The Age of Rubens
at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
through January 2, 1994
curated by Peter Sutton, Curator of European Paintings
How much do you know about seventeenth century Flemish art? How much do you care? Even if you are the most die-hard opponent of the Literature and Arts B requirement, you'll want take the short T-trip to see one of the most talked-about art exhibitions of the season. "The Age of Rubens," on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through January contains dozens of treasures from the Golden Age of Flemish art. Many of the works have never been seen before in the United States, and they are rarely assembled in one place. Featuring paintings by Peter Paul Rubens and his contemporaries in 17th century Netherlands, the exhibition is a thorough view of a rich period in European art.
Rubens, perhaps the greatest name in seventeenth century Flemish art, worked primarily in the cosmopolitan city of Antwerp. During the Protestant Reformation, Antwerp was torn apart by fierce religious battles. Only when the devout Catholic Spanish archdukes Albert and Isabella were installed there as governors in 1599 was hope restored to the city. Thereafter, Antwerp experienced a brief renewed Golden Age in business and the arts, and Rubens played an instrumental role. As Albert's and Isabella's court painter, he led an artistic propaganda campaign to proclaim Catholic dominance in the area. Assisted by his students and colleagues, Rubens painted more than sixty altarpieces for Antwerp churches. In addition to these large-scale dramatic treatments of religious subjects, Rubens and his contemporaries are known for their majestic portraits and painstakingly detailed still-lifes, as well as for their impressive landscapes and allegories. The exhibition reflects the stunning range of works they collectively produced.
As the exhibition's title implies, Rubens is the star of the show. He was a multitalented artist who created paintings, drawings, prints, illustrated books and designs for tapestries, sculpture and architecture. His diverse genres include portraits, landscapes, still-lives and allegorical and mythological themes. A man of engaging personality, he spoke five languages and enjoyed the commissions and friendships of many European monarchs, including Philip IV of Spain, James I of England, and Marie de Medici of France (unfortunately, his spectacular Medici cycle of paintings cannot travel from the Louvre in Paris).
The exhibition features many large-scale dramatic paintings accomodated in galleries normally reserved for the museum's permanent collection. A highlight is Rubens's "Prometheus Bound" (1611-12), which shows Prometheus bound to Mount Caucasus as punishment by Zeus for stealing fire from the gods. Prometheus's pain is tangible to the viewer. His muscular body writhes and twists as an eagle digs his claws into the man's foreshortened body. With a bold diagonal composition and bravado brushwork, Rubens conveys human agony in the dynamic, engaging style typical of the Baroque period.
Later in his life, a widowed Rubens abandoned his roles as diplomat and teacher, and settled down quietly with a second, younger wife, Helene Fourment. He said he fully intended to enjoy "the illicit pleasures of marriage." His sugary, mildly erotic Garden of Love, replete with cherubic angels and sparkling applications of paint, is a far cry from the violent and dramatic Prometheus. Illustrating an open-air party of fleshy, amorous aristocrats dressed in satin, Garden of Love is an obvious precursor of the eighteenth-century fete-champetre popularized by Rococco artists such as Watteau.
Though the exhibition contains mainly finished canvases, it also features an important gallery containing several of Rubens's oil sketches. These served as preparatory works for his finished products. Here, Rubens's brushwork and dynamic compositions are clearly evident in examples such as "Neptune Calming the Tempest," on loan from Harvard's own Fogg Museum.
Besides Rubens's own masterpieces, the exhibition dazzles with impressive works by Rubens' colleagues and students, among them Anthony Van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens, Jan Brueghel, David Teniers, and Frans Snyders. Not to be missed is Jacob Jordaens's amusing genre scene of a corpulent "Married With Children" type family entitled As the Old Ones Sing, So the Young Ones Pipe (1640-45). Also impressive are Van Dyck's stately, sweeping Portrait of the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi, and the massive, sixteen-foot Boar Hunt by Frans Snyders.
These artists often combined their individual skills as landscape or figure painters to collaborate on a single canvas. The bloody and gory details of The Head of Medusa, a collaboration by Rubens and Snyders, have been considered so frightening that in the past the painting has been exhibited behind a curtain. It's not a pretty picture, but you can decide for yourself.
Though the undertaking of an exhibition like "The Age of Rubens" is quite ambitious, the MFA has made the show manageable and accessible to a potentially museumweary audience. The works are presented in six large galleries which provide background texts as well as short descriptions of each work. There is a ten-minute introductory film worth viewing. A 40-minute acoustiguide tour narrated by the affable Sutton (who compares one painting to a Where's Waldo illustration) and the recently resigned MFA Director Alan Shestack is invaluable in getting the most of the exhibition. Visiting a museum doesn't get much more pleasant than this. At the end of the exhibition comes the requisite gift shop, where you can purchase a "Garden of Love" poster ($20) for your Harvard room. Hey, it worked for Rubens...