An immensely rich show – though it consists of only two paintings: Rubens at the Wallace Collection reviewed

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

Rubens: Reuniting the Great Landscapes

The Wallace Collection, until 15 August

‘When pictures painted as companions are separated,’ John Constable wisely observed, ‘the purchaser of one, without being aware of it, is sometimes buying only half a picture.’ When he said those words at a lecture in Hampstead delivered on 9 June 1833, he had two great paintings by Rubens in mind: ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning’ and ‘The Rainbow Landscape’.

At that date they had already been split up, the first going to the National Gallery, the second eventually to be bought by the Marquis of Hertford. Because of the will of Lady Wallace, the eventual heir of the Marquis, or rather the way it was interpreted, the two have not been reunited since — until, that is, the current, marvellous display at the Wallace Collection.

Admittedly, since it consists of only two paintings, calling this an exhibition might seem to be stretching the definition a bit. But it is immensely rich, each picture overflowing with incident and life, both human and animal. There is higher ground and low, woodland, hedges, waterways, fields, distant towns and villages. The inhabitants include a hunter with his dog, haymakers, carters, horses and cattle plus a variety of birds and waterfowl.

You could look at either painting for hours, but the juxtaposition at the Wallace, the first in public for more than 200 years, makes it undeniable that these two pictures add up to one work. They were intended to be seen together. And the first to own and admire them was Peter Paul Rubens himself.

In 1635, at the age of 58, Rubens (1577-1640) bought a place in the country, a small rustic mansion with a castellated tower known as ‘Het Steen’ or ‘The Stone’ in the countryside south of Mechelen. Plainly, he intended to enjoy the results of what had been an astonishingly industrious life. A few years before, he had complained he was expending his declining strength, ‘and no time remains to enjoy the fruits of so many labours’.

He married a much younger second wife — his first having died (probably from plague) — with whom he had five children. In the Italian manner he called Het Steen ‘la mia villa’ and took to spending the summer months of the year there. In the National Gallery picture, the house can be seen on the left-hand side.

By and by, in the manner of later artists, including Monet at Giverny and Van Gogh at Arles, he began to paint his surroundings. And probably, like Van Gogh in his Yellow House, he proceeded to hang his pictures of the scenery around his dwelling on the walls of Het Steen itself. Admittedly, it is possible he kept his two great landscapes at his town house in Antwerp, but it seems more likely that they were in an upper room at Het Steen, perhaps on opposite walls, so you could look from one to the other and see the passage of time over essentially the same terrain (the viewpoints and horizon lines match, although the scenes are not quite continuous). Outside the window, Rubens could have observed his domain and sanctum.

Over the horizon, there was warfare and turmoil; Europe was torn by religious and political divisions. But Rubens depicted his favourite themes: fertility, peace and abundance. Those are the underlying subjects of all his later landscapes, but especially so of these twin masterpieces.

They belong to the genre German art historians call Weltlandschaften (or ‘world landscapes’) because they include such extensive vistas, extending far into the distance almost like a map. The effect in ‘A View of Het Steen’ and also ‘The Rainbow Landscape’ is grand, but also cosy. Rubens seems to be saying ‘Welcome to my world!’ — simultaneously revelling in it himself.

Technical analysis has discovered that the two pictures evolved together by a process of accretion. Both began with a relatively restricted view in the centre of each composition. Rubens then had oak panels added on all sides, in two stages, as his ideas expanded. Thus these are not so much documentary records of a corner of rural Flanders, as meditations on it.

Pictures have their fates, and those in turn have consequences. If these two paintings had not been in Britain, Constable would not have seen them, and British painting might well have been different. It is clear that Constable’s large compositions (the ‘six-footers’) were inspired by Rubens in general and these two pictures in particular. His praise of Rubens’s paintings of rainbows, with the accompanying effects of ‘dewy light and freshness, the departing shower, with the exhilaration of the returning sun’, is a pretty perfect description of the Wallace Collection painting.

If Constable hadn’t known ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning’, we probably wouldn’t have had ‘The Hay Wain’. Conversely, if the two Rubens landscapes had stayed together, we’d probably be more aware that multiple pictures in separate frames can nonetheless add up to one work of art.

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