The traveller. through Europe’s galleries is apt to be amazed, and in time rather wearied, by the enormous number of pictures by Rubens which he encounters everywhere; also by their enormous size and conspicuousness, and their interminable riot of huge, muscular, struggling bodies. Rubens enjoyed an unparalleled vogue throughout Europe in his day, and every palace, to be self-respecting, had to be glorified with some of his grandiose imaginings. Under the conditions of the time, one probably did not have to see him tell the same story so many different times in one summer.
But there is a way to enjoy Rubens; and that is to learn to distinguish what he did himself, and more or less for his own enjoyment, from what he and his pupils did on order, to please the often vulgar taste of princes. It is safe to estimate that nine-tenths of the pictures labelled “Rubens” in the museums of Europe were executed by his school. They should be so marked, but that would often be a painful admission. Moreover, they were done from Rubens’ sketches, and he may have touched a brush to them here and there, to satisfy his clients.
There is no general way to distinguish one type from the other except through the quality of color. The school pictures everywhere tend to he crudely glaring, a tinselly, superficial scarlet and gold, like a circus wagon; or else drab and dead. His own, especially the later ones, have a richness of texture comparable to the great Venetians. On the whole, too, one is wise to look more carefully at the small, inconspicuous pictures in side rooms, frankly labelled “sketch,” than at the huge ostentatious canvases. They are more apt to be entirely by his own hand, and to have a free, spontaneous power that is lacking in the finished pictures made from them. They, and the larger pictures that are more certainly his own, will not disgust the discriminating observer with an overdose of fleshy exuberance. His love of physical robustnessnot fatness, but solid muscleis there, and his love of sweeping curves, ruddy coloring and strenuous action. They are all related phases of a tremendous physical vitality and love of life that only the puny or ascetic will disapprove. But the artist’s sense of restraint keeps them within moderate bounds; and a strong basis of organic light and color prevents the internal weakness that gives to his pupils’ works an effect of bombastic pretense. What he thought of the latter, and of some of his noble patrons, is a secret that died with him — but why, in the grandiose Coro-nation of Marie de Medici in the Louvre, does a dog in the foreground turn his back, quite unimpressed, to hunt for a flea?
These general comments might have been made with reference to the Rubens at Paris, Vienna, or any one of several other places. But here at Munich is an excellent place, because of the quantity and variety of its examples, to pursue the problem of distinguishing the sheep from the goats. There are many intermediate breeds: often Rubens is known to have painted some particular part, a capable pupil such as Van Dyck some other, and unknown, inferior hands the rest. (See the official museum catalogue for such known facts.) Examples of pictures in which Rubens did little but the sketch are Lion Hunt (602) and Hippopotamus Hunt (4797). In The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus there was probably some assistance, but most of the color is of high quality. In Helene Fourment with her Child, in the sketches for the Medici Series (92-108), in the Battle of Amazons (324) and several others, we can be fairly sure of recognizing Rubens’ hand.
The design in the Daughters of Leucippus is characteristic in its swirling movement of solid masses, more robust than in Veronese’s Europa (Fig. 65) and nearer to Michelangelo. The color quality can be appreciated by comparing it with Jordaens’ Satyr and Peasant (425) and Boel’s Animals and Fruit (1269). These have black, murky shadows, not only in the backgrounds, but on the figures. They are colorful only in the highlights, and there rather crude, superficial, with over-sudden, disjointed transitions from light to dark. Looking back to the Rubens, one feels at once an iridescent, opallike scintillation of varied tints and gleams. There are no murky shadows; all are filled with color, as in a late Titian; but the colors are more Veronese-like, lighter and brighter than Titian ordinarily used. Furthermore, the color in the shadows is often quite different in hue from that in the highlightsa method followed by the impressionists in the nineteenth century. Renoir especially, in his late, post-impressionist works, such as the large Nymphs recently placed in the Louvre, is indebted to Rubens for his emphatically rotund modelling with brilliant, contrasting color. The essential interest of impressionism is anticipated here by Rubens, in giving objects not only their intrinsic, “local” colors greenness in a leaf, or redness in an applebut also subtle tints reflected from nearby colored objects. In the flesh-tints of these women, there is not only a local cream-color, enriched by underpainting of blue veins and surging blood beneath the skin; a red garment is reflected in one place, blue and olive armor and vegetation in others. The hair is never a uniform gold, but is underpainted with brown, olive and violet, deeply lustrous. Even in subordinated parts, this rich luminosity persiststhe dark brown chest of the horse is full of deep orange, green and purple undertones, and the glowing sky at the right is suffused with pale watery lemon, rose and gray-blue. Definite contrasts reinforce the main design and its movement: the two women’s bodies make a minor pattern in themselves, because of their similar shape and color. Around them is a circling of the darker forms of horses, men and vegetation, brown, gray and green. These are interspersed by streams of warmer color flaming out from the center, in the horseman’s orange-red cloak, the crimson cloth on which he lifts the woman, the other woman’s flowing pale gold hair and the glistening dark gold satin cloth beneath her.
In the portrait of Helene Fourment with her Child we see the little-known, more delicate and quiet Rubens, not only in the subject and the mood expressed, but in the form. Happily forgotten for a moment is the Rubens of struggling giants, flaming in loud scarlet and gold. The throbbing, swirling rhythm has subsided to a playful, easy back-and-forth of gentle brush-strokes. Every texture has the filmy translucency that appears at times in Goyathin washes of cool color through which the orange underpainting glows but faintly. They build up a delicate structure: a tilted hat with its violet plume, a crumpled soft green velvet jacket, a gauzy skirt of white veil-like chiffon, a purple robe of heavier material, a polished gray granite column, with a vine and twisted orange curtain, a sunny sky and a stool which echoes darkly, under thin crimson and purple streaks, the orange of the curtain. There is no literal copying of materials; everything is given a diaphanous, shimmering texture, full of half-hidden and reflected tints. This is painting in terms of pure color, at its best. Only the figure of the child, with the mother’s hands about him, assumes the firm roundness of solid matter, as a point of emphasis. Around are only floating rainbow tints half materialized into hints of silk, hair, feathers, wood and stone. Rubens is here very close to one of the earlier, less sculptural styles of Renoir.
BOUTS, The Taking of Christ (990); MASTER OF THE PEARL OF BRABANT, Adoration of the Magi (H G 7678) worthy followers of Van Eyck in combining lustrous color, fine detail and firm basic design. BROUWER, Fiddling Peasants (629A) broad, soft strokes with Rembrandtesque shadows; like Brueghel, he expresses rustic fun in fairly solid patterns; but they are very simple and obvious, and lack color.
TITIAN, Emperor Charles V (632); The Crowning with Thorns (2272) —distinctive late works; one anticipates Velazquez in flattening subordinate parts, omitting shadows and contrasting thin color-patches; the other is in Tintoretto’s agitated, light-streaked style. Unusually good works of POUSSIN, CLAUDE LORRAIN, CHARDIN and BOUCHER are in neighboring rooms.