WITH the advent of Rubens in Antwerp a new force appeared to arrest the declining fortunes of Flemish art. The sixteenth century had been dreary enough, alike in the artistic as in the social world of the Netherlands. A glance through the lurid pages of Motley's " History of the Rise of the Dutch Republics " from under the heel of the Spaniard leaves us wondering, not at the paucity of art during this tumultuous epoch, but at its power to survive these horrors at all. But Netherlandish art was not to fail and perish, like that of Germany, beneath the scourge of war. No sooner had the cannons ceased to boom than art broke forth with new vigour, producing in the Dutch republican provinces Hals, Rembrandt, Ruysdael, and in the south, where Catholicism and the Spaniard still prevailed, Rubens, Van Dyck and Teniers. Once more Flemish painters were to express themselves in the language of their own nation. Once more, as in the days of the van Eycks, might Flemish artists travel to Italy without losing their mother tongue. The national genius had been reawakened, the old patriotism revived, and with all the added experience of an eventful if troublous century, painting embarked on a new and glorious era.
Peter Paul Rubens, the hero of this Flemish Renaissance, was undoubtedly the right man born at the right time. His vast energy, daring and dash and his teeming imagination were the very qualities needed to force art out of the dismal rut into which it had fallen, and to carve new ways wherein it might move freely and naturally. In him was born again that instinct for colour which had brought the school of the van Eycks into the first rank of European painting. He, too, like these early predecessors, was content with the world as he saw it, and felt no hankering after the classical forms of more favoured climes. " As for that famous beauty," writes his ardent admirer Delacroix, "which is universally regarded as the aim of art, if it is the only aim what is to become of those who, like Rubens, Rembrandt and the northern spirits in general, prefer other qualities? ... Rubens attains a more powerful ideal. Force, vehemence, éclat, with him take the place of grace and charm." There was in him, indeed, just that want of sensitiveness to the subtler refinements which often coexists with the more robust qualities that go to make the pioneer. And for this that he has not, many have overlooked the splendid qualities he has. Rubens, with his "eternal wives and infernal glare of colour," as Byron contemptuously epitomised him, has been a jest to some, to others a warning. " Look, but do not linger " was the advice of the painter Ingres to his pupils ; and during the classical fanaticism of the eighteenth century, Rubens's reputation lay under a cloud. To-day, when Hals, Rembrandt and Velasquez rule the artistic world, his star is again in the ascendant, his name once more inscribed on the door-post of the temple of art. His vitality indeed is such that he can never die ; he takes the world .by storm, as it were, and carries us along by his own joyful, almost overpowering enthusiasm.
" Exuberant " is the word that inevitably connects itself with Rubens, and this exactly expresses him.
When Rubens was born in 1577 at Siegen, where his family lived in a kind of forced retirement, Titian, having almost rounded his century, had just passed away. Holbein had already been dead more than thirty years, and Sir Antonio More and old Peter Brueghel, the last worthy upholders of the national school, had lately ended their days. Before he was ten years old his widowed mother came to settle in Antwerp, where the boy was put to school with the best masters the city had to offer, the landscape-painter Verhaegt, the coarse and boorish van Noort, whose power as a colourist was, how-ever, by no means inconsiderable, and finally with the cultured, much-travelled Otto van Veen. It was not, however, under these influences that a genius should ripen, though doubtless each in some way contributed to its development. But after his matriculation Rubens set off on a visit to Italy, and when he returned to Antwerp eight years later, it was as a full-blown painter, whose originality had been aroused and stimulated but in no-wise stifled by his studies under the great masters of the south.
With his strong individuality and lively imagination it was not likely that Rubens should follow the disastrous example of his Flemish predecessors, and lose himself in imitation of a classicism foreign to his nature and traditions. It was to Venice and the great Venetian painters that he felt himself most strongly attracted, finding in the warm, glowing colouring of Titian and Veronese a strong affinity with the colour-sense which he himself inherited from the van Eycks, Memlinc, Matsys and Brueghel. The influence of Venice was indeed as stimulating to the Flemish painters of the seventeenth century as that of Rome had been disastrous to their grandfathers. There had never existed that antagonism between Venetian and Netherlandish art, which Michelangelo, the representative of Florentine and Roman traditions, summed up in the famous Dialogue with Francisco d'Ollanda already referred to. From the days of the Vivarini and the van Eycks onward, the painters of Venice and Bruges had much in common, even before their unconscious fellowship was strengthened by Antonello's importation to Venice of the Flemish technique. In the hands of Titian and Veronese this method had been adapted and modified to suit the freer brush-play required for work on a vaster scale than the van Eycks or van der Goes had ever attempted. When Rubens first stood before the works of Titian, still in all their early freshness, it must have seemed to him as though he were listening to a familiar language indeed, but spoken with a freedom, vigour and beauty undreamt of before. And he had ample opportunity for studying these heroes of a past generation, whom he so eagerly adopted among his artistic sponsors; for his duties to the Duke of Mantua, who retained the brilliant young painter in his service, included the copying of pictures in Venice and also in Rome, besides a mission to Spain, where still further treasures from Titian's brush were displayed before him.
In these years, too, Rubens might practise those arts of the courtier and diplomatist which stood him in such good stead in after life. His handsome appearance, his savoir-faire, his excellent scholarship, whereby he astonished even the cultured Duke of Mantua, and, above all, the true originality of his genius, paved his way to consideration not only abroad but even in his own country, to which the death of his mother recalled him after an absence of more than eight years. A little persuasion, and Rubens consented to quit the Duke's service, and to remain in Antwerp with an official salaried position as court painter to- the Archdukes of the Netherlands. Doubtless, too, his marriage to Isabella Brant, which took place shortly after his return, decided him to settle down, and to make himself a personality in the artistic life of his now tranquil native land. At Munich we may see the double portrait of the artist and his first wife, sitting hand in hand under an arbour of honeysuckle, in the first flush of their united happiness. They are indeed a comely couple, with an air of prosperity and bonhomie about them. A later portrait of Isabella hangs in the Wallace Gallery (XVI., 30). It is a repetition by Rubens himself of his well-known picture at the Hague, but, unfortunately, it has darkened and suffered cruelly from time and neglect.
Rubens's life in Antwerp was brilliantly successful, not alone from' the position he on so easily as prince among artists, but also from the social point of view. The artist was now the gentleman too, able to take his place with the best in the land. The palace of art he purchased and enlarged, adorning it with the spoil he had carried back from Italy, might have fitly housed a king. Pupils clamoured at his door, patrons enlisted his services months in advance. No doubt much envy and hatred burned in the hearts of Antwerp painters, who now awoke to find themselves totally eclipsed by this new luminary. To-day in the Antwerp cathedral we may stand beneath the two vast altar-pieces, the stupendous " Raising of the Cross," with its reminiscences of Tintoretto, and the deeply-impressive " Descent from the Cross," the first great master-works in which Rubens announced his supremacy before the Flemish world, and, as it were, threw down the glove to all would-be rivals.
If, as Rubens himself said, he was best fitted to execute works of the largest size, an opportunity soon offered itself. For Marie de Medicis, Queen of France, who had already encountered the artist during his sojourn in Italy, now commissioned him to execute a series of pictures that should serve the double purpose of glorifying her own name and adorning her palace of the Luxembourg. These huge allegorical variations on the theme of Marie de Medicis, her life and acts, hang now in the Louvre, in a great hall designed especially to receive them. They may not accord with the taste of our day. They have indeed little charm as individual pictures. But taking them all together, as a vast scheme of decoration in the pompous, theatrical style of Henri Quatre, they reveal the master mind of a great creative artist. Of course Rubens employed an army of trained assistants in the actual execution of this state pageant. As master of the revels he planned, designed and superintended the whole, but no single hand could have covered these enormous canvases in the few years bestowed upon the work. It was indeed becoming more and more impossible for Rubens to execute all the commissions that poured in upon him in overwhelming numbers. But, following the custom of the Italians, he set up a "scuola," a kind of painting shop, and with the help of pupils reared under his own eye turned out a host of productions indiscriminately bearing his name. This practice was universally recognised, and prices were fixed by a kind of sliding scale according to how much of a picture actually displayed the master's brush-work. Many a so-called Rubens, actually a work from this Rubens factory, scarcely touched by his own hand, misrepresents him in the public galleries of Europe, and is imputed to him for unrighteousness by the inexperienced and captious visitor to the Louvre or Munich.
Rubens the artist was more than once called upon to make way for Rubens the courtier and diplomatist. As he himself is reported to have said, he sometimes accepted an embassy for the sake of recreation. His visit to the court of Philip IV. of Spain, on a diplomatic mission for his new patrons, brought him into contact with Velasquez, as yet an unproved genius. The meeting between the successful, buoyant Fleming and the reserved young Spaniard can hardly have passed without leaving some impression on the younger man. At anyrate, Rubens prevailed upon the King to send Velasquez off to Italy, to drink deep at the same fountains which had nourished himself. His next errand carried him to England, where, as we shall see, he painted several pictures for Charles I., the earliest of our kings to evince a real taste for art outside the practical domain of portraiture. The monarch showed his appreciation of the painter by conferring knighthood upon him, and commissioning him to decorate the ceiling of the great Banqueting Chamber at Whitehall. The subject chosen was the " Apotheosis of James I.," and in the nine canvases designed to glorify the life, death, virtues and rule of this far from heroic monarch, darkened and injured though they be, visitors to White-hall may still study Rubens as a great decorative artist.
With Rubens's return to Antwerp in 1630, and his second marriage, this time to the sixteen-year-old Helene Fourment, he entered upon the final and most brilliant period of his art. The magic swirl and glamour, the transparent brilliancy of his colour in these later years, have never been surpassed. The fertility of his imagination remained unimpaired to the end. With the utmost ease and spontaneity he threw off one masterpiece after another, and when death overtook him at the age of sixty-three, he was still hard at work. The galleries of Antwerp, Munich, Vienna, Madrid, S. Petersburg, Paris and Brussels display his extra-ordinary activity in all its manysidedness. In the National Gallery he is represented by a number of magnificent pictures and sketches, and though here we can perhaps only guess at the wonderful variety and vastness of his creation, we can form an excellent idea of his superb colour, his impetuous force, and the swing of his facile brush. As the pictures are not hung together but are scattered about the walls of the large Dutch and Flemish Gallery (Room X.) and the room devoted to the Peel Collection (Room XII.), it will be most convenient to consider them as they hang, rather than in the order of their production.
Beginning then in Room XII., we find ourselves in front of the famous, but misnamed " Chapeau de Paille" (852). This brilliant portrait of a young girl with large dark blue eyes, introduces us to Rubens in one of his most inspired moments. Where, in the whole wide range of his work, shall we find colour more trans-parent and dazzling, a pose more alluring? Nowhere, certainly, has he imparted so much of elegance and espièglerie to his model. The question arises here, as in the case of every portrait : how much of this is due to the sitter, and what has the artist read into his model of himself, of his own tastes and prejudices? Has he, like Jan van Eyck or Holbein, faithfully mirrored the features, the character, the personality of the individual before him, leaving himself, as it were, quite in the background ? Or has he used his model as a mirror, in which he sees reflected his own ideal type? A very slight acquaintance with Rubens convinces us that throughout his work the personal note rings loudest. Nowhere, not even from his portraits, can he exclude his own strong, animated self. In a word, he Rubensised everything he touched. As Fromentin said, we find "the same chivalrous air in the men, and the same princess-like beauty in the women, but nothing individual which arrests the attention. . . . Imagine Holbein with the personages of Rubens, and you see at once appear a new human gallery, very interesting for the moralist, equally admirable for the history of life and the history of art, which Rubens, we must agree, would not have enriched by one single type." In the case of this portrait, we have only to compare a preliminary chalk study in the Albertina of this same young girl, to appreciate how Rubens has idealised her in the picture. And he must have known her well, for this Susanne Fourment was the niece of his first wife and the sister of his second. He painted her many times, both separately and in large compositions, such as his " Garden of Love." This portrait is singularly like the wonderful full-length of Helene Fourment at S. Petersburg, painted at least fifteen years later than her sister. And indeed the family likeness between Rubens's portraits of women arises from this subjective way of looking at his models and his intensely individual style.
The "Chapeau de Paille" is entirely by Rubens himself, unless indeed the hands, which are darker than the face, have been retouched. The colour has been brushed on with an almost magical feathery lightness, from the vaporous blue in the sky to the marvellous pearly flesh tints, which can only be properly appreciated from a little distance. And what a problem the painter has set himself in thus throwing the face into half shadow under the broad-brimmed black felt hat, a very triumph of subtle chiaroscuro ! Reynolds did just the same in that masterpiece of his in Hertford House, the beautiful " Nelly O'Brien." Had he not painted it before his visit to Antwerp, when he saw and praised our picture, we might well have believed that his work was inspired by this. Madame Vigée le Brun actually did set her-self to repeat Rubens's tour de force in the portrait of herself, which, since 1897, belongs to the National Gallery (1653). Her face, too, is in half shadow, but is illuminated, as in the "Chapeau de Paille," by a warm light reflected on to it. The large sombrero-like hat, which contributes so much towards the fine pictorial effect of Susanne Fourment's portrait, has been rightly seized upon as a distinguishing feature by which to name the picture. " Spaansch hoedje" (Spanish hat) was its Flemish designation, and this has been mistranslated " Chapeau de Paille," probably a corruption of " Chapeau d'Espagne." The black of the hat is repeated in the stomacher, and with the warm red of the sleeves, the dull-green scarf and the delicious blue sky, the whole effect is superb.
This portrait was painted in 1620, the year that Rubens. received his commission for the " Marie de Medicis " series. To- the same time belongs the " Holy Family with SS. Elizabeth and John the Baptist" in Hertford House (XVI., 81). Here, again, we notice the glowing transparency of the flesh tints, with the blue veins showing through the skin, enhanced by the crimson shadows in which Rubens delighted. " Verily," said Guido Reni, " Rubens mixed his colours with blood," so brilliant and living is his painting of flesh. The Madonna here is of a rather fragile type, the fair-haired children chubby and robust, but there is little or no suggestion of a Holy Family in this group. Its pendant in the great gallery at Hertford House, " Christ's Charge to Peter" (93), dates from a few years earlier. The figure of S. Peter is wonderfully impressive in its humble yet dignified submission. Of this panel, which he saw in the Church of S. Gudule in Brussels, Reynolds said that it was the highest and smoothest finished and by far the heaviest picture that he knew by the master.
Above the " Chapeau de Paille " hangs a picture of a very different calibre. If in this portrait Rubens seems to have caught at an elegance and refinement, often conspicuously wanting in his representations of women, in this "Triumph of Silenus" (853) he makes no attempt to compromise with a far from attractive subject. The brutish, besotted greybeard of Falstaffian proportions, ponderously dragged along by swarthy, brown-limbed satyrs, is in himself a repulsive figure ; but what a foil he makes to the fair nymph, with her fluttering pink draperies, and the delicious children who dance so gaily beside him ! What abandonment to revelry, what movement, life and rhythm ! We seem to shut our eyes to the degradation of the drunkard's progress, to put prudery on one side, and allow ourselves to be carried along with this riotous band to the tune of their music and laughter. It is a curious mixture of the grotesque and the idyllic—the fat demigod, the shock-headed piper blowing out his cheeks, the wild faces of the satyrs, weirdly illuminated by the light of a torch in the rear, and then, on the other hand, the fresh, gleeful children and the graceful fair-haired girl. The ugliest feature in the composition is the awkward, trunk-like left arm of Silenus. The landscape background and the clusters of grapes, painted with a much harder, smoother touch than the figures, must have been filled in by one of the numerous assistants whom Rubens employed on such tasks. He painted many versions of this subject, which seems to have been popular among his cheerful and far from fastidious circle.
We must now go on to Room X., where on the left hand wall we find a large allegorical composition representing "Peace and War" (46). This picture has an historical as well as an artistic interest, for it was painted in England, and presented by the artist to Charles I. Rubens's mission being to negotiate peace between England and Spain, no doubt the allegory was designed as a subtle reminder to the English king of the advantages of peace as compared with the terrors of war. How superb this picture must have been before it darkened, and lost its early freshness and glow ! The central life-sized figure of Peace reveals one of those massive, shapeless blondes, for whom Rubens showed always a strong predilection. In marked contrast to her brightly illuminated fair flesh strikes the brown skin of the god Pan, who, kneeling before her, offers the fruits of the field, which, during her reign, the earth has brought forth in abundance. A leopard gambols at her feet. Wealth and Happiness, the inevitable accompaniments of Peace, follow behind Pan — Happiness dancing along in an ecstasy of joy, singing and waving her tambourine ; Wealth, a beautiful nude woman, bringing her rich store of jewels and precious stones. In the background Wisdom drives War, an armed man, before her into the murky darkness, where hover the shadowy figures of Pestilence and Famine. Very lovely is the group of children on the right, pressing forward to share in the joys of Peace. Rubens paid a delicate compliment to his friend and agent, Gerbier, when he introduced the portraits of his golden-haired children into this picture. The delicious little girl who looks out at us through large brown eyes must have charmed the artist no less than she fascinates us, for he painted her portrait several times. Her elder sister, holding up her dull-gold coloured frock, is scarcely less attractive. These children appear again in company of their mother in a portrait group, which was exhibited at the Old Masters in 1902 under the false title of the " Family of the Duke of Buckingham." The composition of this Peace allegory is most spirited, and, considering its wealth of figures, well ordered and easy to comprehend. The contrast between the brilliantly-lighted group centred round Peace, and the sombre gloom of the background, made visible by lurid flames, the incendiary fires of War and his attendants, is vividly expressed. War, flinging his head back as he rushes into the darkness, shows us features not unlike those of Rubens himself; for if a painter is apt unconsciously to portray himself, Rubens, with his extraordinary sense of individuality, was quite the man to do so.
Further along on the same wall hangs an elaborate oil sketch for a picture of a very similar subject—the " Horrors of War " (279). The finished picture, one of Rubens's masterpieces, painted in his latest and most splendid style, is in the Pitti Palace. He seems to have treated this subject with singular gusto and dramatic force. No small wonder that it had burnt itself into his mind, seeing that his country was barely recovering from a ruinous period of strife and warfare ! The sketch is, in itself, a masterly piece of dashing composition, glowing in colour. The furious onrush of Mars, who tramples all before him, is checked by Venus, a nude figure, in whom the painter is supposed to have portrayed his wife, Helene. In the same way Europa, behind, in dark green velvet, traditionally represents Isabella Brant. If this be so, however, Rubens must have forgotten her features. He him-self plays the part of the ferocious God of War.
Returning along this wall we come to another finished sketch for a large altar-piece, an early work, representing the " Conversion of S. Bavon " (57). The picture, which is somewhat different from this, was painted a few years later for the Church of S. Bavon in Ghent, the shrine of the van Eycks' " Adoration of the Lamb." The composition here, with its multitude of small figures, is rather bewildering, as no doubt Rubens perceived, for he simplified it in the large version. S. Bavon, though the central figure, must be sought among the crowd, standing, in conscious dignity, in the middle of the stairs leading up to a stately Italian cathedral pile. The bishop just above him seems to welcome the convert to the monastic life he has chosen, and the chorus, composed of S. Bavon's retinue, a troop of beggars, among whom the major-domo distributes alms, and a band of graceful women, joins in the general thanksgiving and applause.
Below this hangs one of Rubens's copies, or rather transcripts, from Italian masters, a very free adaptation of part of Mantegna's celebrated " Triumph of Julius Cæsar" (278). Since Rubens had seen, and no doubt admired these cartoons at Mantua in the days of his youth, the ducal house had become involved in war and debt, and in the general dispersal of its artistic collections Charles I. had secured these price-less treasures. During his visit to England" these new possessions were displayed to our artist, who seems to have made three studies of them. This is the only one that has come down to us, and it was described in the inventory of the painter's effects as " unfinished." Mantegna's " Triumph," shorn, alas, of its original beauty, hangs now in a long, narrow gallery at Hampton Court. We might easily fail to recognise Rubens's version, which is no copy, but a very free paraphrase of the original. The classic restraint, the ordered measure of Mantegna's composition are here translated into turbulent movement and buoyant life. The dancing figures on the left are of Rubens's own creation ; the picturesque landscape too, with its hillside crowned with ruined classical temples and thronged with spectators, is his original contribution. He has turned order into riot, a stately procession into a bacchanalian dance. His figures leap and spring, his lions and leopards snarl, the elephants trumpet wildly in concert with the fifes and cymbals. The severe spirit of Mantegna has fled indeed, and an exuberant, joyful, energetic being has taken possession of his house. No less individual is the colour of this free translation, for Rubens has employed his most translucent pigments, his most lustrous tints in the draperies of the dancers and the lovely youths who lead the bullocks. The splendid cardinal-red of the fine old man in the middle lends additional warmth and brilliance to the whole.
The small "Repose in Egypt" or "Holy Family with S. George" (67), hung rather high, is a late work of not very brilliant quality ; indeed, it seems that little of this was actually painted by Rubens himself. The figures are reproduced, perhaps by a pupil, from a picture by the master in the Prado. The landscape is probably by van Uden, a mediocre painter whom Rubens often employed in this capacity. In the features of the rescued princess, whom S. George is presenting to the Virgin, we again recognise Helene Fourment.
The large picture of the "Brazen Serpent" (59), close by, dates also from Rubens's latest period ; but this time it is entirely by his own hand. Here we have a composition of many life-sized figures violently foreshortened. Some writhe in agony from the bites of the huge serpents that coil and twine about their naked bodies, too far gone to listen to Moses and Eleazar, who entreat them to save themselves by looking up to the brazen serpent on a pole. One woman indeed is holding up her child ; another, crouched in the middle of the suffering group, seems to realise the proffered salvation. This fair-haired woman forms a centre round which the other figures are most ingeniously composed, the whole swing of this group leading towards the dark, standing figures of Moses and Eleazar on the left. The scene is very dramatic, perhaps rather theatrical, and the foreshortened figures in front are quite a tour de force. But the picture is far from attractive, and we turn with relief to the exquisite " Landscape " below (157).
It was only late in life that Rubens took to painting landscapes, a branch of art in which Flemish painters had already so distinguished themselves. This rapid sketch, for it is no more, of a wide plain at sunset exhibits all the characteristics of his outdoor scenes, a sense of space, air and breezy freshness, bold lighting, slender, feathery trees dotted about the fertile plain, and the broad, vigorous brush-work of his mature period. He has actually painted the ball of the sun at the moment before it sinks below the horizon. Just emerged from behind a cloud, it bursts forth in golden radiance, gilding the tops and trunks of the trees and the backs of the browsing sheep, and lighting up the red towers of the château and the church on the right. This momentary effect of light is wonderfully rendered.
The large landscape known as "Autumn " (66), opposite, is one of Rubens's chefs-d'oeuvre. The vast, wooded champaign is illuminated by the first gleams of the rising sun. Under the long shadows of the trees twilight still lingers, but their tops are rimmed with gold. This wide expanse of fertile, cultivated plain, intersected by willow-fringed canals, stretched itself before the painter's eyes every time he walked out, as he is actually doing here, from his elegant country villa. For on the left rises the stately Château de Stein, which he bought soon after his second marriage, when advancing years and the threatenings of gout forced him to give up politics. Here, no doubt, he developed that love of landscape which distinguishes his latest period. His conception has something of the patriarchal. His ideal country is always luxuriant, cultivated and well watered, peopled with a cheerful peasantry, and rich in flocks and herds. He prefers the picturesque to the sublime, revels in the flat scenery of his native land, just as he delights in the superabundant charms of its florid women. How happy is the contrast here between the warm, rich browns and scarlet of the foreground and the cool, delicate grey-greens and blues of the distance, where the horizon, obscured by a misty haze, melts away into the shimmering, opalescent sky ! Just such immense stretch of sky and plain was treated with solemn poetry by Ruysdael and sober affection by de Koninck, as we may see in this same Gallery. It is not, however, the poetic loneliness, the sombre mystery of nature, that Rubens chooses to dwell upon. He loves the genial haunts of man, and has no desire to commune alone with the woods and fields. The figures which animate his landscapes seem actually to live and move. They are no mere puppets or lay-figures, but belong to the earth, and, as Reynolds said, " they do their business with great energy." The old-time gamekeeper, attended by his dog, crouches beneath the shelter of some straggling brambles, waiting to aim with his clumsy flint-lock at a covey of unsuspicious partridges in the field beside the brook. The peasant rumbles off to market in his ramshackle cart, urging on the patient, sturdy horses. His wife, perched behind, with a young calf lying at her feet, lends a grateful splash of warm scarlet to the dark side of the panel. And further back on the left the painter and his family have strolled outside their house to enjoy the early freshness of the autumn morning. A flight of birds enlivens the sky, and enhances the sense of space and distance. To see and enjoy this landscape we must move right away from it, where the eye may comprehend the whole in one sweep. Much of the effect of largeness and atmosphere and the magic of the lighting is lost by standing too close. Such broad, sweeping treatment always tells best from a little distance.
The companion picture to this "Autumn" is the famous " Rainbow " landscape in Hertford House (XVI., 63). A midsummer storm has just refreshed the earth, vaporous clouds still roll across the sky, but the sun has burst forth, and a magnificent rainbow flings its arc across the horizon. This wonderful landscape, bathed in warm light, ranks, with its pendant in the National Gallery, among the masterpieces of the painter's brush. A smaller and less brilliant version in Munich was painted earlier, perhaps as a preliminary study for this.
Another superb picture of Rubens's maturity is the " Judgment of Paris" (194), a brilliant fantasy, with its dazzling flesh tints, and rich and glowing colour. Here, in a luxuriant sylvan landscape, are assembled the shepherd Paris and swift Mercury, with the three lovely competitors for the golden apple, which cunning Discord, hovering in the clouds above, has offered to her who shall be pronounced the fairest. The whole scene breathes a spirit of poetry and romance, intensified by the wonderful lighting and the glamour of the deepchorded colour. The ardent, brown-limbed Paris, an almost Giorgionesque creation, has flung himself beneath a tree in an attitude of careless grace. His faithful sheep-dog crouches between his master's knees, and two of his flock graze at a little distance. Mercury, his scarlet cloak fluttering in the wind, seems to have newly alighted on earth, all eager to watch the contest. No doubt it was as difficult to Paris, as now to us, to decide between the beautiful, proud Juno and the fair, seductive Venus. For Minerva is less attractive ; her attitude is all too self-conscious, and it is evident, in her case at least, that wisdom, not beauty, is the crown. But the Trojan shepherd has already made his choice, and it is on Venus that he bestows the coveted apple. Discord may even now reap the first-fruits of her spiteful plan, for Juno, seeing her rival preferred before herself, draws on her crimson mantle in ire, while her . faithful peacock, loyally resenting his mistress's rejection, pecks furiously at Paris's foot. Very lovely is the cherubic little Cupid in the corner, one of the delicious, healthy babes that Rubens, the father of several curly-haired boys, knew so well how to portray. The contrast between the ruddy, sunburnt figures of Paris and Mercury and the gleaming carnations of this Cupid and the three Goddesses, enhanced by the dark draperies that reveal them, is again characteristically emphasised. These fair women, no slender classical divinities indeed, but massive, matronly types, are a veritable triumph of flesh-painting. We do not seek in Rubens the elegant forms of Raphael or the grand, statuesque creations of Titian, but surely he has no rival in the rendering of flesh, its texture, its colour, its very life ! Ill-treated and injured as the picture has been, nothing has been able to rob these goddesses of their fairness. And it seems as though in their honour earth had donned her most fascinating garb. The rich landscape, clothed with shady trees, melts into the distant blue hills, beneath a sky of wonderful, luminous depth and transparency. Rubens has brushed them in with a full sense of the decorative requirements of his painted idyl, for here, indeed, is no mere realistic landscape, but the truly poetic setting for an Olympian fairy-tale enacted on earth.
We may linger over this picture without exhausting its beauties, and as here we find Rubens at his best, it is well worth more than a moment's pause. The radiant beauty of the colour seems to grow upon us as we gaze. Nowhere moreover in the whole picture do we find a hard outline, but one form melts into another almost imperceptibly. Here are all Rubens's favourite colours—warm scarlet in Mercury's flying cloak and behind Minerva's uplifted arms, the deep crimson of Juno's draperies, the olive-brown landscape and the cool blue of the sky. Blue never occupies much space on Rubens's palette. He loves warm, rich, glowing tones, and seldom introduces the colder colour into his draperies. We may notice throughout this composition how vigorously he has painted the feet, and how expressive they are. The animals, too, are full of life, from Minerva's solemn owl on the tree behind her, and Juno's vicious but gaudy peacock, to the shrewd-eyed sheep-dog and the meek lambs. Rubens repeated this composition on a larger scale in the last year of his life ; but the picture, now in Madrid, has none of the glowing brilliance of ours. A much smaller version in Dresden was probably painted earlier, and may have been a finished study for this.
The "Rape of the Sabines" (38), further along the same wall, is another work of the same period. We have descended here from the romantic regions of Greek myth to the storm and stress of historical reality. This shouting, plunging throng of struggling women and burly soldiers is all movement, bustle and confusion. In obedience to a signal from Romulus, who, mounted on a dais above the throng, alone remains calm and dignified, the soldiers have seized upon the unsuspecting Sabine women, and are trying by sheer force of muscle to carry them off. The rush and swirl of the swaying crowd are rendered with indescribable spirit and verve. The scene is dramatic, perhaps in the exaggeration of the action again rather theatrical. Every figure is in violent motion, every pose suggests struggle. As for these Sabine maidens, what are they but well-nourished Flemish matrons of almost over-ripe charms, sprawling and kicking in attitudes expressive indeed but far from elegant? Among them, just behind a portly matron in black and yellow, we recognise the blonde head of Helene Fourment, whom Rubens, partly from affection, and no doubt also from motives of convenience and economy, used so often as his model. She is dragged along almost unresistingly by a helmeted warrior. The stately architecture in the background helps to give stability to the tangled composition. This, with the glint of cool blue sky beyond, is a motïf adapted from Paul Veronese, as we may see in his great " Family of Darius " here (VII., 294). For all its life and movement and the brilliance of its colouring, this is not one of Rubens's most successful compositions. The eye is lost and distracted in the whirl of figures, and these gesticulating women scarcely excite our sympathy. It is, however, splendidly painted, and entirely by Rubens himself, who was now approaching his sixtieth year with powers unimpaired and vigour far from sapped.
Two paintings in this room, though actually executed by Van Dyck, are after well-known pictures by Rubens. " The Emperor Theodosius refused Admission into thé Church by S. Ambrose" (50) repeats on a much smaller scale the fine dignified composition at Vienna. The pupil, however, has not adhered slavishly to his model, and has even strayed so far as to alter the Emperor's head, depriving him of the flowing beard with which Rubens, perhaps overboldly, had invested him. The monochrome composition of. the " Miraculous Draught of Fishes " (680), also by Van Dyck, is probably one of the careful copies executed under Rubens's own superintendence, from which the engravers of his pictures were wont to work. The original altar-piece, the centre of which this small drawing follows, belongs to Rubens's early period, and was painted by him for the fishermen of Mechlin, who presented it to their Church of Notre Dame, where it hangs to this day. It has even been suggested that Van Dyck's hand may be detected in this great work, which is a masterpiece of vigorous realism.
Returning through Room XII., we must notice on a screen a sketch for a ceiling picture at Osterley Park, wrongly named the " Apotheosis of William the Taciturn" (187). The personage whom Rubens de-signed to honour in this bombastic manner of the day was actually the Duke of Buckingham, to whom he had sold his art collection in Paris some years before. Of course, this composition, intended as it was for a ceiling decoration, ought to be looked at from below. If we could hold the picture over our heads, umbrella-wise, these boldly foreshortened figures would immediately become intelligible. The painter wished to give to the flat ceiling the effect of an opening to the sky, through which we see the hero borne triumphantly heavenwards in company of a crowd of nymphs and cherubs. Here is no doubt a reminiscence of the painted ceilings which Rubens must have seen and studied in Italy, particularly, perhaps, in the Ducal Palace of Venice, where Veronese's wonderful decorations would be still in all their pristine splendour. For a sketch, this " Apotheosis," evidently painted with a wet and flowing touch, is extraordinarily elaborate and careful.
The small cabinet between Rooms XI I. and XIII. contains a number of drawings and sketches by Rubens, which belonged to the celebrated collection of Sir Thomas Lawrence. Let us first look at four tinted chalk studies (853a-853d) for a great picture of the " Fall of the Damned," now in Munich. A small and rather poor photograph of the picture hangs beside the studies. There is something stupendous and appalling in this conception of a pitiless rain of human beings, descending, head foremost, into the bottomless pit. Horrid devils, some bat-winged, some with monkey faces, or cruel hydra-headed monsters seize their victims by the hair and ruthlessly hurl them to destruction. It is a hideous carnival of rampant devilry, pandemonium let loose indeed, a nightmare of lurid terror. Iron must have been the nerve, cool and swift the hand of the artist who could conceive and carry this through. To match these horrors we must go to the Campo Santo of Pisa, where we may shudder before the old Sienese painter's ideas of Hell and Damnation. Guarda e passa !
The "Martyrdom of a Saint" (853e) is of peculiar interest, for it enables us to reconstruct a great picture, formerly in a monastery near Brussels, which has now perished. This water-colour drawing is one of the copies, already referred to, which were prepared for the engravers to work from, but in this case the engraving, for some reason or other, was never executed. S. Paul, the central figure, is raised on a kind of mound, surrounded by a throng of spectators, soldiers, weeping women, and a burly executioner. Angels hover over-head to receive his soul, when the sword, already about to swing, shall have given it release. It is a fine dramatic composition, though perhaps the saint appears more conscious of immediate martyrdom than expectant of future bliss. The " Descent of the Holy Spirit" (853f) is also a copy for an engraving by Paulus Pontius after the picture in Munich. The apostles are grouped in rather theatrical attitudes of awe-full astonishment round the Virgin, while tongues of fire shower upon them from a cloud of radiance encircling the Holy Dove. The setting is again a spacious Renaissance building.
The original of the " Crucifixion " (853g) is the celebrated picture in the gallery at Antwerp, known as the "Coup de Lance," which was engraved by Bolswert from this copy. The picture belongs to the prolific period of the " Chapeau de Paille," and there has always been a tradition that Van Dyck, then a young pupil in Rubens's studio, lent his hand to it. It may be classed with the famous " Descent from the Cross " as an example of the artist's powerful, tragic rendering of the drama of the Passion. Another intensely impressive " Crucifixion," in Hertford House (XVI., 71), displays the figure of the dying Saviour, silhouetted against an inky sky and, from His awful elevation, dominating heaven and earth. Far below, the towers of Jerusalem appear black against a dusky sunset.
The charming chalk and bistre drawing of a little girl in black cap and feathers (853h) is usually supposed, but with very little reason, to be a portrait of one of the painter's family. It has the charm, the unaffected grace, which distinguish all Rubens's portraits of children. The painter seems to have taken a quick sketch of the little maiden as she stood before him in her quaint high cap, over which he has playfully thrown the feathered hat. The delicate study of a lady in red and black chalk (853z) is a sketch for the " Portrait of Isabella Brant" at Windsor, painted in 1614, some years earlier than the Hertford House version. Isabella is attired here in unusual splendour—flowers in her hair, necklace about her massive neck, vast balloon sleeves and high Medici collar of fine lace. Another full-face portrait drawing (853k) represents a girl with large eyes and very full mouth. Her cheeks and lips are touched with red chalk. She seems a delightful creature, rather piquant and wilful. A similar drawing is in a private collection at Paris.
Four sketches for sculptured monuments (853k-853n) and the design for an oval silver dish (1195) illustrate the manysidedness of Rubens's artistic power. This design of the " Birth of Venus," in monochrome, is wonderfully graceful and flowing. The border, too, is adorned with a composition of sea-gods and mermaids riding on dolphins or disporting themselves in the water.
The fine chalk study of a lioness (853o) is one of a number of sketches for the great " Daniel in the Lion's Den," which came into Charles I.'s collection. It was exhibited in 1899 in the New Gallery. As a painter of animals Rubens has few rivals. He loves to depict them in wild motion, in the chase, or in violent conflict with man, as in his superb" Lion Hunt" at Munich, where men, lions and horses meet in desperate encounter. The oil study for a "Lion Hunt" (853p), over the door of this room, is hung too high to be seen properly, but the composition was used by some pupil for the school-picture in the Dresden Gallery.
This extraordinary versatility, which enabled Rubens to turn with like ease to every branch of painting, and to make his own whatever he chose to touch, is as marvellous as his untiring productiveness and prolific invention. Ideas seem to have come to him without conscious effort of thought. His mind teemed with pictorial suggestions, and indeed over two thousand pictures issued from his brain. He was a true capo scuola, for not only did his style dominate the period, but he infected the whole circle of painters within his influence with that joie de vivre which characterised himself. The pictures he painted or inspired seem to sing out with the lust of life. He plays with full orchestra, the trumpets blaring, the cymbals clashing. One superb passage succeeds another, till sometimes the effect is almost overpowering. How different this from the staid reserve, the calm immobility of Jan van Eyck and Memlinc! We love their watchful intentness, their quaint gravity, their conscientious jewel-like workmanship. But with Rubens we are in the presence of a great power, a supreme leader, whom we must defy or obey, before whom indifference alone is impossible.
( Originally Published 1904 )
German and Flemish Masters:
The German And Flemish Masters In The National Gallery
The Van Eycks
The School Of Roger Van Der Weyden
Gerard David And His Followers
The German Painters Of The Fifteenth Century
Matsys And The Italianisers
The German Painters Of The Renaissance
Van Dyck And The Painters Of Antwerp