Progression of Art
Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma
In this life-sized painting, Francisco de Sandoval y Rojas, the first minister of Spain, is shown as chief of the Spanish armies riding a white steed. He wears half armor and carries a ruler's staff. The proud Duke, adorned with the scallop of the Knights of Saint James around his neck, and his storybook-like horse are posed in the foreground looking directly at the viewer while the cavalry rides in battle in the far background.
In Rubens' earlier works, the forms were certainly robust but here each position emphasizes the powerful anatomy of the horse or rider, illustrating his knowledge of classical sculptures and their anatomical correctness. Great precision was used to depict the delicateness of the Duke's collar, intricate gleaming armor, jewelry, bejeweled garments, and spurred boots as well as the grandeur of the horse's wavy mane, bridle, intense eyes, and glossy coat. These signature Baroque elements would later make his work immortal and also included the compositional use of diagonals, muscularity (especially in the horse,) foreshortening, and the use of strong lights against darks to bring a stately drama to the scene.
Rubens' composition, which reflects his study of Titian's Portrait of Carlos V in Muhlberg, created a model for equestrian portraits of the future, especially influencing Van Dyke. As stated by Samuel Edwards in his biography, Peter Raul Rubens, the Duke of Lerma was said to be an art expert and was so impressed that "...This equestrian figure, done with great verve and dramatic boldness, was confident and spirited and is generally regarded as the first of Rubens' greatest paintings."
Oil on Canvas - Prado Museum Madrid, Spain
Self-Portrait with Isabella Brandt, his first wife, in the Honeysuckle Bower
In 1609, one year after returning from Italy, Rubens married Isabella Brant. The couple here are in a double self-portrait under a honeysuckle bower. About thirty-two years old, the artist presented himself dressed in chivalric elegance while Isabella, age eighteen, wears a luxurious, richly embroidered dress of heavy wine-colored taffeta silk, an enormous ruff, and a high-crowned hat. They pose here as a respected couple in Flemish middle-class life, perhaps in their inner open air courtyard where Isabella planted gardens of flowers, herbs and vegetables. Rubens designed the stone benches, brought in Classical busts on pedestals, Doric and Corinthian columns, statues, and small fountains. They are sitting in the shade, hand-in-hand, as they lean toward each other but gaze politely toward the viewer. They are surrounded by symbols of love and marriage: the honeysuckle bushes and garden are both traditional symbols of love while the holding of right hands represents union through marriage. The gentle, conservative and loving approach to the painting reflects the intimacy of the occasion.
Rubens' biographer Kristen Lohse Belkin called this piece "...one of his most delightful pictures..." She also noted that this painting is much larger, almost 5 feet by 4.5 feet, than previous portrayals of married couples with the figures shown in half-length poses.
A Baroque attention to detail is evident in the garments, jewelry, and accessories such as the crisp lace, rich glistening fabrics, the glint of the metal of the sword hilt, hatband, and jewels. These features recall the precious, jewel-like panels of earlier Flemish artists, such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling.
Rubens depicted himself as calm and patient which is verified by Roger de Piles' account in his book The Life of Rubens; "...he was of tall stature, of stately bearing, with a regularly shaped face, rosy cheeks, light-brown hair, eyes bright but not with restrained expression, a pleasant expression, gentle and courteous..." This same balance of "...bright but with restrained passion..." and "...intense passion moderated by energetic control..." is found in his art.
Oil on canvas on Panel - Alte Pinakothek, Rubens Room
The Elevation of the Cross
Rubens was commissioned to paint his first major altarpiece in 1610 after returning to Antwerp from Italy. The painting, inspired by the biblical story from the Gospel of Matthew, depicts Christ on his Crucifix as it is being raised to the upright position. The central section presents this highly charged emotional moment while the two attached side panels display the dramatic reactions of people grieving and the two thieves who will also be crucified. The composition of the central panel presents the flurry of action and emotion surrounding the body of Christ, shown with diagonal foreshortening, amid a scene of dynamic tension. His dramatically highlighted figure is the focal point, surrounded by heavily muscled men who struggle to lift, push, and pull the heavy burden upward. Their bulging muscles indicate the physical and emotional strain they are experiencing while their expressions and eyes convey fear and disbelief.
The enormous triptych, 15 feet high by 21 feet wide, was placed above the high altar in a vast Gothic church where it would be viewed from below. The triptych format, a central painting with two hinged side panels, or wings, had been used in Northern Europe since the Middle Ages. Typically, the movable wings were painted in a less complex and subdued style illustrating less significant religious scenes or formats. Catholic reform had prompted the Church to embrace visual images for instruction as well as propaganda and no artist was suited to develop a pictorial language that would teach, convert, and arouse religious fervor more than Rubens.
The influence of Italian artists is evident in this work with the richness of the colors and a painterly technique, which recalls that of Titian whom Rubens extensively studied. The dramatic contrasts of light and dark bring Caravaggio to mind while the diagonal composition, foreshortening, muscularity, and physicality recall the work of Michelangelo. As his biographer Samuel Edwards stated: "...the finished work would be hailed as one of the most magnificent ever painted by any artist...in which suffering and fury, horror and pain and passion were expressed with such dynamic force and lyricism..."
Oil on Wood - Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp
Massacre of the Innocents
This large seven by five foot painting relays a story from the Gospel of Matthew in which King Herod ordered the slaughter of all male infants in Bethlehem after he heard that a child born there would become "King of the Jews." Although the scene is horrific, it is a tremendously powerful portrayal as groups of women attempt to prevent the soldiers from killing their children. Muscular men, most of whom are quite naked, are struggling with writhing women; arms are flailing and reaching, blood is flowing as the adults fight over the children, some of whom are already trampled or dead. The frantic efforts of the mothers have no effect in stopping the gory carnage; they are a panicking, doomed group.
Rubens' intention was to shock and unnerve the public with an outcry against the atrocities of war and violence. Some years later he remarked, as quoted by Simon Schama in Rembrandt's Eyes "... We are exhausted [in Antwerp] and have endured so much that this war seems without purpose ...[and that it seemed] strange that Spain, which provides so little for the needs of this country ...has an abundance of means to wage an offensive war elsewhere."
The piece highlights the artist's influences garnered from his travels in Italy where he observed the work of Italian Baroque painters such as Caravaggio. This is seen in the use of chiaroscuro, emotive dynamism, and rich color. He also studied anatomical statues with their skin removed in order to learn even more astutely how the body was made.
Oil on Oak - The Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada
Based on the Greek play Prometheus Bound, this classical mythological painting presents the demigod Prometheus who is being punished by Zeus for giving the secret of fire to man. He is permanently chained to a rock on Mount Caucasus while the ferocious eagle of Jupiter, a symbol of Zeus, feeds upon his liver every day.
A painting by Titian of the giant Tityus inspired the picture's dense composition, in which Prometheus tumbles downward with his left arm almost reaching beyond the canvas. The dynamic foreshortened muscular figure and the gigantic eagle with outstretched wings are the basis of the plan, beautifully detailed throughout, and set in an abstract landscape scene. The enormous bird rips open Prometheus's torso but to secure its grasp on the captive's flesh, one of the eagle's talons gouges Prometheus's right eye. His left eye is locked on the predator, clearly he is fully aware of this torture, while his writhing posture and drawn up thighs, clenched fist, and tousled hair convey his abject agony. This hulking figure, with its broad frame and dense musculature, shows the influence of Michelangelo. The masterful orchestration of heavy figures in space, the rich color palette of Italy, and the powerful eagle create an incredibly expressive work of art.
The piece, which Rubens considered one of his most important works, represents the virtuoso of the artist at his absolute height. Working in collaboration with the famed animal and still-life painter Frans Snyders, who contributed the massive eagle, Rubens rendered the brutal tale with corresponding violence. This vigorous style "...suited and expressed Rubens' temperament...straightforward demonstration of feeling and whole-hearted participation in life..." as described by his biographer Richard McLanathan.
Oil on Canvas - Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
The Adoration of the Magi
This Biblical story, from the book of Matthew centers upon the Adoration of the Magi, which was one of Rubens' favorite themes; he made at least twelve paintings of this scene. In this rendition, we see the three Magi, representing the lands and races that had heard about the birth of the Savior, bearing gifts for the Christ child. The entire group faces a placid looking Mary but the central kneeling figure in white is Gaspar, who brings frankincense, and rests on a pillow before Jesus. Melchior, who brings gold, is standing behind him and the third, the Moorish King Balthasar in green with a turban, offers myrrh. The colorful group is shown crowded into the ruins of an ancient structure. On the right, the Virgin Mary, most likely modeled after Rubens' first wife Isabella Brant, looks adoringly at her happy child and presents him to the Magi. Symbols add depth of meaning to the entire scene. The ancient pillar or column symbolizes the ravaged palace of David from whose bloodline the Messiah was born. The peaceful ox is a symbol of faith and the tiny spider in the web, top right, symbolizes the evil, which Jesus will overcome.
The enormous painting, almost 15 by 11 feet, would be overwhelming to view without the artist's careful planning utilizing signature Baroque techniques. Rubens' brushwork keeps the energy flowing around the many figures honoring Jesus including servants, soldiers, horses, camels, and one ox all blended into a cohesive whole by Rubens' masterful use of diagonals, color, light, and the careful placement of forms. The bright reds and glowing light areas of the exaggerated faces, the hair, beards, and the clothing also guide the viewer's eyes.
The piece remains an important signifier of the times, representing the humbling of the world before the Church.
Oil on Panel - Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp
The Disembarkation at Marseilles
In this painting, we see Madame de' Medici, arriving to marry the French King Henry IV, ready to leave her ship via a decorated gangplank amid trumpets. The spectacle is overseen by an angel aloft, a symbol of Fame, Poseidon, the sea god, with three of his daughters, and Neptune calming the waves. To the left, the arms of the Medici, a symbol of Marie's heritage, can be seen placed above the golden arched structure behind a Knight of Malta, the only immobile figure, in full regalia. Accompanied by her ladies in waiting, the Queen Mother is welcomed by a personified France wearing a helmet and the royal blue mantle with golden fleur-de-lis, the national symbol as the sea and the sky rejoice. Rubens presented, to the court and subsequent generations, a visual celebration of responsible and just rule.
Paris was the largest metropolitan center in Europe when the young Marie de' Medici granted Rubens a royal audience to discuss a series of 24 paintings for the gallery of the new Luxembourg Palace which would depict her personal struggles and triumphs in life. Rubens was eager to try a secular theme and in this painting he turned the ordinary task of arriving from Italy in Marseilles into a scene of magnificence. He employed the extensive use of symbols, allegories learned in his early training, classical literature and customs in these works.
The composition of the large narrative scene, 13 feet by almost 10 feet, is based on diagonals, the placement of the figures and objects, as well as on the careful use of color and light. The golden ship intersects with the decorated gangplank to create the space for the departing guests. The rich red cloth draped over the arched structure and the plank help to draw our eyes in to find the Queen.
The Abbe de St.-Ambroise, an influential French art critic of the seventeenth century, praised Rubens for taking on the series of paintings by remarking "...No one else in all of Europe could have brought such a vast work to a successful conclusion. The Italians would take more than ten years...you are unique...you stand high above every other artist now alive in the world, and your paintings for Marie de' Medici will be immortal."
Oil on Canvas - Louvre Museum, Paris France
Venus and Adonis
The painting tells a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses. The myth relates the sad tale of Venus, who, having been grazed by one of Cupid's arrows, falls helplessly in love with the handsome mortal hunter, Adonis. The nude Venus is seated gracefully, leaning into the center of the composition as she implores the muscular Adonis to stay. She gently pulls him toward her with a beseeching expression while a small Cupid, the god of love, tugs his right leg to keep him safe. The sensuous goddess is adorned with one glossy pearl teardrop earring and two small pieces of cloth. The muscular Adonis, the incarnation of a Greek sculpture, is clothed in a vibrant red tunic, his body standing out against the light blue sky. The poses of the two figures bring them together as one large central triangle that sits solidly in the middle of the composition. Within this triangular space, all movement of arms, clothing and expressions are gentle, soft and loving. A large sinewy tree with wispy leaves to the right and the sky are painted as a gentle backdrop to the tender emotional scene.
Artists and poets were, and continue to be, fond of this tragic love story, and Rubens was familiar with, and drew upon, Titian's painting of the theme. It's interesting to note that Venus bears a resemblance to, and was probably modeled nude by, the artist's second wife Helena Fourment.
Although Rubens was a devout Roman Catholic, his religious paintings were not influenced by the strict formality of his era. He instilled a lusty exuberance into his paintings rather than adhering strictly to academic, traditional forms. This painting was completed in the last decade of his life at a time when he struggled with severe arthritis almost daily yet it displays the rich colors, superb technical ability, and vitality of his best work. As Rubens told his friend Peiresc in a letter from 1635 and as quoted in Rubens and the Roman Circle: "...I was not yet inclined to live the life of a celibate...I have taken a young wife of honest but middle-class family although everyone tried to persuade me to make a court marriage... I chose one who would not blush to see me take my brushes in hand. And to tell the truth it would have been hard for me to exchange the priceless treasure of liberty for the embraces of an old woman."
Oil on Canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York
The Three Graces
This story from Greek mythology presents The Caritas, or Three Graces, who were divinities and daughters of Zeus. Their names were Aglaia, which stands for radiance, Euphrosin, which means joy, and Thalia, meaning to flower. They were pure virgins who served Aphrodite and worked at banquets to foster the joy of life. The three figures form a circle, linked by their arms, one with her back to the viewer. These ladies were the goddesses of pleasant charm, charitable deeds, and gratitude who gave people the qualities of friendliness, strong character, sweetness, and fine conversation. The elegant grouping seems to radiate light, as three beautiful virgins seem to glow, even though they have little clothing beyond transparent draping. A tree on the left, a golden cornucopia, from which water is flowing, and a floral garland above all frame the women. They are set in a subtle, picturesque landscape with a bright blue sky and animals grazing in the background.
Rubens had painted this trio several times since 1620 but here he employs the classical techniques from ancient Greece. Most likely, Rubens' wife Helen Fourment posed for him to bring out the sensual beauty, but the poses were based on classical Greek sculpture. Rubens' mastery of painting flesh tones is also apparent in this trio. He used the three primary colors of yellow, red and blue, which comprise the appearance of everything in the world.
In the last ten years of his life, Rubens painted mythological works which were his "...hymns to the beauty of women...placed in magnificent landscapes..." as described by Frans Baudouin in his biography P. P. Rubens. His signature mastery of the nude female form would catapult him into universal recognition, garnering his figures the term "Rubenesque," which is still used widely today to describe voluptuous women.
Oil on Oak Table - Prado, Madrid, Spain
Return of the Peasants
The subject of the painting is a summer landscape, a warm sunlit bucolic scene with peasant farmers returning from work in the fields in the late afternoon. Their general direction is left to right along a curving lane where one man on horseback is pulling a rustic cart. Dogs run ahead of him to urge the sheep toward home. The women carry bales of hay while horses and cows graze peacefully in the background. The setting sun makes the shadows grow longer and the streaming clouds overhead are darkening. Rubens has one woman on the far right gaze out at us to make a human connection.
The composition utilizes the horizon line sloping across the center to provide the viewer with a "bird's eye view" of the countryside around Malines in the province of Antwerp. A series of brushy diagonals pull the eye back into the space: the line of trees on the right side, the horse, rider and cart, the women's long sticks, the running sheep, the various rocky structures in the lyric landscape, and the cloud formations. Even the two birds contribute to the amount of movement in the sky. The colors are muted and rich to reflect the artist's sense of a tranquil, quiet majestic rural scene.
Rubens was inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder's country landscapes of the sixteenth century but his main interest was the epic grandeur of nature rather than the everyday activities of the peasant workers. He also recognized an aspect of landscape that he had admired in Titian's work: the interrelationship between the figures and the world around them.
Ruben's own earthly paradise was the countryside to which he brought this understanding from Titian. In 1635, he bought a country estate, The Chateau de Steen, south of Antwerp, where he spent much of his time, leaving his hectic life of the workshop for a more peaceful and prosperous atmosphere. Rubens looked at nature in a new way in the country, observing the natural phenomena of local flora, the effect of light, reflections on the water and all small details. He began a series of drawings outdoors to use inside the studio for reference. Every aspect of his work became less orderly and compartmentalized; ancient myths became a vehicle for representing everyday human joys and tragedies. The art became more human: joyous, sad, humorous, moving, violent and tender.
Oil on Wood - Palatina Gallery, Florence, Italy