Rubens and the Netherlands/ Rubens en de Nederlanden. Ed. by Jan de Jong, Bart Ramakers, Frits Scholten, Mariët Westermann and Joanna Wooddall (Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art/ Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, vol. 55, 2004). Zwolle: Waanders, 2006. 367 pp, b&w illus. ISBN 978-90-400-9109-9.

It was a neat coincidence that Peter Paul Rubens was chosen as the subject of the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek of 2004, since that was the year in which the artist was celebrated in a number of exhibitions. The volume allowed twelve authors – with the exception of Ulrich Heinen all unconnected with the shows – to voice their views on the artist, so that, all in all, the publications of the unofficial 'Rubens Year' provide a telling overview of the scope and interests of Rubens scholarship in the early twentyfirst century.

Contributions were solicited that focus on a particular time frame and locality by excluding the eight years Rubens spent in Italy between 1600 and 1608 and discussion of his large-scale projects for London, Paris and Madrid. The title of the Introduction (by Mariët Westermann), 'Rubens and the Capital of the North', can be read as a reference both to Antwerp and the Netherlands, as the political, religious and socio-economic entity that supplied the artist with innumerable public and private commissions, and though less explicated stated as such, the artistic and cultural currency of the Netherlands, and Northern Europe in general which was at Rubens's disposal to invest in and utilise. While the artist's use of his Northern heritage and environment has not been so neglected as one might assume from Mariët Westermann's assertion that "The interest [of the present publication] is in restituting a measure of complexity and hybridity to the totality that is Rubens: to chart his creative receptiveness to local art and artist, media, patronage, and politics, and to consider the local reverberations – and limits to them – of his work and presence" (p. 8), the wide net of subjects cast by the essays confirms that there is still scope for further research on works and aspects which might be thought of as 'done and dusted.’ The only real surprise is that gender issues are notably absent.

With no essay on Rubens before Italy, the discussion appropriately opens with Filip Vermeylen examining Rubens's decision to remain in the Netherlands in 1608 following what was originally planned as a quick visit to his dying mother (pp. 16-33). After a succinct account of the "lures of Antwerp" – political, economic, social and personal – Vermeylen addresses the long-overlooked question of what would have awaited Rubens had he returned to Italy; he suggests the artist himself, intuitively or not, realized the existence of major obstacles to his succeeding in the cut-throat Italian art world, not least after the problems related to the Vallicella altarpieces and 'Netherlandishness' of his painting technique.

It was of course not all plain sailing back in Antwerp for an artist of Rubens's ambitions. Andrew Hottle discusses his use of the dedicated reproductive print to increase his fame and social standing beyond the Southern Netherlands (pp. 54-85). Instead of the traditional expository text and a dedication, as on C. Galle I's Judith Beheading Holofernes of ca. 1610, dedicated to Jan Woverius, Rubens later, especially between 1619 and 1623, used panegeric dedications, as with the Susanna celebrating Anne Roemer Visscher. This allowed Rubens, so Hottle, to associate his inventions with persons of distinction in a way that went beyond the personal culture of gift-giving. Always the businessman, Rubens expanded his network of contacts throughout Europe by also dedicating prints to non-compatriots, and – here gender gets a look in – if the dedicatee was a woman he chose a suitably feminine subject, such as the Battle of the Amazons for Alethea Talbot, whose husband, the Earl of Arundel, is, as with all married dedicatees, of course mentioned by name.

The demand in early seventeenth-century Antwerp for sacred images was one which Rubens was more than equipped to satisfy and his ability to meet the different needs and requirements of the religious community is revealed in three essays dealing with different types of commissions: Cynthia Lawrence on the altarpiece of the Real Presence in the Holy Sacrament in the Dominican Church (now St. Paul's; in situ; pp. 86-115); Barbara Haeger examines the epitaph painted for Nicolaas Rockox and his wife Adriana Perez (Antwerp, KMSKA; pp. 116-153); while Antien Knaap discusses the ceiling paintings for the Jesuit Church (destroyed; pp. 154-195). In addition to examining the Real Presence as a reaffirmation of the post-Tridentine stance on Transubstantiation, Lawrence focuses on the central group of four men, and in particular the prominently placed semi-nude old man with a white beard on the left, whom she identifies as Seneca, with the man behind him as the apostle Paul. Drawing a comparison with a group in Raphael's Disputa, Lawrence proposes the four indicate how dissident Protestants and indifferent Catholics might be brought to see the truth of Transubstantiation, the acceptance of which was available to all and not just those well versed in church writings. Such an interpretation does however presuppose a culturally elite audience that was familiar with both the works of Raphael and neo-Stoic ideas. The extent to which the – unfortunately unknown – members of the fraternity of the Holy Name of Jesus, whose chapel the altarpiece decorated from 1611, needed or were capable of extracting such a meaning can however no longer be substantiated.

Believing in that which one cannot see was clearly not a problem for the donors of the Rockox Triptych who flank the scene of the Incredulity of Thomas but who, as Haeger impressively argues, are also integral to the triptych's message that faith guarantees resurrection. Haeger’s starting point is Rubens's unorthodox depiction of the central panel: omission of Christ's wounds, Thomas's probing finger and inclusion of saints Peter and Paul. She proposes the triptych encourages viewers to differentiate through meditation between the historia as such and the figure of Christ as the imago, and that the apostles (and donors) transmit the different forms of sight – corporeal and spiritual – that are necessary to confirming one's faith and recognizing Christ's human and divine nature. The theme of sight and faith continues in Knapp's discussion of some of the compositional strategies (visual repetition of gestures, colours, compositions and actions) employed by Rubens for the ceilings above the two galleries of the Jesuit Church. She proposes that such strategies prompted viewers to see beyond the illustrated (typical) typological pairing of Old and New Testament scenes and discover connections with other pictures in the sequence. Her analysis of formal associations between individual compositions is certainly convincing, though the loss of the paintings makes it impossible to establish the extent to which these additional relationships really were as visible from the nave as she believes.

The Horrors of War (Florence, Pitti), which Rubens dispatched to Justus Sustermans in Florence, was preceded by the now famous letter of March 12, 1638 in which he describes the content of the painting. The transcription by Filippo Baldinucci of the unfortunately lost letter included three glosses, which have – unjustifiably – been written off by most art historians as not by Rubens. But following Philipp Fehl (Junius, The Literature of Classical Art), Ulrich Heinen takes the opposite view and applies Rubens's references to Virgil and Lucretius to the Pitti painting. His conclusion is that the composition is basically a call to arms! He equates Mars to Louis XIII of France, who wages war on Habsburg territory, and contends the painting, now entitled War Allegory instead of The Horrors of War, with its inherent condemnation of war as the source of social, artistic and intellectual devastation, was designed to encourage the Grand Duke of Tuscany to continue his support of the Emperor. Heinen's analysis of the painting in the context of the current political situation is welcome, as indeed is his realignment of Rubens's attitude towards peace: war is justifiable if the cause is worthy! Problematic however is the fact that the painting hung in the sala of Susterman's house until his death in 1681and we have no indication that the Medici took any notice of it until its subsequent acquisition by Ferdinand III de' Medici.

Eveliina Juntunen, writing in German (pp. 244-269), provides new insights into the art theoretical depth of Rubens's Juno and Argus of 1610-11 (Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum). Juntunen rejects the painting's hitherto accepted association with Franciscus Aguilionus's treatise on optics, Opticorum Libri Sex, and convincingly argues that Rubens is in fact responding to Carel van Mander, whose Grondt (1604) provides the key to the allegorical reading through his explicit association of the myth with light and seeing, and in particular the importance of colour. That Van Mander upholds the Venetians as the masters of mixing and applying colours was, she argues, reason enough for Rubens to show that his ability certainly equalled (if not surpassed) theirs (p. 256). She also persuasively suggests the mysterious young woman on the right is Aurora, personification of morning light, under whose auspices artistic activity is at its most productive, as exemplified by van Mander's Aurora, engraved by Jacob Matham. Finally, Juntunen suggests that Rubens's painting prompted Goltzius to execute his own version of the myth, known as Juno and Mercury (Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen). Though much is to be said for Juntunen’s art-theoretical correlation, it remains a problem that the provenance of Juno and Argus before 1658 (when in Genoa) is unknown, though an engraving by Magdalena de Passe also points to the painting being in the Northern Netherlands during the mid 1610s. (The painting is also discussed by Juntunen in her book, Peter Paul Rubens' bildimplizite Kunsttheorie, 2005, reviewed by Hans Vlieghe, HNA Review of Books, November 2006).

Though Karolien De Clippel's contribution is entitled Rubens meets Brouwer (pp. 302-333), it is as much about Rubens's appreciation of the art of Pieter Bruegel the Elder as it is about Adrian Brouwer, who was represented in Rubens's own collection by no less than 17 works – the most of any artist. Brouwer, so the implication, earned Rubens's admiration because the latter saw in him a fitting heir who continued, but also in ways surpassed, the achievements of Bruegel as the great landscapist and illustrator of human affects. For De Clippel, Brouwer's influence on Rubens is evident on a number of levels, technically (loose brushwork and translucent paint), retouching of painted genre scenes (Marten van Cleve) in the 1630s, and in his own inventions, such as the Flemish Kermis (Paris, Louvre), which is indebted both to Bruegel and Brouwer

Rubens's Bacchus on a Barrel of 1636-40 (St. Petersburg, Hermitage) is the focus of Lucy Davis's contribution (pp. 226-243). She sets the scene by discussing various emblems showing the youthful rotund god, seated on a barrel and/or surrounded by vine, sometimes winged, bearing a cup of wine. In this guise the god is Bacchus biformis, whose gift of wine lifts the creative genius of the artist to new heights. As such, Bacchus became the metaphor for creative inspiration among a group of Netherlandish poets, especially Daniel Heinsius, whose Lof-sanck van Bacchus was, Davis contends, central to Rubens's pictorial invention. He was certainly familiar with the poet's work, though the Lof-sanct, published in the Nederduytsche Poemata of 1616 and again 1618, is not recorded as being in his library. One wonders however if it is really necessary to place the Hermitage painting and Heinsius's poem in an ut pictura poesis context, since Rubens will hardly have felt the need at the end of a long and successful career to validate the power of his art. That both poem and painting are united by the same joyful exaltation of the inspirational force of Bacchus nevertheless justifies the comparison as it illuminates the extent to which the idea of nature and its abundance nourished the artistic aspirations of the artistic and literary community.

Collaboration is one of the defining features of artistic production in seventeenth-century Antwerp, and Elizabeth Honig explores the nature of the division of labour in that most fruitful of partnerships between Rubens and Jan Brueghel. She contends that their particular collaboration was like a dialogue between friends in which each responded to the other, as intellectually creative as the art of conversation, and that the input of both is clearly visible in the finished work. She argues that Breughel's experience of the principles of friendship and conversation governing civil society in Italy was influential in his engaging in artistic collaboration with fellow Northerners, such as Rottenhammer, and for the acceptance of such collaborative works among collectors. Brueghel continued that experience upon his return home and found in Rubens the ideal partner. 

Fritz Scholten reminds us that Rubens's artistic temperament extended beyond the creation of two-dimensional works through his association with sculptors such as Georg Petel, Lucas Faydherbe and Hans van Mildert (pp. 31-35). Scholten suggests Rubens was influential in encouraging the sculptors to experiment with exotic combinations, such as the bronze and ivory for Petel's Flora (after a design by Rubens), which harked back to the materials used by the ancients, and that such combinations are typical of a painter who thinks in terms of colour. The wording of Rubens's recommendation of Faydherbe (letter of 5 April 1640) is particularly telling. The master’s emphasis on the unity of the arts of painting and sculpture, coupled with the fact that Faydherbe was his pupil, suggests to Scholten that Rubens sought to structure his studio along the lines of an Italian academy that unites the sister arts of painting, sculpture and architecture.

In the end, Italy managed to sneak in an appearance in Irene Schaudies's extremely interesting study of Flemish Caravaggism (334-361). She challenges the hitherto perceived view of Rubens as a deterrent to the spread of Caravaggist painting in the Southern Netherlands, preferring instead to see three distinct phases: pre-Rubens with Abraham Janssens; Rubens's dialogue with Caravaggio from 1608 to ca. 1620, and then the following decade (until about 1630) when Rubens’s loss of interest left the way open for others to develop their own brand of Carvaggist painting. She gives a perceptive analysis of what Caravaggio's naturalism meant in an artistic culture dominated by hierarchy of genres and how Rubens, Jordaens, and others adapted and filtered Caravaggio's style. The arrival of Caravaggio's Madonna of the Rosary in Antwerp's Dominican Church is, she argues, the watershed, marking Rubens's rapidly diminishing interest in the Italian's style against a correspondingly stronger engagement by artists such as Jordaens, Gerard Seghers, Theodoor Rombouts and by patrons of religious institutions, who found in Caravaggio's painting the legitimisation of the new style.

Fiona Healy



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