Rubens As A Portrait Painter

OUR next chapter in the history of portrait painting opens some sixty-five years after Holbein’s death, in the Flemish city of Antwerp. The Nether-lands were just entering upon a period of respite from their long struggle with Spain. The signing of the truce of 1609 was the signal of a general revival of prosperity. Suspended commercial -activities were resumed and industries again flourished. In Flanders and Brabant the industries were closely allied with the fine arts, and consisted largely in the making of beautiful things. Here were woven rich tapestries for the hangings of hall and palace. Here were produced fabrics of silk and velvet and linen fit for kings’ apparel. The Flemish lace was unrivalled throughout the world in delicacy of workmanship.

In all these industrial pursuits Antwerp had once held a proud place of honour. She was besides one of the foremost trading centres of the world. In her position at the head of the Scheldt she had intercourse with all the great cities of Europe. Her quays were lined with ships bringing and carrying commercial products. The long war with Spain had changed all this. Business had for awhile been completely paralyzed, and it was resumed too late to recover the lost prestige. The tide of commerce had swept northward to Holland, and, as we shall see in later chapters, bore with it a new art impulse. Yet even in this day of decline, Antwerp was still a glorious city. There were yet commercial interests sufficient to give healthy activity to her people. Streets and quays were still pulsing with commercial life, and a spirit of tranquillity settled upon the city. Now was the time ripe for the revival of the art of painting which had fallen upon evil days unworthy of its glorious beginnings in the fifteenth century under the Van Eyck brothers. The bane of the sixteenth-century art had been the artificial imitation of Italian painters. The saving quality had been the strength of its portrait work, and even in those bad times there were some worthy forerunners of the seventeenth – century glory — Sir Anthony Moro,’ and Mark Gerard, so favourably known at the English court.

It was in 1608 when the young painter Rubens arrived in Antwerp after some years residence in Italy. He brought back an immense enthusiasm for the Italian masters, from Raphael to Baroccio, with special devotion to Titian. He had, however, never for-gotten his youthful training in the Antwerp studios of Adam van Noort, and Otto van Veen. His hand was now well practised in cunning. Already he had won high praise beyond the Alps, and he met instant recognition among his countrymen. Among the group of painters then living in Antwerp, admirable as was their work, he was easily supreme. Two years later he was appointed court painter to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella. From this time, till his death in 1640, he made his home in Antwerp, though taking several important journeys abroad.

The influence of the Spanish regent was in every way favourable towards creating an art atmosphere. Isabella Clara Eugenia was the daughter of Philip II of Spain, who, like his father, had been an ardent admirer of Titian. She had been brought up to consider painting a natural adjunct of court life. Though her father called her ” the light of his eyes,” he appeared to regard her solely as the means of furthering his political ambitions. Having failed to raise her to the throne of France, he conceived the idea that she might win for him the Low Countries which he found so difficult to subjugate. Accordingly he married her to her cousin, Albert of Austria, who was already in the Netherlands, that the two might be joint rulers. In 1599 the royal pair entered Brussels, During the first few years of their government the war still went on, but when the peace of 1609 was arranged, Albert and Isabella began to devote themselves to the welfare of their subjects. Their tact and consideration won universal regard, and Isabella became really popular. In the public fêtes which the Flemings were so fond of celebrating, the two regents took an active part. They did much towards restoring the plundered and desecrated churches of the country, filling them with works of art. For the palace, too, where the court was con-ducted with great magnificence, paintings were liberally ordered.

Under such fortunate auspices Rubens passed his brilliant and successful life. He was a man of extraordinary industry, ordering his pursuits with systematic regularity. As commissions multiplied upon him, he employed many assistants, having a great painting establishment in the Italian manner. Increasing prosperity enabled him to live according to his tastes. Gifted with great charm of manner, as well as with excellent counsel, he made himself acceptable and useful in the highest circles. Associating with crowned heads, princes, diplomats and scholars, he was himself artist, diplomat and courtier by turns.

His enormous productivity lay in so many directions that quite diverse opinions prevail in regard to him. A superficial traveller making the grand tour, remembers him only by the huge canvases of the Louvre, and sets him down as coarse and vulgar. The sojourner in Antwerp sees him as the idol of the Flemings, and the painter of noble altar-pieces. The painter envies him for technical qualities to which every craftsman aspires: for an unerring sense of composition, for splendour of colour, for sureness of touch and bravura of execution, and for the exuberance and spontaneity of his creative imagination. His chief forte lay in dramatic composition, religious, historical or allegorical. He was happiest when filling some great can-vas with life and colour and action. Portraits were incidents, or accidents, in his career, as in that of Raphael, painted now and then to please some friend or patron, or to gratify his own family affections. Overshadowed by the vast bulk of his subject painting, they have not received the notice they deserve. Though Rubens does not stand out like his famous pupil Van Dyck, as one of the great original portrait masters, he made a valuable contribution to the art. There is wide variety in his portrait methods. Sometimes he imparts a distinction and dignity to the sitter worthy of the great Venetians, but again, if they do not arouse his enthusiasm, he makes them quite commonplace. Sometimes they are very grave and serious, and sometimes they are extremely animated. Always they are thoroughly alive. ” Does this man mix blood with his paint? ” exclaimed Guido Reni. Too fully possessed with the creative spirit to keep closely to the likeness, he could yet at times lose himself wonderfully in his subject.

It naturally fell to Rubens on one occasion and another to paint portraits of the arch-dukes, and some of these were not successful. We are greatly disappointed in the common-place and uninteresting persons to whom the painter introduces us in the companion pictures of the Prado. It may have been true that Albert was only a plain conscientious man, and Isabella an opinionated bourgeoise, but we demand something more of them. Nor does Rubens fail to answer this demand.

Some years after the archduke’s death he painted for the widowed Isabella a splendid memorial for her husband in the altar-piece of St. Ildefonso. Here he fully realized this opportunity to immortalize his patrons in the pair of portraits forming the wings of the composition. Rubens was carried out of himself in the noble inspiration of this work. In the central panel the Virgin bestows a chasuble upon the kneeling saint, while Albert and Isabella kneel on either side attended by their patron saints. The sweeping lines of their regal garments fall in harmony with the arrangement of the central group, making a splendid decorative ensemble. There is something of true majesty in their bearing, there is nobility and refinement in the faces, and above all there is an expression of exaltation which is in every way satisfying.

Of Rubens’ relations with Marie de’ Medici, Queen of France, a single portrait bears interesting record (in the Prado, Madrid) . For this queen the painter made, as everybody knows, the famous historical series for the decoration of the Luxembourg Palace. It was probably for a study of the queen’s figure in these works, that the portrait was made. For this reason perhaps the picture is entirely free from any pretentious posing. It was the best of the many-sided woman which Rubens saw. She was charmed with the courtly manners of her painter and especially with his delightful conversation. Day by day as he superintended the placing of the pictures in the gallery, she was present enjoying the progress of the work. So he painted her as he knew her, amiable and complaisant, not burdened with her dignities, but altogether friendly and agreeable.

It was in connection with the commission for Marie de’ Medici that Rubens painted the portrait of Baron le Vicq, as an expression of gratitude for that gentleman’s good offices in tendering him the order. Baron le Vicq was at that time the ambassador of the Archdukes, Albert and Isabella, at the court of France. In the portrait, now in the Louvre, we see a plain, vigorous personality. The furrowed brow and thoughtful eyes show the man of judgment, but a courtier we should not suspect him of being. It is a striking and virile characterization.

It was in Paris that Rubens formed the ac quaintance of the Duke of Buckingham. Two portraits of this nobleman were painted, and though not standing particularly well among Rubens’ works, they gave good satisfaction to the patron. It was an indirect consequence of the friendship with Buckingham that Rubens was chosen by the archduchess as the best possible diplomat to negotiate friendly relations between Spain and England. He was accordingly sent to Spain to confer with Philip IV, and here he formed the friendship of the great Velasquez.’ Thence he repaired to England, where Charles I, who was a fine art critic, gave him hearty welcome, and at once set him to painting. The story runs that one day an English courtier, discovering the Fleming at his easel, exclaimed, ” Ah, his Majesty’s ambassador occasionally amuses himself with painting.” ” On the contrary,” replied Rubens, ” the painter occasionally amuses himself with diplomacy.” The Rubens room at Windsor Castle shows in what esteem the painter is still held in England. One of its chief treasures is the delightful portrait composition of the Gerbier family. The father and mother, a baby in arms, and eight children, figure in this beautiful work, arranged diagonally on the oblong canvas. The setting is a colonnaded portico opening on a landscape in the Italian manner. With so many figures to consider one cannot think of another painter who could have managed the plan with such freshness and spontaneity of motive. As decorative as a fine old tapestry, it has besides the merit of individual beauty and distinction in every head.

It was through the good offices of Rubens that Charles I secured for England Raphael’s cartoons for the tapestries of the Sistine Chapel. These precious treasures had been stored away in Flanders when they came to the knowledge of the painter.

Rubens left England loaded with marks of favour. King Charles had made him a knight, bestowing upon him a sword which he took from his own person, and a diamond ring from his own finger. Returning to Spain he was received with highest honour by Philip; who bestowed upon him the order of the Golden Key, and ordered portraits of the royal family. It was not in Rubens to put kingliness into a man of Philip’s character. Only a Velasquez, or perhaps a Titian, could make much of such a subject. The Fleming painted him with all sincerity, and showed the monarch in all his weakness. Nor is Elisabeth of Bourbon much more successful, while the young Cardinal Ferdinand is decidedly namby-pamby.

On the whole Rubens does not deal with royalty so successfully as with his own friends. Some of these were the subject of admirable portrait work. There is Rockox, the burgomaster of Antwerp, a man of scholarly mind and wise administration, with a twinkle of humour in his make-up. There is the unknown old ” Scholar,” of the Munich gallery, the genial man of seventy-five, whose smile has won so many friends. There is the so-called ” Dr. Thulden,” the typical man of medicine, with high brow, keen eyes, and an air of quiet confidence. These are real men, thoroughly alive, and vigorously individualized. A noble portrait work, too, is the group of four friends about a table in the Pitti gallery. Here is Rubens, and his brother Philip, with Lipsius and Grotius, the celebrated Dutch scholars. The greatest of the Venetians might have been proud of such work, for the richness and beauty of the colour scheme, in which the oriental table cover and the fur collars are important decorative elements, and for the simple seriousness and noble distinction of the four heads.

But Rubens was at his best in portraiture when he was painting his family. There is no other head he made so picturesque or so distinguished as his own, no woman who compares in charm with his wife Helena, no children with the naïve grace and beauty of his own boys. His series of family pictures are a beautiful record of his domestic happiness, and a complete expression of his rare gift of portraiture under the conditions best adapted to develop this art. Rubens was first married in 1609 to Isabella Brandt, and a souvenir of their honeymoon is the charming portrait of the bridal pair in the Munich gallery. They sit out of doors, with hands linked, in the manner made familiar to us in many similar pictures in Northern art. Frans Hals and his wife were painted in much the same style. Poor Isabella laboured under distressing disadvantages in her stiff Spanish corset, the huge ruff about the neck, and the absurd high-peaked hat perched rakishly aslant. But her shy sweet smile shows her happiness in her handsome husband, and reveals the depth of a gentle and winning nature. Isabella’s face became thenceforth one of the painter’s ideals of womanly beauty, reappearing in various sacred subjects.

Albert and Nicholas were the two eldest sons of Rubens and Isabella. Round-faced boys were they both, with features not over shapely, but with frank open countenances which make them very likable. In the well-known portrait at Vienna they are painted in full length, dressed in rich court costumes. Albert is in black, slashed with white, while Nicholas has a blue jacket with yellow satin trimmings. The younger boy plays with a captive goldfinch to while away the tedium of the sitting, but Albert, with a manly sense of the importance of the occasion, stands at ease, with one arm thrown affectionately over his brother’s shoulder. With grace and distinction equal to Van Dyck, is united a charm of naturalness beyond the latter. The lovely flow of line and rich colour harmony make it a perfect masterpiece.

Helena Fourment was but sixteen years old when in 1630 she became the second wife of the painter of fifty-three. In spite of the disparity in age the marriage proved a very happy one. Rubens seems always to have kept a young heart, and he lavished every token of affection upon his idol. The garden portrait of Munich (called the Promenade) shows the newly married couple in their early happiness. The two walk together along the path toward a little pavilion, a young lad, perhaps Albert, following them. Helena looks very girlish with a broad-brimmed hat set over her sunny curls, but the painter is handsome and gallant enough to suit any young girl’s ideal of a lover. The fruit trees are in blossom, the peacock spreads his gorgeous tail, a dog bounds playfully towards the fowl. The atmosphere is redolent of poetry.

A few years later came the beautiful Morning Walk of the Rothschild collection, where the painter and his young wife are teaching their baby to walk in leading strings. It is full of delightful sentiment and is almost un-surpassed in artistic excellence. Helena was indeed a beauty, and of a type precisely suited to the taste of Rubens, embodying the ideal of his dreams. It became his ruling passion to paint her portrait in every variety of pose and costume. From such an embarrassment of riches it is hard to make selections. The tall narrow panel of St.. Petersburg is masterly in decorative quality, in restraint and elegance in the use of black. The lady droops her head with a pretty air of timidity, and glances askance from under her hat brim, half in shyness, and half in coquetry. We suspect her of being rather shallow, but she holds us captive, as she did Rubens. She has rather more womanly dignity in the Munich portrait, seated in a large chair. The eyes meet ours with an expression of great vivacity, as if the sitter were on the point of speaking. One is reminded of the extreme animation of some of Sargent’s American women. The decorative scheme is superb — the black skirt opens over a gold brocaded white petticoat, a violet curtain is draped in the background, and an oriental carpet covers the floor. A portrait in the Amsterdam Gallery closely duplicates the head of the Munich picture.

As time passed, Helena’s girlish figure became quite matronly, and added flesh coarsened her beauty. Rubens, however, was not at all disillusionized : he continued with un-diminished zest to paint her as she was. Portraits of her with her little boy on her lap may be seen in the Munich gallery, and in the Louvre. It is also in this less etherealized form that she became the model for the Ma-donna and virgin saints, and for the various goddesses of Greek mythology. No other woman’s face is so familiar to us in the entire range of art.

The portrait of Rubens himself is a surprising revelation of the man. There is no trace in his face of that vein of coarseness which we find ourselves looking for in the painter of those over-developed nudes which make many of his pictures distasteful, and some positively revolting. Surely no painter ever loved flesh and blood more than he. Yet his face is cut with the refinement and delicacy of a cameo. The fine eyes and sensitive mouth are those of a poet and a dreamer. A fondness for the exaggerated and sensational runs through many of his great canvases. Yet here is a man of reserve and self-command. The artist stood apart from his art. The Uffizi Gallery of Florence contains two portraits of Rubens. One is that of a young man at about the time of his first marriage. The other is the likeness by which he is best known to the world, painted in the vigour of manhood at the height of his career.

Again we see him in the Vienna portrait, in later life, grown somewhat weary of the cares of this world, the fine features sharpened, the face etherealized, with an increased sweetness of expression, and an incoming sadness in the eyes.

Rubens’ most striking quality as a portrait painter was the power of giving vitality to the . sitter. In character study he was less successful. As an eminent critic has said, ” he pushed a type in the direction of his own taste.” Yet there were occasions when a subject so appealed to him as to awaken his more objective mood. Then he became a seer as well as a painter, and produced works worthy to rank with the world’s great portraits.