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Title: Rubens - Masterpieces in Colour Series
Author: Bensusan, S. L. (Samuel Levy), 1872-1958
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Rubens - Masterpieces in Colour Series" ***

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      ARTIST.                 AUTHOR.

    VELAZQUEZ.              S. L. BENSUSAN.
    REYNOLDS.               S. L. BENSUSAN.
    TURNER.                 C. LEWIS HIND.
    ROMNEY.                 C. LEWIS HIND.
    GREUZE.                 ALYS EYRE MACKLIN.
    BOTTICELLI.             HENRY B. BINNS.
    ROSSETTI.               LUCIEN PISSARRO.
    BELLINI.                GEORGE HAY.
    REMBRANDT.              JOSEF ISRAELS.
    LEIGHTON.               A. LYS BALDRY.
    RAPHAEL.                PAUL G. KONODY.
    TITIAN.                 S. L. BENSUSAN.
    MILLAIS.                A. LYS BALDRY.
    CARLO DOLCI.            GEORGE HAY.
    TINTORETTO.             S. L. BENSUSAN.
    LUINI.                  JAMES MASON.
    VAN DYCK.               PERCY M. TURNER.
    RUBENS.                 S. L. BENSUSAN.
    WHISTLER.               T. MARTIN WOOD.

  _In Preparation_

    BURNE-JONES.            A. LYS BALDRY.
    HOLBEIN.                S. L. BENSUSAN.
    J. F. MILLET.           PERCY M. TURNER.
    MEMLINC.                W. H. JAMES WEALE.
    CONSTABLE.              C. LEWIS HIND.
    RAEBURN.                JAMES L. CAW.
    CHARDIN.                PAUL G. KONODY.
    BOUCHER.                C. HALDANE MACFALL.
    WATTEAU.                C. LEWIS HIND.
    MURILLO.                S. L. BENSUSAN.


Frontispiece (In the Louvre)

The Princess is seen to great advantage in this fine portrait. The fair
complexion of the sitter is remarkably preserved, the white ruff, the
jewels, and the gold brocade are very cleverly handled. Another portrait
of Princess Elizabeth, painted in Madrid, may now be seen in St.








    I. Introduction               11

   II. The Painter's Life         21

  III. Second Period              35

   IV. The Later Years            45

    V. The Painter's Art          55


     I. Elizabeth of France, Daughter of Henry IV.        Frontispiece
          In the Louvre
    II. Christ à la Paille                                          14
          At Antwerp Museum

   III. The Four Philosophers                                       24
          In the Pitti Palace, Florence

    IV. Isabella Brandt                                             34
          In the Wallace Collection

     V. Le Chapeau de Paille                                        40
          In the National Gallery

    VI. The Descent from the Cross                                  50
          In the Cathedral, Antwerp

   VII. Henry IV. leaving for a Campaign                            60
          In the Louvre

  VIII. The Virgin and the Holy Innocents                           70
          In the Louvre




The name of Peter Paul Rubens is written so large in the history of
European art, that all the efforts of detractors have failed to stem the
tide of appreciation that flows towards it. Rubens was a great master
in nearly every pictorial sense of the term; and if at times the
coarseness and lack of restraint of his era were reflected upon his
canvas, we must blame the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rather
than the man who worked through some of their most interesting years,
and at worst was no more than a realist. There may have been seasons
when he elected to attempt more than any man could hope to achieve.
There were times when he set himself to work deliberately to express
certain scenes, romantic or mythological, in a fashion that must have
startled his contemporaries and gives offence to-day; but to do justice
to the painter, we must consider his work as a whole, we must set the
best against the worst.

[Illustration: PLATE II.--CHRIST À LA PAILLE (At Antwerp Museum)

Whatever the Biblical story Rubens chose, he handled it not only with
skill, but with a certain sense of conviction that is the more
remarkable in one who owed no allegiance to the Church. There is fine
feeling and deep reverence in the "Christ à la Paille," in addition to
the dramatic feeling that accompanied all his religious pictures. The
colouring, though very bold, is most effective; in the hands of a less
skilled painter such a display of primary colouring might well have
seemed violent or even vulgar.]

Consider the vast range of achievements that embraced landscape,
portraiture, and decorative work, giving to every subject such quality
of workmanship and skill in composition, as none save a very few of the
world's great masters have been able to convey to canvas. And let it be
remembered, too, that Rubens was not only a painter, he was a statesman
and a diplomat; and amid cares and anxieties that might well have filled
the life of any smaller man, he found time to paint countless pictures
in every style, and to move steadily forward along the road to mastery,
so that his second period is better than the first, in which he was, if
the expression may be used with propriety, finding himself. The third
period, which saw the painting of the great works that hang in Antwerp's
Cathedral and Museum to-day, and is represented in our own National
Gallery and Wallace Collection, was the best of all. Passing from his
labours as he did at a comparatively early age, for Rubens was but
sixty-three when he died, he did not suffer the slow decline of powers
that has so often accompanied men who reached their greatest
achievements in ripe middle age and shrink to mere shadows of a name. He
did not reach his supreme mastery of colour until he had lived for half
a century or more, and the pictures that have the greatest blots upon
them from the point of view of the twentieth century, were painted
before he reached the summit of his powers. It is perhaps unfortunate
that Rubens painted far too many works to admit of a truly
representative collection in any city or gallery. The best are widely
scattered; some are in the Prado in Madrid, others are in Belgium, some
are in Florence. Holland has a goodly collection, while Antwerp boasts
among many masterpieces "The Passing of Christ," "The Adoration of the
Magi," "The Prodigal Son," and "The Christ à la Paille." Munich,
Brussels, Dresden, Vienna, and other cities have famous examples of both
ripe and early art that must be seen before the master can be judged
fairly and without prejudice. It is impossible to found an opinion not
likely to be shaken, upon the work to be seen in London or in Paris,
where the Louvre holds many of the painter's least attractive works. It
may be said that Peter Paul Rubens is represented in every gallery of
importance throughout Europe, that the number of his acknowledged works
runs into four figures, and that there are very few without some
definite and attractive aspect of treatment and composition that goes
far to atone for the occasional shortcomings of taste. For his
generation Rubens sufficed amply. He was a man of so many gifts that he
would have made his mark had he never set brush to a canvas, although
time has blotted out the recollection of his diplomatic achievements or
relegated them to obscure chronicles and manuscripts that are seldom
disturbed save by scholars. To nine out of ten he is known only as a
painter, and his fame rests upon the work that chances to have given his
critics their first view and most lasting impression of his varied
achievements. It may be said that among those who care least for Rubens,
and are quite satisfied to condemn him for the coarseness with which he
treated certain subjects, there are many who are prompt to declare that
in matters of art the treatment is of the first importance and the
subject is but secondary. However, Rubens is hardly in need of an
apologist. His best work makes him famous in any company, and there is
so much of it that the rest may be disregarded. Moreover, we must not
forget that the types he portrayed from time to time with such amazing
frankness really existed all round him. He took them as he found them,
just as the earlier painters of the Renaissance took their Madonnas from
the peasant girls they found working in the fields, or travelling to the
cities on saint days and at times of high festival. Many a Renaissance
Madonna enshrined on canvas for the adoration of the devout could remove
the least suspicion of sanctity from herself, if she did but raise her
downcast eyes or smile, as doubtless she smiled in the studio wherein
she was immortalised. For the artist sees a vision beyond the sitter,
and under his brush the sanctification or profanation of a type are
matters of simple and rapid accomplishment. If another Rubens were to
arise to-day, he could find sitters in plenty who would respond to the
treatment that his prototype has made familiar. Perhaps to the men and
women with whom he was thrown in contact, these creations were
interesting inasmuch as they afforded a glimpse into an under-world of
which they knew little or nothing. The offence of certain pictures is
increased by the fact that, when Rubens painted them, he had not
attained to the supreme mastership over colour, and inspiration of
composition, that came to him in later life. But in a brief review of
the artist's life and work enough has been told of the aspects upon
which his detractors love to dilate. It is time to turn to his brilliant
and varied career, and note the incidents that have the greatest
interest or the deepest influence upon his art work.



Peter Paul Rubens was born in A.D. 1577, at Siegen in Germany, where his
father, Dr. John Rubens, a man of great attainments, was living in
disgrace arising out of an old intrigue with the dissolute wife of
William the Silent. But for the necessity of shielding the reputation of
the House of Orange, there seems no doubt that John Rubens would have
paid the death penalty for his offence. It is curious to reflect that,
had he done so, Peter Paul would have been lost to the world, for the
intrigue would seem to have occurred in the neighbourhood of the year
1570, while Peter Paul was not born until seven years later. When the
child was one year old the Rubens family was allowed to return to
Cologne, where John Rubens had gone on leaving Antwerp in 1568. Here
Peter Paul and his elder brother, Philip, were brought up, in utter
ignorance of the misfortunes that had befallen their father, whose death
was recorded when his famous son was nine or ten years old. After his
decease the boys' mother decided to return to Antwerp, where her husband
in his early days had enjoyed a considerable reputation as a lawyer, and
held civic appointments. Although much of the family money must have
been lost, perhaps on account of the fall in values resulting from the
terrible war with Spain, there would seem to have been enough to enable
the widow and her two sons to live in comfort, if not in luxury.
Peter Paul was sent to a good school, where he made progress and became
very popular, probably because he was strikingly handsome, considerably
gifted, and very quick to learn.

[Illustration: PLATE III.--THE FOUR PHILOSOPHERS (In the Pitti Palace,

This picture was probably painted in Italy. The man sitting behind the
table with an open book before him is Justus Lipsius the philosopher. To
his left is one of his pupils, and on the right we see Philip Rubens,
pen in hand, and Peter Paul himself standing up against a red curtain.]

At the age of thirteen school-days came to an end, and the boy became a
page in the service of the widowed Countess of Lalaing, whose husband
had been one of the governors of Antwerp. Here, at a very impressionable
age, Rubens obtained first his acquaintance with and finally his mastery
over all the intricacies of courtly etiquette. In quite a short time he
became a polished gentleman, in the sixteenth-century acceptation of
that term. But the instinct to study art already developed made the
duties of a page seem tiresome and unattractive, and we learn that the
boy importuned his mother to be allowed to study painting. Apparently
he had shown sufficient promise to justify the request, and he was
placed, first under an unknown painter named Verhaecht and then under
Adam van Noort, with whom he remained four years before passing to the
studio of Otto van Veen, a scholar, a gentleman, and a painter of
quality. The life here would seem to have developed in Rubens many of
the qualities that were destined to bring him fame and great rewards. By
the time he was twenty, the Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp received him as
a member, and a year later he received an appointment from the city to
assist his master in some civic decorations. So the glittering years of
his first youth passed, happily, prosperously, and uneventfully, and
when he was no more than twenty-three Peter Paul Rubens turned his steps
towards Italy, then, as Paris is now, the Mecca of the pilgrim of the

If we wish to find some explanation for the splendid colouring that
makes the masterpieces of Rubens the delight of every unprejudiced eye,
we may surely be content to remember that he saw Venice with the
enthusiastic eye of twenty-three in the year 1600. Even to-day when
Venice, vulgarised to the fullest extent that modern ingenuity can
accomplish, has become no more than a remnant most forlorn of what it
was, it is one of the world's wonder cities. When the seventeenth
century was opening its eventful pages, the memory of wonderful
achievements was upon the great city of the Adriatic, it was still a
power to be reckoned with. The season of pageants had not passed, and
the luck that seemed destined to accompany Rubens throughout his career
was in close attendance upon him here. The Duke of Mantua. Vincenzo
Gonzaga, saw some of his work, and was so struck by its quality that he
sent for the young painter. The man seemed worthy of his creations, and
the Duke promptly offered him a position in his suite, an offer too good
to be declined. Thereafter the sojourn in Venice was a short one.
Mantua, Florence, and Genoa were visited in turn, and in Mantua, after
some months travelling to and fro, the Court settled down, and Rubens
was enabled to study the splendid collection of works that the city's
rulers had collected. In the late summer of the following year Rubens
would seem to have visited Rome, where he faced the terrible heat
without any ill effect and devoted himself with untiring energy to a
study of the work that is to be seen there and nowhere else. It would
appear that he was well received by the leading artists of the day, that
he made a friend of Caravaggio, and he was soon commissioned to paint an
altar-piece for the Church of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem. The work,
done in three parts, is now we believe in the possession of the French
Government, and is to be seen in Grasse or one of the neighbouring towns
of the Mediterranean littoral. When Rubens' leave of absence expired--it
must not be forgotten that he was in the service of Mantua's ruler, and
was not his own master--he returned to the north, where the Duke would
seem to have employed him for a time as an art expert. We may imagine
that politics and art were closely connected, and that Rubens soon knew
responsibility in connection with both. The work must have been very
well done in each case, for rather more than a year later, when it
became necessary in the interests of Mantua's political position to send
a message to the King of Spain, Rubens was the chosen envoy.

Nowadays the journey from Mantua to Madrid may be accomplished without
extraordinary exertion in forty-eight hours, but three hundred years ago
such a journey must have savoured of adventure, more particularly as the
painter-diplomat was in charge of the splendid presents sent to Philip
by the Duke. Nearly a year passed before Rubens returned to Mantua. His
mission executed, he was rewarded with the grant of a regular income,
and after executing some more work at home to the complete satisfaction
of his patron, he returned to Rome, this time in the company of his

They lived near the Piazza di Spagna, where the Roman models and
flower-sellers congregate to this day, and tourists are as the sand upon
the sea-shore for multitude. Philip Rubens, smitten by the weakness to
which so many men have succumbed before and since, celebrated his
journey by writing a book. It was printed by the famous Plantin Press,
with one of whose directors Peter Paul had been at school, and was
illustrated by the artist. We may suppose that the work Rubens had done
in Rome on the occasion of his earlier visit had satisfied its
purchasers, for he received another commission for the Chiesa Nuova, but
was recalled before it was completed, and taken to Genoa by the Duke of
Mantua. However, he soon returned to Rome, where he remained until the
close of 1608 and then left for Antwerp, where his mother, who had been
living in that city for some years, was dangerously ill. Rubens does
not seem to have known how ill she was, for he arrived in Antwerp too
late to see her. She was a woman cast in heroic mould, most generous of
wives, most devoted of mothers.

[Illustration: PLATE IV.--ISABELLA BRANDT (In the Wallace Collection)

Naturally enough Rubens painted many portraits of his first wife. There
is the delightful work in the Pinacotek at Munich where the painter sits
by her side, there are others in the Uffizi at Florence, and the great
Hermitage Gallery at St. Petersburg.]

Perhaps the shock of her death awoke Rubens to the disadvantages
attaching to the paid service of any man, perhaps he was beginning to
realise his own quality and to know that he could stand alone. Perhaps
he saw, too, that Italy had taught him as much as his years would allow
him to assimilate, enough to make a man of mark in Antwerp. We have no
certain information on these points, we can do no more than make
surmises, but we do know that Rubens wrote to the Duke of Mantua,
thanking him for all the favours and marks of confidence that he had
received, and acquainting him with his decision to resign from his
service. With the return to Antwerp the era that opened with the
visit to Venice eight years before comes to a close, and we enter upon
the most strenuous period of the artist's life.



Rubens carried an assured reputation with him to Antwerp. The story of
his success had doubtless been spread through the town by people who
were in touch with the Italian courts, and it is hardly likely that his
elder brother Philip, now secretary to the Antwerp Town Council, and a
man wielding considerable influence, had forgotten to tell the story of
his brother's progress. Antwerp was in the early enjoyment of a period
of peace following disastrous war, and it was quite in keeping with the
spirit of the times that the leading citizens, who had taken a prominent
part in the world of strife, should now turn their thoughts to the world
of art and should endeavour to take their part in the friendly
competition that all prosperous cities waged against one another in
their pursuit of beauty; and this competition led to the enriching of
churches and council-chambers with the finest ripe fruits of
contemporary art. Antwerp had established a circle for the exclusive
benefit of those who had travelled in Italy, because it was recognised
on all sides that the best mental and artistic development was
associated with Italian travel. Rubens was admitted at once to the
charmed circle on the initiative of his friend Jean Breughel, the animal
painter, with whom Rubens collaborated in a picture that may be seen
to-day at the Hague, and is called "The Earthly Paradise," a quaint
medley of two styles that cannot be persuaded to harmonise.

Peter Paul lived with his beloved brother Philip, to whose influence we
are probably justified in tracing the first two commissions that were
given to the young painter. One was to take part in the work of
re-decorating the Town Hall, the other was to prepare an altar-piece for
the Church of St. Walpurga. For the Town Hall Rubens painted the first
of his long series of "Adorations," and though it is emphatically one of
the works of his first period, and is far from expressing the varied
qualities that have given him enduring fame, it created sufficient
sensation in Antwerp to bring him the position of Court painter, with a
definite salary and a special permission to remain in the city of his
choice. Had he been a lesser man he would have been called away to
attend the Court in Brussels.

Undoubtedly Rubens was a patriot, a man to whom the fallen fortunes of
his city appealed very strongly. We must never forget that the endless
wars stirred up by Spanish ambition had roused the best instincts of
patriotism the world over, and though Rubens was not a warrior, he was a
statesman and a patriot, who knew that his hands and brain could serve
his city in their own effective fashion, one in no way inferior in its
results to that of the fighting men. Perhaps we may trace to all the
mental disturbance of this era the artist's first great transition, for
the Rubens who painted in Antwerp after his return from Italy and gave
the "Descent from the Cross" to his city, is quite a different man
from the one who painted the earlier pictures. He has matured and
developed, has completed the period of assimilation through which all
creative artists must pass, has gathered from the talents, from the
genius of the men he has studied, the material for founding a style of
his own. He begins to speak with his own voice.

[Illustration: PLATE V.--LE CHAPEAU DE PAILLE (In the National Gallery)

This is a portrait of Suzanne Fourment, a sister of the painter's second
wife, painted when the sitter was about twenty-one years old. The
serenity of the girl's mind is admirably expressed in this sparkling
work, and is one of Rubens' successful essays in portraiture. Another
study of Suzanne Fourment may be seen in Vienna.]

It is well that Rubens' industry was on a par with his talents, for
commissions poured in upon him in the first years of his return from
Italy. They came not singly but in battalions, and very soon we find
Peter Paul Rubens following the fashion of his time and establishing a
studio school. Naturally enough there were plenty of young men who
wished to become his pupils, and plenty of old ones who had just missed
distinction and were anxious for any work that was remunerative. Rubens
realised that if he could but turn their gifts to the best advantage
they would at least be as valuable to him as he could be to them.
Consequently he responded to the suggestions that were made to him on
every side, and gathered the cleverest unattached men of his city to the
studio, giving each one his work to do. Let us place to his credit the
fact that there was no disguise about this procedure, it was open and
unabashed. Rubens would even send pupils to start a work that had been
commissioned, and would not appear on the scene until the first outline
of the picture was on the canvas. Then he would come along and with a
few unerring strokes correct or supplement the composition, to which his
pupils could pay their further attentions. Rubens received high prices
for his work, but would give his name to a picture in return for a
comparatively low fee, if the purchaser would but be content to have his
design and leave the painting to pupils. It may be said that Rubens was
always fortunate in his selection of assistants, just as he was
fortunate in other affairs of life. The great Vandyck was among those
who worked in his studio, Snyders the celebrated animal painter was
another; it is said that Rubens never touched his work.

Like the Florentine painters of the Renaissance, Rubens was by no means
satisfied to devote himself entirely to paint. He had been greatly
impressed during his sojourn in Italy by the extraordinary beauty of the
palaces of Genoa--a beauty, be it added, that charms us no less to-day
when time has added its priceless gifts to the architects' design.
Rubens published a book on the Genoese palaces, with something between
fifty and one hundred drawings of his own, most carefully made. He found
time to make illustrations for the famous Plantin Press, to which we
have referred already. He superintended the work of engraving his own
pictures, and in short showed himself a man competent to grasp more than
the common burden of interests, and to deal with them all with a rare
intelligence coupled with sound business instinct. Although the
painter's education had not been great, he had acquired scholarship at a
time when classical education was considered of the very highest value,
and no man who lacked it could claim to be regarded as a gentleman. He
maintained correspondence with friends in the great cities of Europe,
and as he had great personal attractions and a perfect charm of manner
with which to support his industry and achievements, there is small need
to wonder at his progress. Success would indeed have been a fickle jade
had she refused to surrender to such wooing.



When the painter had passed his fortieth year he received a commission
from the Dowager Queen Maria de Medici to paint certain panels for her
palace in Paris, and in order to see them properly placed and to get a
comprehensive idea of the scheme of decoration, he betook himself with
the first part of his finished work to the French capital. There is no
doubt that Rubens was already regarded in the governing circles of
Antwerp as something more than a painter. His relations with the ruling
house had brought him into touch with diplomatic developments--he had
handled one or two with extreme tact, delicacy, and success. The Infanta
Isabel relied upon him in seasons of emergency, and although the
political value of his first visit to Paris in 1623 cannot be gauged, it
is fairly safe to assume that his second visit to the capital two years
later was far more concerned with politics than paint. To put before the
reader a brief story of the complications of the political situation
between France, Spain, and the Low Countries would make impossible
demands upon strictly limited space, but those who wish to understand
something of the politics of his time may be referred to the works of
Emile Michel and Max Rooses on Peter Paul Rubens and his time. They will
find there far more historical and biographical matter than can be
referred to in this place. Suffice it to say that from 1625 Rubens must
be regarded as a diplomatist quite as much as a painter, but curiously
enough the development of the political side of his life did nothing to
destroy the quality of his painting. In fact he seems to have travelled
along the road of diplomacy to his best and latest manner, to have seen
life more clearly, and the problems of his art more intelligently than
before, to have brought to his work something of the quality that we
call genius. The one gift that the gods denied him was poetic fancy, a
quality that would have kept him from the portrayal of types and
incidents that we are apt to regard, with or without justification, as
ugly, that would have made his classicism pleasing to eyes that read it
at its true value. But Rubens was one of the men who have to fight, not
against failure but against success; and the shrewd practical nature
that made him what he was served as an effective barrier against
acquisition of the qualities that would have lifted him to the region
that always remained just beyond his reach.

1628 was a very interesting year in the painter's life, for he was sent
on a mission to the Court of Spain, where he met Velazquez, who was
instructed to show him all the art treasures of the capital. What would
we not give to-day for an authentic account of the conversations that
these men must have held together? Rubens was at the zenith of his fame,
if not of his achievement, Velazquez was unknown save in Seville and
Madrid, and was fighting against every class of disadvantage on the road
to belated recognition. Let those who sneer at Rubens and can find no
good about him, remember that he it was who turned Velazquez'
attention to Italy. Rubens found time to paint portraits of several
members of the royal family, and these works are fine likenesses enough,
though they do not pretend to rival Velazquez' achievements in the same
field. The diplomatic business was conducted with so much skill that
Philip entrusted his visitor with a mission to Paris and London. In the
last-named city Rubens was received by Charles I., who conferred a
knighthood upon him, and approved of his commission to decorate the
banqueting-chamber at Whitehall.

[Illustration: PLATE VI.--THE DESCENT FROM THE CROSS (In the Cathedral,

Here we have Rubens in his most realistic mood and in all his strength.
Not only is the composition of a very complicated picture quite masterly
and the colour scheme most happily distributed, but the contrast in the
expression on the faces round the dead Christ is expressed in most
dramatic fashion. The eye and the mind see the tragic drama at the same
moment; although the subject had been treated hundreds of times already,
the painter found it possible to give the theme a fresh and enduring

Back again in Antwerp, Rubens found his talents sorely tried by the
diplomatic developments in which the restless ambition of Maria de
Medici involved all the countries subject directly or indirectly to her
influence. He found himself compelled to go twice to Holland in the
early thirties, but the death of the Infanta Isabel in 1633 removed him
awhile from the heated arena of politics. Rubens prepared Antwerp for
the visit of the Archduke Ferdinand, the Spanish governor, the city
being decorated for this occasion at a cost of 80,000 florins. The work
was so successful that the Archduke paid a special visit of
congratulation to the artist, who was laid up in his room by an attack
of gout. Two or three years later, some warnings that his strength would
not hold out much longer availed to turn Rubens from the life of Courts
and capitals, and he purchased for himself the Château de Stein, a very
beautiful estate that is preserved for us by the delightful picture in
the National Gallery. There he settled down for awhile to fulfil certain
commissions for the King of Spain, and doubtless had he been permitted
to remain in retirement his health would have been the better and his
life the longer. But Antwerp could not dispense with the services of her
painter-diplomat, and many a time when he would have been in his studio
working at his ease, some urgent message from the city would drag him
away. In the winter of 1639 he passed some months in Antwerp, working as
best he could in the intervals of severe attacks of gout. The King of
Spain's commission was still unfinished, and some feeling that he
himself would never be able to complete it led Rubens to engage a larger
number of assistants than usual, and to content himself with directing
their efforts and supplementing them as occasion arose. He seems to have
known that death was near, for he made his will and prepared to meet the
end. It came with May in 1640, when the painter was in the sixty-fourth
year of a brilliant and useful life.

Rubens was twice married, first to Isabel Brandt, who became his wife
when she was eighteen and he was thirty-two, shortly after his return to
Antwerp from the service of the Duke of Mantua. A portrait of the two
sons this wife bore him may be seen in Vienna. Isabel Brandt did not
live to see her boys, Albert and Nicholas, grow to manhood. She died in
1626, some say from the plague that swept Antwerp in that year. Four
years later the painter married the beautiful Helena Fourment, when he
was fifty-four and she was sixteen, and she survived him. He seems to
have been a good and affectionate husband and father. In fact, it is
hard to find among the biographers of Rubens anybody who speaks ill of
the artist as a man.



Turning from a survey of Rubens' life to a consideration of his art, the
three divisions to which his work groups itself naturally, are very
clearly seen. Up to the time of his marriage with Isabel Brandt his work
may be referred to the first division, and in art it may be said that no
man's earliest pictures are of much consequence save for their promise
of higher things. They do little more than mark his progress, record
impressions he has received from strong personalities, and mark his own
path through the influences of different schools and varied appeals, to
the complete expression of himself. Rubens was never a slavish imitator,
he never assumed the mantles of the men he admired, as so many great
painters have done. Goya, for example, was a man whose range of thought
and capacity for receiving impressions were so great that he has painted
after the manner of half-a-dozen masters, and there are pictures to be
seen in Madrid to-day that are painted with Goya's brush and recall
Fragonard. Such instances may be multiplied, and Rubens is to be admired
for the restraint that marked this side of his early work.

From the time of his marriage down to the season when he became
recognised on all sides as a diplomatist, let us say roughly from 1610
to 1626, we get the second period, and to this may be referred the
greater part of the work that has given offence--the presentation of the
coarsest types of men and women in a state of nature--the treatment of
some of the grossest incidents in mythological stories in fashion that
leaves nothing to the imagination.

We are justified in asking ourselves whether the extraordinary
development of the painter's social and political life did not avail to
arrest in late middle age any tendencies he might otherwise have had to
express still further the coarser side of classical subjects. By the
time he reached the forties, Rubens was the companion and even the
trusted counsellor of princes and rulers. Such refinement as Western
Europe boasted was to be met in the circles he frequented. The greatest
work of the greatest masters was within his reach, and he had travelled
to the point at which a man is able to select as well as to admire, at
which he can distinguish clearly between the points that make for a
picture's strength and those that detract from it.

Rubens on arriving in Italy in the days when he had first taken service
under the Duke of Mantua, was doubtless unduly impressed by Michel
Angelo and Raphael. On no other grounds can we account for the delight
that his earliest pictures manifest in the portrayal of massive and even
ugly limbs. Doubtless he was influenced too by Titian, though we cannot
agree that it was his admiration for the master that made him copy the
King's Titians in the Prado, for it is more probable that on this
occasion he simply obeyed instructions. Moreover, Rome appealed to him
more than Venice did. The wistful purity of a Bellini Madonna, the
exquisite loveliness of a Bellini child or cherub, left him unmoved, but
a Titian or a Tintoretto at its biggest, if not at its best, pleased
him, and when he came in Rome to the works of Raphael and Michel Angelo
he would seem to have looked no further for inspiration. Doubtless he
heard many interesting theories of art in Rome, where, as we have said,
Caravaggio, who wielded considerable influence in the art world, was
among his friends. But Rubens thought out things for himself, and
learned to quell his own instincts and to subdue his own faults as they
were revealed to him.

(In the Louvre)

Here the painter, leaving mythology and allegory for a time, is seen in
one of his most effective historical pictures. Henry IV., who is leaving
for the war in Germany, is seen conferring upon his Queen the charge of
the kingdom.]

Violence is perhaps the characteristic of Rubens' early work. He has the
grand manner without the grand method, his contrasts of light and shade
and even of colour amuse where they do not offend, and his drawing is by
no means remarkable or inspired. At best it is correct. We feel that we
cannot see the wood because of the trees, that the blending has not been
sufficiently skilful to bring about proportion and harmony, and that the
expression of a giant form with prize-fighter's muscles in the
foreground of a canvas is sufficient to fill the painter with a delight
that enables him happily to ignore the rest. It is the enthusiasm of
clever youth, the youth of a man in whose veins there is enough and to
spare of very healthy blood, in whose mental equipment refinement has
been overlooked.

The death of his mother, the distressful plight of his favourite city,
the responsibility of his commissions, his marriage and the fruits of
his Italian travel brought about the second period, and started the
traditions that give Antwerp a school and a name in the history of
European art. The violence passes slowly from the canvases, the
straining after effect that is so obvious and often so unpleasing in the
earlier pictures goes with it. The chiaroscuro is more subdued and
consequently more pleasing, only in the handling of colour the painter
is still clumsy and heavy. Rubens, the great colourist, seems to have
been born when the artist was more than forty years old.

Some of the best work of the second period is in Antwerp and Brussels,
but it is to be found scattered all over Europe, and there are examples
in private collections in this country. Perhaps the dominant impression
that these works leave is one of certain difficulties created to be
overcome. Just as the painter in his first manner revelled in his
strength, so in his second period he rejoices in his skill. It was left
to the later years to weld strength and skill into the service, on
pictures that could stand for both and emphasise neither. Mythology
continued to hold him, indeed we must never forget that Rubens lived in
the age of pseudo-classicism, and is to be counted among its victims. To
his second period belongs such work as the disgusting "Procession of
Silenus" now in Munich, a picture in which the grossness of the theme is
only rivalled by the vulgarity of the treatment. Some of Rubens'
apologists have held that this class of work was painted as a protest
against vice, but such apologies are far-fetched. Rubens needs no
apologist. Consider his work as a whole, and what is good dwarfs what is
bad. Doubtless, had he been able in the later days to re-possess and
destroy some of his more tainted pictures, he would have done so. It
will be remarked by all who know Rubens' work intimately, that
throughout his life he was happier with a Venus than a Madonna, more at
home with some great classical figure, than with the picture of Christ.
He did not respond to Christianity in the sense that the Venetians
responded to it, he could not for all his reputation have painted a
Madonna as Bellini did, and there is no reason to believe that he would
have cared to do so. Then again we may not forget that Rubens the
artist, and Rubens the courtier, and Rubens the special envoy, were
closely associated with Rubens the man of business, who would always
have painted for choice the work likely to find immediate acceptance.
There were times when some legend of Saint or Martyr moved him
strangely, and he turned to it with a measure of inspiration not often
excelled by the greatest of the Renaissance artists; but these occasions
were rare, although Antwerp preserves one of the most effective results
of such inspiration in the "Last Communion of St. Francis." It may be
remarked in this place that to see Rubens at his best, one must not go
to the National Gallery or to the Louvre or to the Prado--Antwerp and
Vienna hold some of the finest examples of his second and third manner.
And we must never forget that Art is concerned with treatment, and that
subject is of secondary interest to artists.

When he became recognised as a diplomatist whose services were required
by Europe's greatest potentates, Rubens had passed the meridian of life.
He had known prosperity from the very earliest days, he had no occasion
to paint pictures of the sort so admirably summed up by the offensive
word "pot-boiler." Kings and Queens and Emperors were offering him
commissions, he was, if we may say so, on his best behaviour. He rose
to the height of every great occasion. The commission that Maria de
Medici gave him for her palace seems to have brought him to his third
and latest manner, and from that year until death overtook him Rubens
was one of the great masters of European art. If we could eliminate all
the pictures of his first manner and a considerable portion of those
belonging to his middle period, his claims would hardly be denied by the
representatives and supporters of any school. He seems to have received
added inspiration from his child wife, and there are few more delightful
pictures than one to be seen in Munich in which Rubens and Helena
Fourment are walking from their garden to their château. Perhaps even in
the later days woman was nothing more than a thing of beauty for a
man's delight, and man was no more than a godlike animal, but a
well-defined measure of refinement was always beyond their painter's
mental or artistic conceptions. It is sufficient for us that the appeal
of nature came to him with great strength. The Château of Stein in our
National Gallery and the Rainbow Landscape in the Wallace Collection
gives sufficient evidence of this, while such a work as the Garden of
Venus in the Prado suggests the limitations that were with him
throughout his life. It is fair to say that in the later years they were
not expressed so prominently in his work.

(In the Louvre)

In this picture Rubens allows his brush to run away with him as though
for sheer joy in its capacity. Perhaps his study of the Virgin is a
little commonplace, a little too suggestive of the exuberance of
Flanders rather than the refinement and spirituality of Nazareth. But
the studies of the Holy Innocents are a delight, and make the canvas
supremely attractive. It will be seen that the grouping of the children
results in every possible difficulty that an artist may have to face,
but that Rubens has encountered them all with sure, hard, and steady
eye, in fashion worthy of Tintoretto himself.]

Finally we have to consider and acknowledge his triumphs as a colourist.
It may be said that Rubens, for all his gifts, required more than twenty
years of unremitting labour to obtain his mastery over colour, but
when once it was his he retained the gift to the last hour. In the early
days Rubens as a colourist was a person of no importance, the grossness
of his composition and the tameness of his drawing were not redeemed by
the handling of pigment. In the second period the use of paint is far
more skilled, but it does not blend, neither does it glow. In the later
years it acquires both gifts, and the exquisitely luminous quality of
some of his pictures, the marvellous delicacy of flesh tint, that must
have astonished and delighted his patrons, is preserved to us to-day. In
fact it may be said that Rubens has preserved his colour to a larger
extent than many great painters who came after him. He is far more
reliable in this aspect of his art than is our own Sir Joshua, whose
portraits have long ceased to tell the story they must have told to
delighted and flattered sitters. It was no effort of genius that made
Rubens a supreme colourist in the later years. He came to his kingdom by
dint of sheer hard work, but for his painstaking devotion to labours
such results could not have been achieved.

The spirit of the Renaissance travelled very slowly from Italy to the
Netherlands, and that its influence was felt in the sixteenth century
did not lead to any very marked divergence from the traditions that the
art of the Netherlands was following. Italian form and Italian sentiment
met with little response there, and there is no doubt that the eighty
years of conflict with Spain which led to the recognition of the
Republic, turned men's thoughts away from art. By the time it was
possible to revive a school, the Netherlands were looking to life
rather than to faith, and even the classicism of the period that turned
Rubens towards pictures illustrating mythological incidents could not
help him to create imaginary figures. This is as it should have been,
for it made eighteenth-century art what it was through the influence of
Rubens and Vandyck. He filled his canvas with the types he saw around
him, and while nobody will dispute the virtue of the Netherlands, there
will be few found to assert that it produced the Latin type of
womanhood. The people of the Netherlands do not belong to the Latin
races; that is why they did not respond earlier to the Renaissance, that
is why they look at what seems to be their worst rather than their best
in some of Rubens' most ambitious works. Yet by reason of his long
sojourn and hard study in Italy, Rubens did do something considerable
to bring Italian art and tradition into the Netherlands, and if he could
not establish it there, the cause of failure was that the genius of the
country was opposed to it. Among the painters who worked for Rubens or
were greatly influenced by him the best known are Anthony Vandyck, Frans
Snyders, Abraham Janssens, Jacob Jordaens, and Jan Van Den Hoecke. Then
again, of course, it must not be forgotten that he exercised a very
great influence upon David Teniers, and that he served the interests of
art development far more than he could have done by giving fresh life to
an art form that had served its time and purpose.

Rubens the landscape painter, the painter of religious and mythological
subjects, has rather obscured Rubens the portrait painter, and this is
not as it should be, for many will be inclined to agree that it is as a
portrait painter that Rubens was often at his best. Visitors to Florence
will not forget the portrait group entitled "The Philosophers," that may
be seen in the Pitti Palace. Our Wallace Collection has a delightful
portrait of Isabel Brandt, and the National Gallery holds the portrait
of Suzanne Fourment, "Le Chapeau de Paille," while Amsterdam and other
cities hold portraits of his second wife, the famous portrait of
Gervatius is to be seen in Antwerp, and there are several delightful
examples of his portraiture in Brussels. It was in these schools of art
that Rubens has succeeded in pleasing many who turn with feelings not
far removed from disgust from his unshrinking studies of the coarse
overblown or overgrown womanhood. He contrived either to confer a
measure of dignity upon his sitters or to conserve one. His portraits
of his two wives, and the portrait group in the Pitti Palace that
introduces his brother, are full of a deep feeling for which we may look
in vain to many of his larger canvases. Just as the pianist or violinist
will turn from playing some wonderful concerto bristling with
difficulties for the soloist and calculated to delight the ears of the
groundlings, and then taking up some simple piece by a great master will
infuse into it all the qualities that the showy concerto hid, so Rubens
turned from the wars and loves of gods and goddesses, from Bacchic
carnivals and groups in which nudity is insisted upon sometimes at the
expense of relevance, and would paint portraits that will be a delight
as long as they remain with us. Rubens painting the portrait of wife or
brother or friend, and Rubens covering vast canvases with glittering
and sometimes meretricious work are two different men. We may admire the
latter, but we come near to intimate appreciation of the former. In the
portraits the man is revealed, in the big pictures we see no more than
artist, and some of us fail to realise how clever he is, how many
problems of composition and tone and light and shade he has grappled
with and overcome in manner well-nigh heroic.

The secret of his changing moods is of course beyond us, but perhaps one
may hazard an explanation for the difference in the quality of the work
done. As far as we can see from a study of the painter's work and life,
he approached mythology and Christianity from a purely pictorial
standpoint, and did not believe in one or the other. "The Procession to
Calvary," "The Crucifixion," "The Descent from the Cross," "The Flight
into Egypt," "The Adoration of the Magi," "The Draught of Fishes," "The
Raising of the Cross," "The Assumption of the Virgin," "The Last
Supper," "The Circumcision," "The Flagellation," and the rest, were no
more and no less to him as subjects than "The Drunken Hercules" or "The
Battle of the Amazons," "The Garden of Venus" or "The Judgment of
Paris." They were popular subjects for effective treatment, pictures
that would make a sure appeal to those who loved either the sacred or
the profane in art, pictures to be executed with all possible skill at
the greatest possible speed, and with a measure of assistance regulated
by the price that was to be paid for them. But the portraits of his
friends, of the brother he loved, and of the wives to whom he was a
devoted husband, stood on quite a different plane. He felt the human
interest attaching to them, and this human interest brought to his
canvas certain qualities that belong to the heart rather than the head,
and have given them a claim that is not disputed even by the painter's
most severe critics.

The plates are printed by BEMROSE & SONS, LTD., Derby and London

The text at the BALLANTYNE PRESS, Edinburgh

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