THE new Van Dyck and Rubens rooms lead out from the Grande Galerie. On each side of the Galerie Rubens are the so-called cabinets where are to be found the largest number of Dutch and Flemish pictures owned by the Louvre.
One of Champaigne’s most celebrated portraits, that of Cardinal Richelieu, is in the Salle Van Dyck. He painted the prelate-statesman a number of times, but this, with the exception perhaps of that wonderful three heads in one in the National Gallery, is the greatest of all. He stands in full cardinal’s dress, the brilliant red satin robes falling about him in tremendous amplitude. The white lace undersleeves and short overskirt by their very whiteness only make more intense this piercing red. The lights that strike the edge of the folds, the deep tones of the under pleats, the shimmering of the surface of the satin are remarkable brush-work. But it is in the hands and face of the cardinal that Champaigne’s genius for characterization displays itself so perfectly. There is perhaps a trifle less suavity in the aristocratic features than is felt in the portrait in the National Gallery. But the watchful regard of the eyes, the self-contained expression of the none too thin lips, the smooth expanse of the wide, high brow, as untroubled as it is unlined, and finally the wonderful hands, which, in the nervous movement, the eager grasp, the plausible gesture, reveal most plainly of all the tension of mind, this is Champaigne at his height of expression.
In the Van Dyck room a number of the paintings by Rubens were once a part of the Medici series which he painted for the Luxembourg. Of these are the Portrait of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, father of Marie de Medici, the Portrait of the Queen’s Mother, and a Portrait of Marie de Medici herself.
The Portrait of Baron Henri de Vicq, ambassador from the Low Countries to the court of France, is one of Rubens’s masterly works. It exhibits the baron almost in full face, with close-cut moustache and beard, already gray. Otherwise in black, he wears about his neck the full-pleated ruff of the day. Behind him hangs a red curtain. The penetrating eye, the firm facial muscles, the full brow, the courtly air, all bespeak the diplomat, the man of the world. It is painted with a fulness of colour, a limpidity of stroke, characteristic of this painter whose first strokes were also his last.
The Tourney in Front of the Moat of a Château, shows six cavaliers in full armour, fighting two by two before the moat. Two pages at the left are holding the extra lances and picking up the broken ones. Two heralds at the right sound their horns and on the same side, occupying the second plane, is the fortified château surrounded by water, leading across which is a bridge to the square tower where floats the standard. In the distance at the left are a river and fields with trees. The sun is sinking and the whole scene is flooded in a warm golden tone that is translucent in its richness, full of an atmospheric quality a modern impressionist often fails to get. Here Rubens appears as a really great landscape painter.
Most of the best Van Dycks are in this room, and if all are not the very greatest of his achievements, there are many splendid examples of his wonderful skill.
The Virgin and Child has been said to be a portrait group as well as a religious painting. David is supposed to represent the painter’s father, Mary his mother, the Magdalene his mistress and St. John himself. If the others are no more literal transcriptions than John is of Van Dyck, they are by no means impeccable likenesses. In the John, to be sure, may be detected certain characteristics of Van Dyck, the broad brow, the deep, full eye, the delicate chin, but of actual portraiture there is comparatively little.
Mary sits at the left, holding upon her lap the child Jesus who is supporting himself in his standing position by a firm grasp of his mother’s veil and shoulder. The baby is in profile, the mother turned three-quarters, both facing the group at the right. Of this group Mary Magdalene, in the foreground, is bending over in adoration, holding her white drapery half across her breast. Behind her are King David, with a golden crown on his gray hair, and John the Baptist, in skins, leaning on his staff. Back of all the sunset sky throws its glow across the scene. Mary, clad in a red robe, blue mantle and a yellow veil, is older than the Italians usually depicted her, but she is a very beautiful if somewhat Flemish type. There is a dignity, a poise, a nobility about her lifted face that Van Dyck has only rarely succeeded in equalling. The exquisite colour of the brow, cheek and chin where the light strikes full, exhales a purity and charm that are still more intensified by the soft fairness of the baby’s flesh. The chubbiness of his short body, again, is more Dutch than Italian. But his face, with its baby profile half lost in the shadow, his fine, golden hair, the light caressing the rounded cheek, the tenderness of his grasp on his mother, the intensity of his regard as he gazes at the Magdalene, so baby-like, and yet so mysterious in its significance, this is all marvellous painting for any school or any time. The voluptuous, radiant face of the Magdalene is swept with an expression of pain, of sorrow that somehow enhances her beauty and sanctifies her charms. King David’s lined, aging countenance, and the youthful face of John, are as satisfactory in their own way. The colour of the whole picture is glowing, deep, rich, the touch fairly free, broad, the composition better massed than Van Dyck always succeeded in accomplishing. The canvas was in the collection of Louis XIV. In 1710 it was at Versailles and in 1747 was placed in the Galerie d’Apollon.
Of the Equestrian Portrait of François de Moncade, Waagen says ” Composition, drawing, light, depth and transparence of a warm colour, touch firm and spiritual, all contribute to make this equestrian portrait the most beautiful which Van Dyck has painted, and I do not hesitate to declare it one of the most beautiful that exists.” He is mounted on a white horse, turned three-quarters to the right, his head bare, in armour, with a large white collar. In his right hand he carries the commander’s baton, and about his left arm is attached a red scarf. Behind him is a landscape background.
The Portrait of Charles-Louis, Elector Palatine of Bavaria with his Brother Robert who was later made Duke of Cumberland by Charles I., is not so masterly an accomplishment as the Moncade likeness, but it has much spirit and character. The two brothers stand side by side, Robert in full face, Charles in three-quarters.
Robert is in armour without gloves, a guipure collar falling over his cuirass. His left hand rests upon the guard of his sword, his right holds a baton. Charles has his left hand upon his side, his right on his cuirass. In the background at the right, is a wall, at the left a red and black curtain, in the centre a view of a landscape.
Van Dyck’s greatest picture in the Louvre is un-questionably the Portrait of Charles I., King of England, as it is also one of the greatest that he ever painted. M. Alexandre calls it ” a veritable bouquet of flowers,” in its arrangement of colours. The king stands on a rise of ground, slightly at the left of the picture, his body in profile, his head turned toward his left shoulder, till it is in three-quarters view. His right hand is stretched out, resting upon a tall cane, his left, holding a glove, he has placed upon his hip. Behind him at the left, a man, said to be the Marquis of Hamilton, holds the king’s horse, which, only half-entering the picture is nervously pawing the ground. Farther back in the centre, a page has his Majesty’s cloak on his arm. A big tree at the right spreads its branches over the group and a bit of sea at the left ends against a line of hills at the horizon.
The marquis, the horse, the page, are all royal adjuncts of a royal portrait. Not a false note, in arrangement, harmony of line and colour, in treatment of subsidiaries, in subtlety of values can be found. Van Dyck was always at his best in portraits of ” high life,” and here he fairly outdid himself. No placard could make this kingly figure more definitely royal. The bared heads of his two attend-ants, his own big hat with its drooping plume, his white satin short coat, his red velvet trousers and buff leather hunting-boots, even the sword with its decorated shoulder-belt, none of these kingly appurtenances are needed for label. Charles the First stands depicted with a penetrative skill scarcely ever attained by pen or brush. Noble grace, royal charm, kingly fascination, these words seem only half to express the personality of the sovereign who could do all things well except to rule. Much more than this has Van Dyck expressed in this portrait. In the long, delicate face with its dreamy, mournful eyes, its sensitive lips, its wealth of curls, its bloom, that, so exquisite, seems already half evanescent, is felt a prescience of impending doom, and as one looks one never wonders at the loyalty the very name of Stuart could evoke, a loyalty that frailty, incapacity, even ingratitude and lack of honour hardly ever weakened.
As a piece of technique this is Van Dyck at his height. Ease of handling, an outline as correct as it is full of grace, colour as transparent and pure as it is brilliant, modelling as inevitable, as sure as it is telling, every-thing here proclaims the prince of the palette.
The Virgin with the Donors is one of Van Dyck’s best pictures of the Madonna. He showed her younger here than on the other canvas in this room, and her face is tender and beautiful as is the chubby babe holding his hand to the man kneeling before him. This kneeling man and wife are wonderfully expressive as portraits, and charming too are the couple of little angels who hold the flowers above their heads.
Van Dyck’s Portrait of Himself in the Louvre is one of many which he painted. Here he appears already thin and somewhat worn, with a hint of fast living shining from his weary eyes. None the less it is a beautiful face with its slight moustache and soft, light curling hair, its clear-cut nose and rather ineffectual chin.
Twenty-one of the pictures which Rubens painted for Marie de’ Medici now line the sides of the Rubens gallery.
For the first time since they were taken from the Luxembourg for whose decoration they were planned, can they be seen as Rubens intended. Begun in 1620, they were finished in little over two years. With the exception of the actual portraits in this series, comparatively little of the painting is by Rubens’s hand. He got permission from Marie de’ Medici to execute the series in his own studio in Antwerp. Here he was surrounded by a regular school of young artists who worked under his guidance with such absorption that they may be said to have out-Rubensed Rubens. The general designs, the colour-schemes were unquestionably the master’s own. As has been remarked it was not possible for even a talented pupil to reproduce the genius of Rubens himself. It was his exaggerations which they could most easily grasp and copy. Consequently this series of paintings, great as it is in parts, is, as a whole, an exhibition of Rubens’s art at its most depraved state. Flamboyantly gorgeous, meretriciously ornate, vulgarly brilliant in colour, and equally vulgar in form, they display even worse taste in their conglomeration of the mythologic, the sacred and the historic. The introduction of pagan deities and nude nymphs, Loves and naiads holding trains, rowing boats, observing marriage ceremonies of prince and princess accurately arrayed in full court costume of the time of Louis XIII. is certainly a degradation of the very principles of art. And yet it remains true, that, considering the limitations under which the decorations were made, the execrable taste of the time, and especially Marie de’ Medici’s demand for a magnificence commensurate with her own exalted ideas of her position, considering, in fact, what it was which Rubens attempted to do it must be acknowledged that they are more than successful. They are truly extraordinary in the gorgeousness as a whole and in the unity of their great diversity.
Of the entire series the best are, The Birth of Louis XIII., where the queen is shown in the purity and beauty of first motherhood with a tenderness and penetration that possibly may have been wasted on this Italian sovereign ; The Landing of the Queen at Marseilles where objection can scarcely be made to the naiads who have drawn her boat to shore, for they are three of the most exquisite creations of the painter’s mythologic brush ; The Happiness of the Regency, which was painted after Rubens reached Paris to superintend the placing of the others of the series, and is thus more nearly by his own hand. It is one of his charming improvisations; dashed off as only Rubens could dash off a sketch, full of life, colour and freedom.
The Marriage at Florence showing Marie being wedded by proxy to the French king is another successful one, the only solecism being that of the half-naked boy bearing a torch and carrying the queen’s train. Rubens himself was in Florence at the time of this marriage and it is executed with a fulness of detail and a scrupulous fidelity that show how perfectly his memory served him.
Of the whole line, however, it is the Coronation at St. Denis that is universally regarded as being not only the best of the series, but one of the really fine compositions of Rubens’s life. It represents the interior of the cathedral with the queen kneeling at the foot of the altar, before the cardinals and their assisting clergy. She is in a gorgeous state robe of blue embroidered with lilies and lined with ermine. Beside her stands the Dauphin, afterward Louis XIII., while above in a balcony, Henri IV. watches the scene. Her retinue of women is behind her and in the tribunes and farther back are members of the court. Above, two allegorical figures bear palm branches and scatter flowers and gold pieces. The splendour of the scene, the brilliant colours of the court and coronation costume, the masterly grouping, the focusing of interest upon the queen, while at the same time denying neither place nor importance to those about, the freedom, the grand sweep of the brush-strokes, all this in Rubens goes without saying. But the dignity, the queenly quality, the spirit of the kneeling sovereign, are more intangible elements and here they are more in evidence than in most of the Medici series. It is as if Rubens felt that for the moment, as Cardinal de Joyeuse places the crown of France upon her head she is trans-formed into a higher, nobler nature. It is just this that he has succeeded so well in expressing that it requires no stretch of imagination to see it in the face of the kneeling woman.
The others of the huge, gold-bordered pictures need no description. They help to give completeness to the decorative scheme and in parts have both beauty and power; but in general they are as overloaded as they are gaudy in design and execution.