Arts feature

How will the British public take to Rubens’s fatties?

The British have never warmed to the Flemish master’s fleshy paintings. But then neither did he have a very high opinion of us

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

This week a monumental exhibition, Rubens and His Legacy, is opening at the Royal Academy. It makes the case — surely correct — that the Flemish master was among the most influential figures in European art. There are few painters of the 18th or 19th century — from Joshua Reynolds to Cézanne, Watteau to Constable — who were not affected by his work. It will be interesting, however, to discover what the London art public feel about Rubens himself.

The British have had a complicated relationship with the great man. Its apex is represented by his residence in London — admittedly for a brief nine months in 1629–30 — his knighthood and the pleasure expressed by Charles I at meeting ‘a person of such merit’. The nadir, perhaps, came in 1647 when his ‘Crucifixion’, which hung on the altar of Queen Henrietta Maria’s private (Catholic) chapel in Somerset House, was removed by order of Parliament, run through with a sword and flung into the Thames.

Rubens, it seems safe to say, appeals to our cavalier side but less to the puritanical streak that runs through the national psyche. For some the fleshy amplitude of his figures — what might be termed ‘the cellulite factor’ — is a barrier to appreciating his art (although as a nation we are becoming more Rubenesque: the gluttons tumbling to perdition in his ‘Last Judgement’ have figures you could encounter on any high street today).

From the beginning of the relationship there was mutual interest between Rubens and English collectors — but also a degree of suspicion. In 1618 the artist traded a group of his own works with Dudley Carleton, British ambassador to The Hague, in exchange for the latter’s collection of classical antiquities. During the negotiations, Carleton and his agents were interested in how much of each picture the master himself had actually painted. Rubens then made a distinction between ‘by my hand’ and others ‘retouched by my own hand’ (but mainly painted by assistants).

Even this, according to Nico Van Hout, co-curator of the Royal Academy exhibition, was a simplification. ‘You should consider Rubens more as a brand,’ he suggests, making a comparison with the Beatles. ‘Some songs were by George Harrison, some by Paul McCartney, but everything is immediately recognisable as the Beatles music.’ Some pictures he painted entirely himself, for others he merely conceived the design and applied the final touches, in certain cases — Van Hout believes — he neither invented the composition nor laid a brush on the painting, but it was still marketed as ‘Rubens’.


He was obliged to employ a sizable workshop of helpers because of the demand for his work. As Ben van Beneden, director of the Rubens House museum in Antwerp, described, between just 1610 and 1620 he produced ‘dozens of altarpieces of gigantic proportions’. In addition, there were portraits, mythological scenes, political allegories, landscapes, voluptuous pictures to be enjoyed privately by connoisseurs, designs for prints, tapestries, title pages and festive decorations. The list goes on and on, as do the volumes of the complete catalogue of his works, the Corpus Rubenianum, which have been coming out since the 1960s and are set to continue to appear for years into the future.

Rubens was a truly European figure. Not for nothing is the preface to the RA catalogue penned by Herman Van Rompuy. A passion for Rubens spanned the political and religious borders of 17th-century Europe. He worked for the King of Spain, the court of France, the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Charles I. His energy and industriousness were astonishing. In addition to his work as an artist, he spent time and effort on diplomacy — he was in London to negotiate a treaty on behalf of Philip IV of Spain and his regent, Rubens’s patron, the Archduchess Isabella in Brussels.

Then, as Ben van Beneden says, he was ‘one of the great collectors of his time, with a collection that could rival those of princes’ — of his own pictures and other people’s, and most of all of classical antiquities about which he corresponded with scholars in France and Italy. Rubens mixed with the most powerful individuals of his day — despite some aristocratic resentment — on something like an equal footing. He ended up with not only a mansion in Antwerp, stuffed with artistic riches, but also a country house.

Yet despite his immense achievements and success, Rubens’s personality remains a little elusive. A large number of his letters survive, mainly written in Italian, the lingua franca of the day, but there is little intimate or revealing in them. Most are concerned with politics and diplomacy: the public persona, not the private man. Another oddity of his career was the extent to which — quite apart from the output of his workshop — Rubens collaborated with other artists.

The RA exhibition will not contain workshop products, but it will include some collaborations, among them a remarkable one with Jan Brueghel the Elder, ‘Pan and Syrinx’ (c.1617). There are around 30 pictures jointly painted by Rubens and Brueghel, although they were on the face of it the most ill-assorted of colleagues. Breughel was a master of landscape and still life on an almost miniature scale; Rubens able to fill palaces and whole churches with his robustly physical figures.

However, in this little painting of a naked nymph and a libidinous, heavily muscled, goat-legged god, their talents fused to perfection. Breughel — the older artist — as Van Hout says ‘delicately intertwined the brushwork of Rubens with his own’. This was the kind of poetic, erotically charged work that hugely impressed French painters such as Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard. Rubens’s own style was a synthesis of European art — the Italian renaissance mingling with his native Flemish attention to texture and surface, skin and hair. But, as the exhibition aims to make clear, various European nations took to different aspects of his art.

The erotic Rubens was influential in France, where the violent turmoil of his hunting and battle pictures also deeply affected Delacroix. In Britain, Constable and Gainsborough were inspired by Rubens the master of richly rolling landscape. As far as portraiture was concerned, his younger associate Van Dyck had a greater impact. Van Hout puts it like this: Rubens, in the portraits of the noble women of Genoa, ‘invented the Italian diva’, while Van Dyck was responsible for creating, visually at least, the English gentleman.

The English have had — so far — a complex response to Rubens. As it happened, the artist’s view of England was equally mixed. On the one hand, he warmly recommended a visit to his French antiquarian friend, Pierre Dupuy, ‘a spectacle worthy of the interest of every gentleman’. He mentioned, among other attractions, ‘the beauty of the countryside and the charm of the nation’.

Wearing his diplomat’s hat, however, he found the policies of the government in London tiresomely changeable. ‘Rarely, in fact, do these people’ — that is, Charles and his advisers — ‘persist in a resolution, but change from hour to hour, and always from bad to worse.’ Of course, diplomatic emissaries from Brussels might still feel similar frustration, especially in the coming year.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

‘Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne’ is at the Royal Academy until 10 April. Martin Gayford will review the exhibition next week.

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  • Guest

    they were always fornicating in the shrubs back then

    • freddiethegreat

      Except that Pan and Syrinx didn’t fornicate. She was botanized before he could get to it.

      • Helen of Troy

        I love that. How does one get botanized (I think I qualify)? As long as it doesn’t involve lobotomy, I might prefer it to beatification. ; )

        • freddiethegreat

          You have to have a father with supernatural power. I disremember his name, but he turned her into a bunch of reeds. Pan forthwith cut some reeds and blew on then (serious! I’m not making this up!) to create the pan pipes.

          • Helen of Troy

            Well that’s me done for, then. My dad’s from the East End.

      • balance_and_reason

        Its a lovely story, so ‘not’ of this age

    • Joanna Frisskie

      You mean like they now do on Hampstead Heath and other famous Doggin Sites.Nothing changes then

  • bionde

    He would have had a huge choice of models from any chav estate today.

    • Grandad9

      You mean real women?

      • bionde

        No I mean waddling lard arses.

    • Rush_is_Right

      He would have to ignore the face studs and the tatoos though.

  • Robert Allen

    Someone
    photoshopped a number of classical paintings recently, reducing the Rubenesque forms
    to something equating today’s ideal form. For whatever reason it didn’t gel,
    the svelte forms couldn’t carry their surroundings.

  • Mitzi

    His paintings would have not been the same had he painted stick thin women who have no sex appeal and certainly as today the models who are thin look ill.

  • Grandad9

    Rubens painted women as they were and as they are now. It is by nature that women tend towards the rotund, due to survival of the speciese. It’s only Gay men and old women in the fashion industry, who both fancy young mens bodies, that have made us think skeletons are the norm. Most hetro men will come down on the side of Rubens, if not question your own sexuality.

    • Helen of Troy

      To the contrary, I find his people unfamiliar in a somewhat Michelangelo fashion. The women aren’t just fleshy, they’re knobbly and bobbly and out of proportion — his Three Graces are an abomination of incoherent flab and unintelligible body bulges — and they have small breasts, so unlikely on fatted-up women! Good g-d, did the man never lay eyes on a taut smooth-fleshed women with curves in the right places and feminine muscle?! Apparently not. Rubens, like Rembrandt, is one of those painters we are all expected to admire, but I do not.

      The landscape in the picture above is quite good, though (however idealized/sentimentalized). It’s really the figures I object to.

      • Grandad9

        Oh dear

        • Helen of Troy

          Specsavers, perhaps?

    • balance_and_reason

      Stop trying to impose your personal taste on others for goodness sake. Its quite alright for you to fancy a fat bird, why would you expect everyone else to have the same predilections?

    • FF42

      It is obvious that this couple have been going at it hammer and tongs. Getting your hair cut would be a small price to pay.

  • Helen of Troy

    Why is the female figure so thickset below the boobs? And what on earth is going on with the lumps and bumps on her arms — and her legs, for that matter? If she is an Ideal Woman, why does she have that hard unattractive fat deposit at the hip and then a weird inward dip before her thigh? Obviously stuffs herself with carbs and sweets and never exercised a day in her somewhat advanced life. Yet she has the pubescent boobs of a 13-year-old.

    And this painter was a master of the human form? Give me a break.

    The male figure, meanwhile, looks as though he were pieced together with lumps of clay, baked a bit in a tandoor, and coated in barbecue sauce. I know he is not a ‘real man’, but come on — he’s hardly less real than Rubens’s women, is he? The ‘rug’ he’s wearing round his front bottom is realistic enough, but it’s hardly glam. ‘What a piece of work is man’, wrote Shakespeare. I think he had in mind, perhaps, something a bit more inspiring. In any case, Rubens seems to have lived among a lot of very ugly people. Either that or there was something very wrong with his eyes.

    P. S. His faces are entirely uncompelling, as well. I tend to linger over his pictures only because I’m so appalled by them!

  • babysarah

    It’s very interesting to read that the exhibition was co curated, I thought so, it was confused and it’s message was so unclear. That kind of compromised mish mash can only really happen when there is more than one voice. There was so much about his influence that it was hard to get a real handle on the master himself and the number of masterworks was disappointing. It was confusing, you thought you were going to see Rubens and then bang why were you looking at a pair of quite average Reynolds, I wanted to learn about Rubens. I did find the link the with Delacroix very interesting. The Bit which Jenny Saville had curated was good but the level of works was not the best, the links were good but you couldn’t help wondering if some of those works were up for sale by stealth, it was like walking into the evening sale in an auction house.

  • FF42

    I can’t help feeling you are fixating on a slightly trivial issue. With the possible “exception of Giotto, Rubens was perhaps the most influential painter there has ever been. Western art went through a shift in the centre of gravity from Italy to Northern Europe at the turn of the 17th century. Rubens was the pivot of that shift. Dutch landscapes and French history paintings all trace their heritage back to Rubens.

    Rubens was a great painter as well as an influential one. Personally I find his large history paintings hard to digest, but for something different take a look at this painting of his daughter. It has so much love in it.

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