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Early Rubens Paintings in a Unique San Francisco Survey

  • Peter Paul Rubens - Daniel in the Lions
  • Peter Paul Rubens - The Massacre of The Innocents
March 12, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

Peter Paul Rubens, the great master is one of the most celebrated artists of the Flemish baroque, is best known for his grandiose, dramatic and vibrant historical compositions, as well as civil portraits, religious altarpieces, and landscapes. Throughout his painterly practice, Rubens expressed not only outstanding craftsmanship but his intellectual potentials as well.

In Antwerp, the painter studied Latin and classical literature and learned the first art lessons under the city’s leading painters of the time. Two years after, Rubens completed his education – he traveled to Italy where he saw the amazing works by Titian and Veronese; there, he studied Greek and Roman art, copied works of the Italian masters, and was very inspired with the works of, Leonardo da Vinci, Leonardo, and even Caravaggio. After the return to Antwerp in 1608, Rubens found a fertile cultural atmosphere in which he was able to express himself entirely, and fulfill the desires of clientele for both religious imagery and ancient history commissions.

In order to analyze the most fruitful period of Rubens’s oeuvre in-between 1609 and 1621, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are hosting an extensive exhibition at The Legion of Honor including more than thirty paintings and twenty works on paper which underline the master’s ability to produce highly subversive narratives.

Peter Paul Rubens - The Dreaming Silenus
Peter Paul Rubens – The Dreaming Silenus, 1610–1612. Oil on canvas, 62 1/4 x 85 3/8 in. (158 x 217 cm). Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien

The Exhibition Framework

Peter Paul Rubens was more than just a sort of celebrity – he was a diplomat, businessman, and a good friend to scholars and monarchs. Therefore, the upcoming exhibition will show how the painter rose to fame by carefully combining his exceptional talent and social skills which led him to international fame.

The exhibition is jointly organized by Sasha Suda, curator of European art and R. Fraser Elliott Chair of Prints and Drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, and Kirk Nickel, assistant curator of European paintings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

More than fifty outstanding paintings are loaned from public and private collections in Europe and North America, and some of them will be on display for the first time in the States. In order to present Rubens’s impressive oeuvre properly, the showcase is arranged thematically. One of the curators, Nickel, stated the following:

What distinguished Rubens and made his pictures so thrilling for his early viewers, was his ability to re-interpret important models he encountered both on the Italian peninsula and in the Low Countries through his own developing sense for vibrant, naturalistic color and his virtuoso brushwork. His inclination to work quickly and at a large scale was essential for Rubens’s success in repopulating the city’s churches with religious images, even while he painted startling episodes of ancient valor, obscure Greco-Roman mythologies, and unsettling moments of biblical history for private collectors.

Peter Paul Rubens - The Tribute Money
Peter Paul Rubens – The Tribute Money, ca. 1612. Oil on panel, 56 3/4 x 74 3/4 in. (144.1 x 189.9 cm). Fine Arts Museumsof San Francisco, Museum purchase, M.H. de Young Art trust Fund

The Selection of Works

As it was already mentioned, Italy played an enormous role in the Rubens’s formation as an artist and intellectual, so the works made during his time spent there such as altarpiece commissions and smaller cabinet pictures will open the exhibition and introduce the audience to the artist’s later development.

Portraits of close friends, family members, and wealthy citizens Rubens made after the return to Belgium will show his position of a gentleman painter; to be more precise, these works reflect his great social efforts to form a circle of clientele among a broader circle of religious thinkers, humanists, and merchants.

The artistic practice of Peter Paul Rubens coincided with the city’s search for a new visual language in the atmosphere of sprawling Protestantism. Rubens embraced the imagery of Counter-Reformation and combined it with his vision saturated with emotions, complex psychological states, and expressive movements of the human body – all of the characteristic suitable for religious painting. The best examples on display will be the Annunciation and Christ on the Straw (the Michielsen Triptych), both paintings based on the scenes from the life of Jesus, as well as masterfully done and highly dramatic The Tribute Money and The Massacre of the Innocents.

Around the 1610s, the prolific painter started producing engravings which were a perfect medium for the promotion of his pictorial inventions. The examples such as The Raising of the Cross and The Battle of the Amazons will show how well Rubens executed his visions through different media and in collaboration with other craftsmen.

Ten years later, Rubens was already at the peak of his career with grandiose commissions from the wealthy patrons and royal advisers; he became adorned by the French, English, and Spanish monarchs. Such a position enabled him to become an international diplomat capable of sorting various errands between the countries.

The exhibition ends with a couple of large scale compositions such as Daniel in the Lions’ Den and other impressive scenes. These works will enable the audience to plunge in Rubens’s allowing visitors to the exhibition to appreciate the scope of Rubens’s visions which would not be possible to produce if it wasn’t his workshop.

Peter Paul Rubens - Boar Hunt
Peter Paul Rubens – Boar Hunt, ca. 1615/1617. Oil on canvas, 98 7/16 x 126 in. (250 x 320 cm). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille, France, Inv. BA103. Photo: Jean Bernard. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Rubens at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Although it is focused on the artist’s early works, the upcoming exhibition will definitely provide a thorough insight into the formative persuasions which led Rubens to become one of the leading artists in entire art history.

Early Rubens will be on display at the Legion of Honor (part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) from 6 April until 8 September 2019, and afterword the exhibition will travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario where the audience will be able to see it from 12 October 2019 until 5 January 2020.

Featured image: Peter Paul Rubens – Daniel in the Lions’ Den, c. 1614/1616. Oil on canvas. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; The Massacre of the Innocents, ca. 1610. Oil on panel, 55 7/8 × 72 1/16 in. (142 × 183 cm). The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Photograph by Sean Weaver, Art Gallery of Ontario. All images are courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.