The eminent Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens painted dynamic and dramatic, action-packed religious and mythological paintings. He used ancient classical wisdom in his paintings to portray the turmoil and peace that unfolded in his time. Among his masterpieces he also created portraits and landscapes, mostly commissioned pieces, but his particular passion and pleasure was landscape painting.
During his twilight years of semi-retirement until his death, Rubens took immense pleasure in watching rural life unfold on his country estate. He captured these perhaps mundane moments creating idealized landscapes that truly captivated and inspired viewers and artists alike.
“In no other branch of art is Rubens greater than in landscape; the freshness and the rosy light, the joyful and animated character which it conferred on it, imprinting on the level of the monotonous landscapes of Flanders all the richness which belongs to its noblest features. Rubens reveled in the phenomena – rainbows on stormy skies – bursts of sunshine – moonlight – meteors – and rushing torrents mingling their sound with wind and waves,” said the British landscape designer of the 19th century John Constable at a lecture on landscape painting.
Aside from meteors and moonlight, all of the elements Constable mentions can be found in two of Rubens’ greatest and greatest landscapes: “The Rainbow Landscape” and “An Autumn Landscape With a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning”. The pair are believed to have once been pendants, meaning they were created with similar themes and were meant to be hung together.
It is believed that Rubens hung the pair at his country estate of Het Steen, and both were in his collection until his death.
Separated for more than 200 years, the paintings are finally reunited in the recently opened exhibition “Rubens: Bringing Great Landscapes Together” at the Wallace Collection in London. Last year, restorers at the National Gallery in London carefully cleaned and restored their Rubens painting “A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning” especially for the exhibition, where it will be reunited with “The Rainbow Landscape” by Rubens belonging to The Wallace Collection. The two paintings were also placed in new matching frames, in keeping with the style of the 17th century.
The exhibition is the result of a collaboration between the Wallace Collection, the National Gallery and Visit Flanders.
In 1577 Rubens was born in Siegen, now Germany. His Calvinist father had once been a lawyer and alderman in Antwerp. But before Rubens was born, he fled the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium) with Rubens’ mother and siblings to escape religious persecution.
When Rubens was 10, his father died and his mother moved the family back to Antwerp, where she raised the boy in her Catholic faith, and he received a classical education.
Around the age of 14, Rubens made a first apprenticeship with the landscape painter Tobias Verhaecht, a relative. After a year, he followed a four-year apprenticeship with the history painter Adam van Noort before entering the studio of Antwerp’s most famous artist at the time, Otto van Veen, dean of the guild of painters of Saint-Luc. It was in van Veen’s studio that Rubens learned painting as a humanistic enterprise.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Rubens traveled to Italy and immersed himself in the study not only of contemporary Italian Renaissance art, but also of ancient art and philology. From then on, he started a serious art collection.
He returned to Antwerp in 1609 and became court painter to the Spanish Habsburg regents of Flanders, Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella. This was the start of his illustrious career and the success of his Antwerp studio, where paintings were created for regents across Europe.
peace at home
“By divine grace I have found peace of mind, having renounced all sorts of employment outside my beloved profession”, wrote Rubens to a friend, the French antiquarian Peiresc, on December 18, 1634 , when he had retired from his diplomatic duties. work abroad.
In 1653 Rubens bought Het Steen, a country house surrounded by 8 acres of land.
His Antwerp studio continues to prosper under the guidance of his assistant, whom Rubens will commission to bring paintings to Het Steen or sometimes to run errands such as bringing him Rosille figs and pears, according to the exhibition monograph.
It was at Het Steen that Rubens focused on painting the subjects close to his heart – his growing family and the rural landscape.
“I lead a quiet life with my wife and my children, and have no other claim to the world than to live in peace,” wrote Rubens to Peiresc, in the aforementioned letter.
Rubens’ nephew told how his uncle meticulously copied flora and fauna and studied the different atmospheric conditions of the earth. He watched how time changed colors and tones as light interacted with the earth. For example, around 1615, Rubens wrote of a study of blackthorn with bramble and other plants: “berries blue as grapes covered with dew, the leaves a shimmering fine green but behind a little pale and dull… reddish stems”, as quoted in the exhibition monograph.
Rubens kept the studies as references and used them throughout his idealized paintings. The exhibition catalog details how his sketch of a milkmaid was used in several paintings.
In the decade before his death, Rubens found painting painful due to several bouts of gout. But his knowledge of the classics may have helped him. “He should have known Cicero’s treatise on old age (“De Senectute”), which recommended the pleasure derived from agriculture and gardening in retirement, and from watching nature flourish while his own physical strength diminished,” notes curator Lucy Davis in the monograph.
This is perhaps why Rubens chose to produce one of these large paintings in summer, representing an abundant harvest, when nature reveals all its riches. Both paintings were created in times of peace, which is reflected in the depiction of jovial rural people on fertile land at harvest time.
When he painted the pair, he did so in tandem. Rubens favored this working method when he painted for pleasure. Each piece started as a small landscape painting, which he expanded over time by adding additional oak panels. Perhaps because Rubens could paint these pieces at his leisure, their compositions grew in his imagination over time. Each of the completed paintings is made from just over 20 oak planks.
Rubens painted both landscape paintings from a bird’s eye view, commonly used in the Flemish tradition. He particularly admired fellow Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, who had painted similar peasant scenes a generation earlier. The exhibition catalog explains how the haystacks and milkmaids on the left side of “A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning” follow the compositional elements of Bruegel’s paintings “Haymaking” and “The Harvesters”, which represent summer in its famous cycle “Seasons.”
In each painting, Rubens used “repoussier” devices, commonly used by Flemish artists, in which an edge of the composition is framed to draw the viewer into the painting. In “A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning”, Rubens used a hunter restraining his dog as they prepared to move towards their prey, to draw viewers into the scenery.
In “The Rainbow Landscape”, a wagon full of hay serves as a foil device as it winds past two milkmaids, one of whom greets the wagon driver with a smile. Two cows, in the middle of the foreground, hold their heads high out of curiosity. A white cow in the center and one on the right even seem to stare at the viewer. And the ducks on the right side of the painting are just doing what ducks do, frolicking in the water and preening.
To find out more about the exhibition “Rubens: Reuniting the Great Landscapes” at the Wallace Collection in London, go to WallaceCollection.org