A new exhibition of paintings by Rubens needs to be illuminated with some history, writes John Molyneux
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a great painter. Anyone who enjoys painting or is interested in the history of art will gain pleasure, and perhaps inspiration, from the exhibition of his work, Rubens: A Master in the Making, now showing at the National Gallery in London.
Nevertheless, this exhibition is a good example of how the art establishment and its traditional approach to art acts as a barrier to the understanding and real appreciation of that art.
The exhibition focuses on the artistic influences that shaped Rubens’ style. This is the “art connoisseur” approach, which isolates art history from the rest of human history. It contains valuable information but the problem is what it leaves out.
In this show it means the absence of Rubens’ best work, which dates from later in his life, and of any attempt to locate his art in its social and political context. Where Rubens is concerned this is particularly damaging.
To understand his art it is necessary both to be aware of the basic facts of European history at the time and to have some understanding of the real social meaning of those facts.
Rubens’ life coincided with a momentous struggle waged right across Europe. In traditional history, and especially in art history, this is treated as simply a religious struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, Reformation and Counter Reformation.
In essence, however, it was a struggle between the rising middle class or bourgeoisie and the old aristocracy — a battle between capitalism and feudalism, fought out under the banner of religion. It was a struggle that in the long run was to determine the destiny of Europe and the world.
One of the front lines of this conflict was in the Netherlands where Rubens spent most of his life.
The Netherlands were initially not a nation but merely provinces of the vehemently Catholic and feudal Habsburg empire, based in Spain, and at that time the dominant military power in Europe.
The Netherlands, however, were a centre of early capitalist economic development and of Calvinism, the most militant and revolutionary wing of Protestantism.
In 1566 the Netherlands rose in revolt against Habsburg rule, and the Spanish king, Philip II, responded by sending an army to crush this revolution.
In the southern Netherlands this counter revolutionary repression was successful, and this area (later to become Belgium) remained under Spanish rule.
But in the north the revolution held out. This area was to emerge as the Dutch Republic, the world’s first capitalist state.
Rubens’ father was a lawyer in Antwerp and a strong Calvinist. In 1568, to escape repression, he fled to Westphalia in Germany, where Rubens was born.
In 1587 Rubens’ father died. In 1589 he and his mother returned to Antwerp, where Rubens converted to Catholicism. In the circumstances that meant joining the counter revolution.
This had a massive impact on Rubens’ art, for it was a time when the Catholic church was consciously mobilising art as a cultural weapon of the Counter Reformation. It meant that Rubens went to Italy as a court painter to the Duke of Mantua and studied the art of ancient Rome and of the Renaissance masters (and of the rebel, Carravaggio).
It meant that he received innumerable commissions to paint vast canvasses of dramatically swirling figures to adorn the walls of churches and palaces.
It meant that while Dutch artists such as Rembrandt and Hals died in poverty, and Carravaggio died on the run, Rubens died the richest and most famous artist in Europe — honoured by the kings of France, Spain and England.
Does the fact that Rubens was the artist of counter revolution make his art poor or of no interest?
No, he was immensely skilled and talented and expressed with great vigour the values appropriate to his cause — the power and glory of his church and religion. At the same time his work celebrated (under the cover of classical mythology) the sensuous pleasures of the flesh.
But his politics did damage and restrict his art. It made it tend to the overly grandiose and ensured that the life of the people and the insight, sympathy and solidarity, so evident in Hals and Rembrandt, were lacking.
His greatest works, such as his landscape, Het Steen, and his nude portrait of Helene Fourment in fur, came at the end of his life when he was painting for himself not his patrons. But these are not the focus of this exhibition.