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PRINT January 2004

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Svetlana Alpers on “Rubens”

IN MARCH, THE MUSÉE DES BEAUX-ARTS IN Lille, a northern French city, once part of Flanders and designated a European Cultural Capital for 2004, will host a major exhibition of the work of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). The Flemish painter was featured in “The Age of Rubens” (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1993–94), and a choice group of his oil sketches is on display in the Hermitage Rooms, Somerset House, London, until February 8. But this will be the largest gathering of works by Rubens since 1977, when Antwerp marked the four hundredth anniversary of his birth.

“Why Rubens now?” is a question that won’t go away. He has been the quintessential art historian’s artist—making style; using iconography; running a large workshop; designing everything from history paintings, altarpieces, and ceilings to book frontispieces and tapestries; and producing astonishing landscapes and spectacular drawings. Rubens was also an art collector, a man of learning, and good company to boot. He assured himself a place in the history of art by accomplishing what a northern predecessor like Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617) wanted to do but could not: He devised a way to paint that united the expansive, painterly accomplishments of Italy with the detailed depictions of the Netherlands.

But despite the fact that for sheer skill as a draftsman and painter he has few equals, not many people today linger in the Rubens rooms at the Met, nor does he come to the lips or the brushes of many artists. There are problematic things: He served, without apology, as painter to the rich and powerful of his time––kings, the Catholic Church, and merchant princes––and he imparts a furor to painted bodies such that war and peace as he depicts them look rather the same. However, seen together, a large group of his works will reveal extraordinary confidence in painting as representation and as a way to make things happen in the world. There is nothing ironic or jokey about Rubens.

He may have emulated Titian, but Rubens’s nudes, his fleshy women and also his men, have long been objects of criticism. Thomas Eakins, for instance, wrote from Madrid in 1869, “Rubens is the nastiest most vulgar noisy painter that ever lived.” Looked at in another way, it is rather the similarity between his men and his women that impresses. (See, for example, Sine Baccho et Cerere friget Venus, 1612–13, which will be among the 160-plus paintings, oil sketches, drawings, and tapestries on display in Lille.) The tenor of this merging or identification between the genders of human flesh is distinctive, but the phenomenon is not new to art. It is indeed a feature of the European tradition, one that goes against the current emphasis on difference, that artists (male artists as they once mostly were) identify with the female such that there is a tendency in art for male and female bodies to be assimilated one to the other. Donatello, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, Tiepolo, Manet, and Freud, to name only a few, all display this in distinctive ways. When the human body is central to the artist’s medium, flesh as common matter is an irresistible recognition. If you want to test this out for yourself, the Rubens retrospective in Lille would be a fine place to begin.

“Rubens” will be on view at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lille, France, Mar. 6–June 14.

Svetlana Alpers, Professor Emerita of the History of Art, University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Decoration of the Torre de la Parada and The Making of Rubens, among other books. Her Vexations of Art is forthcoming.