Rubens: The Spiritual Father of Botero

Exhibition: Rubens. The Power of Transformation

Date: Feb 8 − May 28, 2018

Venue: Stadel Museum

Bacchus, 1638-1640. Oil on canvas, 191 x 161.3 cm. The State Hermitage Museum , St Petersburg.

The Life and Works of Peter Paul Rubens

The name of the great 17th century Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens is known throughout the world. The importance of his contribution to the development of European culture is generally recognised. The perception of life that he revealed in his pictures is so vivid, and fundamental human values are affirmed in them with such force, that we look upon Rubens’ paintings as a living aesthetic reality of our own time as well.

Saint George Battles the Dragon, c. 1607. Oil on canvas, 309 x 257 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado , Madrid.

The museums of Russia have a superb collection of the great Flemish painter’s works. These are concentrated, for the most part, in The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, which possesses one of the finest Rubens’ collections in the world. Three works, previously part of the Hermitage collection, now belong to The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. The Bacchanalia and The Apotheosis of the Infanta Isabella were bought for the Hermitage in 1779 together with the Walpole Collection (from Houghton Hall in England); The Last Supper came to the Hermitage in 1768 from the Cobenzl Collection (Brussels). These three paintings were then transferred to Moscow in 1924 and 1930.

Rubens and Isabella Brant in the Honeysuckle Bower, c. 1609. Oil on canvas, 178 x 136.5 cm. Alte Pinakothek , Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen , Munich.

One gains the impression that in the 17th century Rubens did not attract as much attention as later. This may appear strange: indeed his contemporaries praised him as the “Apelles of our day”. However, in the immediate years after the artist’s death, in 1640, the reputation which he had gained throughout Europe was overshadowed. The reasons for this can be found in the changing historical situation in Europe during the second half of the 17th century.

In the first decades of that century nations and absolutist states were rapidly forming. Rubens’ new approach to art could not fail to serve as a mirror for the most diverse social strata in many European countries who were keen to assert their national identity, and who had followed the same path of development. This aim was inspired by Rubens’ idea that the sensually perceived material world had value in itself; Rubens’ lofty conception of man and his place in the Universe, and his emphasis on the sublime tension between man’s physical and imaginative powers (born in conditions of the most bitter social conflicts), became a kind of banner of this struggle, and provided an ideal worth fighting for.

Samson and Delilah, c. 1609-1610. Oil on panel, 185 x 205 cm.
The National Gallery London

In the second half of the 17th century, the political situation in Europe was different. In Germany after the end of the Thirty Years’ War, in France following the Frondes, and in England as the result of the Restoration, the absolutist regime triumphed. There was an increasing disparity in society between conservative and progressive forces; and this led to a “reassessment of values” among the privileged, who were reactionary by inclination, and to the emergence of an ambiguous and contradictory attitude towards Rubens.

This attitude became as internationally prevalent as his high reputation during his lifetime, and this is why we lose trace of many of the artist’s works in the second half of the 17th century after they left the hands of their original owners (and why there is only rare mention of his paintings in descriptions of the collections of this period). Only in the 18th century did Rubens’ works again attract attention…

The Four Philosophers, 1611-1612. Oil on canvas, 164 x 139 cm.
Galleria Palatina e Appartamenti Reali (Palazzo Pitti) , Polo Museale,
Florence.
Juno and Argus, c. 1610. Oil on canvas, 249 x 296 cm. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud , Cologne.

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