The Rubens and His Legacy Exhibition at The Royal Academy, London
There were tremors of anticipation across London ahead of the Royal Academy’s unveiling of their Rubens and His Legacy exhibition this January. Especially given that the Academy would be contemplating Peter Paul Rubens’s oeuvre in a broader sense, illustrating the influence of his style on distinguished European artists from Gainsborough to Velazquez. The curators divided the paintings thematically into rooms, which sought to individually capture the power, lust, compassion, elegance, poetry and violence of Rubens and his followers. To further define the spaces, the academy had undergone an extraordinary transformation, which saw the usual sun-dappled, airy exhibition space converted into somewhat melancholic, dark rooms with burgundy and juniper green walls. Indeed, the new colour palette complemented the paintings, but it lacked the bravery of the Wallace Collection’s sumptuous realm of jewel tones.
Rubens was a Flemish artist working during the Catholic Counter-Reformation, whose strong faith was expressed by his belief that, "my passion comes from the heavens, not from earthly musings." He painted in an expressive, Baroque style as he placed great emphasis on elaborate colour schemes and dynamic movement. From the depiction of mythology to allegorical and biblical scenes, his work explored sensory experience with an innate theatricality. With the drapery entwined in his figurative compositions, the sense of modesty conformed to the principles of the Reformation. However, there is also a sense of violence, an unparalleled eroticism in his work, which is captured by his preparatory oil sketch for the Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. In this piece there is a swirl of hysteria as broad brushstrokes dance across the canvas, defining the muscular forms of the horses and supple breasts of the compromised women.
In terms of Rubens’s presence in Europe, there was clear division between the tastes of the various countries in which he worked. For example, the French valued the eroticism and poetry in his art, whereas for the Germans it was all about the vitality and pathos. I was particularly drawn to the German realist Wilhelm Leibl’s Pastoral scene, within which a scarlet clad temptress lures us in with her voluptuous figure and coquettish smile. The painting’s expressive, thick brush strokes also brought a dynamic sense of movement to the work, reminiscent of Franz Hals. Unsurprisingly, given the historical context of the Counter Reformation, the Spanish were driven by religion. This left his rural landscapes to the tastes of the English. Despite the fact that I have never been particularly captivated by landscapes like Rubens’s Landscape with Rainbow, many of the inspired works like John Constable’s Cottage at Bergholt seemed to hold some form of allure for my companion.
Rubens’s success can be attributed to his popularity amongst European art collectors, nobility and King Philip IV of Spain and King Charles I of England. Like Michelangelo and Da Vinci before him, Rubens was a Humanist, polymath and scholar, skilled across a broad spectrum of disciplines. Whilst pursuing his passion for academia, he skilfully maintained a strong position within 17th century European politics as the, ‘Prince of Painters and the Painter of Princes.’ A prolific artist, he created numerous oil sketches as preparatory studies for his portraits, landscapes and historical works, which all incorporated elements of classical and Renaissance art. I fell for his majestic allegorical work, the Garden of Love, which celebrated his marriage to the beautiful Helena Fourment. Their marital happiness is symbolised by cupids clutching doves, Juno in the form of a peacock and the statuesque Venus nursing. Accompanying the painting were a plethora of sketches in delicate washes of cobalt blue, which illuminated the process of production. As we progressed, works by Thomas Lawrence were amongst the most decadent, especially his portrait of Arthur Amesley, painted in a Rubensian virtuoso style. The boy holds a delicate baby rabbit as he stands in a scarlet, velvet costume, which gives a nod to the hues and textures favoured by Rubens. Across the room, Elizabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun’s elegant Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, captured a moment of liberation during the Enlightenment when women were progressively empowered within the art world. Given the role of the Royal Academy in supporting Angelica Kauffman, its presence is particularly poignant.
Inevitably, Rubens’s style was profoundly influenced by his travels throughout Italy, as he immersed himself in the works of Titian, Veronese and even the Hellenistic evacuation Laocoon and His Sons, which drove the revival of Greco-Roman ideals during the Renaissance. Sadly, as we wandered amongst depictions of the suffering Christ in the compassion room, we were deeply underwhelmed by the selection. It seemed that when it comes to biblical scenes of anguish, the Italians did it better. Nevertheless, the art critic John Ruskin held the view that, “his caliber of mind was such that I believe the world may see another Titian and another Raffaelle, before it sees another Rubens.”
Not only in Rubens’s theatrical paintings of wild cats and exotic creatures - which influenced 19th century orientalism – but, throughout his oeuvre, there is a sense of bravery that was not present in the curation of the exhibition. Symptomatic of his self-confidence, was the declaration, “I never lacked courage to undertake any design, however vast in size or diversified in subject.” The sadness was that despite the proximity of many other works by Rubens across London, the small proportion of his own work in the exhibition, meant that ironically, he was somewhat overshadowed by those he inspired. Naturally, we appreciated having the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the labyrinth of his influence, but perhaps to the detriment of the exhibition’s overall impact. Should I have been as pleased to stand before his previous assistant Van Dyck’s voyeuristic Jupiter and Antiope as I was his own mythological works? Although there were a handful of paintings like this beauty, which intrigued me, I felt that the selection of works corresponding to Rubens lacked imagination. With the success of Anselm Kiefer’s preceding exhibition and the poignancy of Rembrandt’s retrospective at the National Gallery, there were big shoes to fill. But, I fear that Rubens and His Legacy felt more like a melodramatic unveiling of collected works in need of airing, than the retrospective that this Baroque master so deserves.
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com