The Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) used to be known as “the Prince of Painters and the Painter of Princes.” In a century overloaded with artistic talent, Rubens reigned supreme. But whereas the reputations of his contemporaries, including Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Velasquez, have continued to the present day, Rubens’ own star has dimmed. His exuberant version of the Baroque style doesn’t chime very well with our modern sensibilities. His paintings seem too boisterous, too big, and too melodramatic. And then there’s the problem of all that flesh…
In a bid to make us lovers of Rubens again, the Royal Academy has organized a show devoted to his legacy in Western art. It’s arranged by theme: “Poetry” (which is mostly landscapes), “Elegance” (portraits), “Power” (decorative schemes), “Compassion” (religious works), “Violence” (figurative/action) and “Lust” (nudes). This layout demonstrates the extraordinary range of Rubens’ output; no wonder he maintained such a huge studio and employed an army of assistants.
“Mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal,” Picasso is supposed to have said. Rubens’ influence on later generations was huge, and the point is remorselessly driven home here. There are small student works by Manet and Klimt, who turned to Rubens when they were still finding their way. And there’s some pretty terrible stuff by second- or third-rate painters like Charles le Brun, Edwin Landseer and Antoine Wiertz. The best paintings in the show are by artists who managed to capture the essence of Rubens in their own idiom, rather than following him literally: Van Dyck, Watteau, Delacroix, Renoir and Cezanne.
The exhibition is rather light on works by Rubens himself. Of 130 exhibits, only about 30 are by him, and most of these are prints, drawings and sketches. Of full-size Rubens oil paintings, there are a few knockouts: the superb “The Garden of Love” from the Prado in Madrid, the Antwerp “Lamentation of Christ” and the “Lion, Tiger and Leopard Hunt” from Rennes. But although we’re constantly bombarded with the assertion that “nobody paints flesh like Rubens,” there’s simply not enough of it here to make a judgment. You might reasonably expect to find one of Rubens’ celebrated renderings of the nude as a centerpiece of The “Lust” room, for example. The “Three Graces” from the Prado, perhaps? Or maybe the Munich “Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus?” No such luck. Instead, there’s the “Venus Frigida” from Brussels — a fine painting, to be sure, but so unlike Rubens’ usual joyous rendering of the female form as to be almost a self-parody.
I don’t want to give the impression that there aren’t things to enjoy in this show, however. There are many pleasing discoveries to be made as you go round. In the first room, for instance, there are superb works by Turner and Constable, notably “Cottage at East Bergholt” (c. 1833) by the latter, though the only connection to the Rubens displayed alongside seems to be that both feature a rainbow. Elsewhere, there are quirky, if minor, works by Kokoshka, Bocklin and Daumier. A word, too, in favor of Rubens’ pupil Jacob Jordaens (here represented by a robust mythological piece, “Pan and Syrinx”), who is often dismissed as cut-price version of his master but to my mind is a much underrated artist.
The final room in the exhibition has been curated by Royal Academician Jenny Saville and demonstrates her response to Rubens with works by important 20th and 21st century artists, including Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. “Whether you think you like Rubens or not, his influence runs through the pathways of paintings,” writes Saville: “Like Warhol, he changed the game of art.” The link between some of these artists and the main show isn’t always clear, although I’m sure Rubens would have agreed wholeheartedly with de Kooning when he said that “flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.”
If this uneven show at least encourages us to take another look at Rubens, it will be no bad thing. There are impressive collections of his paintings at the National Gallery, the Courtauld Gallery and the Wallace Collection, all within walking distance of the RA. Best of all is the ceiling at the Banqueting House in Whitehall, installed during the reign of Charles I and the only one by Rubens that remains in its original setting. Sinking into a beanbag while looking up at the ascent to heaven of Charles’ father, James I, is a magnificent feast for the eyes, and one of the best cultural experiences to be had in London.