calvinist converts. His father Jan, a lawyer, became the intimate adviser and eventually the lover, of Princess Anna of Saxony, the second wife of William the Silent, the champion of the Protestant cause. When the affair was discovered, Jan was placed under house arrest but was eventually allowed to go to Cologne, where he died in 1587. His wife, with her four children, returned to Antwerp, where they all re-converted to Catholicism. The young Rubens was placed as a page in an aristocratic household, but was later allowed to study as a painter.


In May 1600, having secured his place as a master in the Guild of St Luke [the artists’ trade union], Rubens departed for Italy. There he was fortunate enough to attract the attention of a great patron, Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. The Duke allowed him a great deal of liberty – he was able to spend time in Rome, where he copied the great masters of the past and obtained his first public commissions. In 1603, Gonzaga sent him on a diplomatic mission to Spain, where he enjoyed a great social success. On his return to Italy, he found important patrons in Genoa, a maritime city always open to foreign influences. In the autumn of 1608 he was summoned home to Antwerp, because of the illness of his mother. She died eight days before his arrival, but he discovered when he got there that he was already celebrated in his native city, with patrons eager to employ him. Commissions for two huge altarpieces, ‘The Raising of the Cross’ [1611] for the church of St Walburga, and ‘The Descent from the Cross’ [1611-14] for Antwerp Cathedral, established him as being beyond question the leading painter in Flanders.


Thanks to the eager demand for his work, Rubens’s studio soon became a sort of factory, with much of the work done by assistants. In theory, the paintings from his first period, before this happened, ought to be a truer reflection of his gifts. However, as the exhibition at the National Gallery demonstrates, this phase of his career is even more mired in controversy than his time of Europe-wide acclaim.


One of the most controversial paintings in the show is one of the works most familiar to Londoners – the National Gallery’s own ‘Samson and Delilah’, purchased at auction in 1980 for a then near record sum. Though it is supposedly the original commissioned by Rubens’s friend Burgomaster Nicolaas Rockox, soon after Rubens’ return home, its authenticity has constantly been questioned by scholars. There is even a web-site, www.after Rubens,org, devoted to destroying its claim to be an original, rather than a copy.


Other works in the exhibition, all of them fairly recent rediscoveries, have also been challenged.. Among these is the series of anatomical drawings with an English Grand Tour provenance which appeared some years ago at Christie’s. Powerful as these are, the handling is quite unlike the rest of Rubens’ graphic work. Another is ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’, bought in 2002 by the Canadian magnate Lord Thomson for £49.5 million. This stupendously violent painting has both been hailed as a missing link in the story of Rubens’ artistic development and dismissed as a late pastiche by the Rubens-follower Jan van der Hoecke – the attribution it carried for many years when it was in the collection of the Grand Dukes of Lichtenstein. Interestingly enough this collection also once contained a ‘Samson and Delilah’ attributed to van der Hoecke. Some, but not all, Rubens scholars believe this was the National Gallery painting of the subject.  The same female model appears prominently in both paintings, wearing the same costume. The thing that argues for the ‘Massacre’, however, is its overwhelming emotional effect. Few Old Master paintings are like a kick in the guts – but this is one of them.


In fact, the thing which makes the exhibition a genuinely uneasy experience is not niggling questions of attribution, but its general emotional tone. Founded on Rubens’ studies of Michelangelo, Titian, Caravaggio and the sculptural legacy of Roman antiquity, it nevertheless often gives the impression that the young artist is on the very verge of losing all emotional control. Sometimes this works in his favour. The most spectacular painting in the show, the ‘Massacre’ excepted, is the bravura ‘St George’ of 1605-7 from the Prado, a wonderful mélange of plumes, horse-flesh and glittering armour, which shows just how technically adept the young Rubens already was. The most disturbing, once again except for the ‘Massacre’, is the ‘Christ Shown to the People’ from the Hermitage. The torso of Christ, as the position of his arms [bound behind him instead of, as is more traditional, in front of him] are borrowed directly from a Roman sculpture of the ‘Centaur Tamed by Cupid’, discovered about the time of Rubens’s first visit to Rome. This massive classical torso is married to a head that combines a superficially suitable nobility with more than a hint of sexual flirtatiousness. It seems to me that it took Rubens a long time to work through and come to terms with his Calvinist childhood.


‘Rubens: A Master in the Making’, at the National Gallery London until 6 January 2006


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