Art In History Art Blog
I have been working through the great artists of the European Baroque, and I will be ending with Rubens. The reasons are hot and cold. Cold because Rubens does not appeal to me personally as much as Rembrandt or Velzaquez, or even the little Dutch Masters, though I am always in awe of his work. Hot because, of all the artists of the period, it is probably Rubens who most perfectly represents the age. Following the Renaissance age of invention, the Baroque was an age of utter mastery, taking the discoveries of the Renaissance to their supreme conclusion. And pershaps thearchtypal example of Baroque mastery is command of the human figure.
The Baroque period displayed mastery of the human figure in its most violent action and aggressive foreshortening. Rubens in particular filled enormous canvases with swirling masses of figures, contorted in space in endless variations...just because he could. A good example of this is the "Madonna Enthroned", a world apart from the quiet uncomplicated Madonna's of Raphael. It is also an excellent example of the counterreformation strategy of the Catholic church, emphasizing pagaentry and splendor.
Rubens also was influenced by the inventions of Caravaggio, despite rejecting his earthy realism. In a work like "The abduction of the Daughters of Leucippus" we can see that he has learned the impact of placing the action right up front, forcing it into our laps. The weight and substance of the nude figures convinces us of their reality, and the suspension of one precariously above the other creates a jolt of tension and unease. Above all, Rubens' mastery of the surface of the flesh makes these figure ultimately more real than those of Caravaggio, even though less ordinary.
Works with similar swirling movement are the hunt scenes, which have no specific source in mythology or history. They are simply tours de force by an artist who could. The inter mingling of bestial and human figures makes a challenge for a virtuoso, and allows Rubens to release an explosion of energy and movement.
Rubens has always been noted for his partiality to buxom, substantial figures; this is seen again in his "Three Graces". There is no question that this represented his taste in women both in his work and his life: see Helene Fourment in a Fur Cloak. But it also allows him to emphasize the mass and texture of the stuff of the world. His reality is one of substance: substance as mass and as surface texture. We can see this in the "The Three Graces", and mythological work, and equally in a biblical scene like "The raising of the Cross".
Rubens other great contribution was to create the first great painting "factory", with scores of assistants, including artists of the first rank like Jordaens and Snyders. When one commissioned a grand cycle of paintings from Rubens, one did not expect that the master would apply all the paint himself. Indeed, for centuries assistants had filled in areas of background, leaving the challenging work to the master. But in Rubens' case, he would often develop the design, but then only concern himself only with the major figures. An example would be the series of twelve enormous canvases commemorating the marriage of Marie de Medici to Henry IV. I am showing just one of the series, the landing of Marie at Marseilles, as she is met by her betrothed (who is seeing her for the first time). It is quite possible that only the figure of Marie, and the water nymphs the he kept to himself as dessert, were done by Rubens.