The career of Peter Paul Rubens repays study. In him one sees the Renaissance spirit carried to a height and an exuberance of splendid qualities which illuminate the entire movement, extending in a broad expanse from Italy across the borders of Germany and Spain, and into the Low Countries. Through Rubens one sees Michelangelo, in Rome, Titian, in Venice and Madrid, and many lesser lights, reflected in his enthusiastic study and absorption of Italian masters. Through Rubens the way is also prepared for Velasquez, Tiepolo and Poussin, to name three only of those who, directly or indirectly, were influenced by him. In sympathy with him, one is in sympathy with a wide range of aesthetic expression, including that of various personalities imbued by him with the spirit of his age.Rubens himself does not appear as a laborious experimenter in the art of that age. He rather seems to have found everything ready to hand and to have pursued with straightforward energy what appeared to him to be the obvious course. He was a man of extraordinary versatility. Of large business ability, he was also a skilled diplomatist, yet, chiefly devoted to and accomplished in, the painting of murals, portraits, historical, religious and pagan subjects, he embraced with his genius almost every aspect of his vocation. The manner in which he achieved his effects, his craftsmanship and unerring instinct stamp him as an artist of essential simplicity and integrity. He had the greatness of a genius who could utilize all that had gone before him.The student finds in his work the luxuriant record of the Renaissance ideal. Rubens' nudes and stalwart figures, his imposing portraits and huge allegories, tell of the aspiration toward a high ideal of the XVI and XVII centuries. They describe more fluently than any verbal recital the glowing colors and effulgent shapes of the tastes of the period. Michelangelo's action, Titian's luminous color and the realism of the Flemish school combined in his to form the work of one man into an international force.Even in a small panel, small chiefly in comparison with the bulk of Rubens' work, one notes these broad qualities—a composition capable of being enlarged to heroic proportions; exactness of drawing that carries the conviction of weight and bulk, no matter how small or foreshortened the figures; warm flesh tones; subtle transitions of color that produce effects of airy distance, and a decisive control of technique that endows his work with a sustained virility, in spite of the oftentimes tender and incidental subtlety of details.The sketch owned by the Institute can be studied for these points. It stands comparison with much of Rubens' work, whether allegorical of illustrative. In subject it possesses an interest of its own, linked with Rubens' diplomatic mission to England and with the history of Whitehall Palace itself, in the ceiling of which the finished large-size subject was eventually placed. The subject is the crowning of the infant king, later Charles I of England, by the three allegorical figures presumably representing England, Scotland and Ireland. But interest in the subject of the picture should be subordinated to the importance of the sketch as an example of Rubens' marvelously logical technique. Close examination shows the ease with which he achieved his sparkling highlights. The glowing shadows are a lesson in painting by themselves. All the surface is fresh, even after three hundred years, which only can be explained by the simplicity and soundness of his method; colors are used lightly, without fuss or retouching, and his rich effects were obtained seemingly with the first strokes. It is well known that Rubens paid particular attention to the proper drying of the colors on his canvases and panels, utilizing direct sunlight to preserve the fresh tones intact.There is every reason to suppose that the sketch belonging to the Institute was painted by Rubens' own hand, without the aid of pupils. Historically and aesthetically this is reasonable. The sketch in the Hermitage in Leningrad, which deals with the same subject on a slightly smaller scale and includes another figure to the right of the central group, seems to have been the first draft of the painter's idea for the ceiling decoration. The Institute's example is a more fully developed, better finished version of the central group, worked out with more convincing thoroughness, since the artist intended it as a guide to his assistants to whom the bulk of the work on the final painting was committed. It is recorded that these huge canvases—the "little" cherubim are about nine feet long—gave much difficulty. Finished by pupils under the master's direction, they remained in the studio for a time, and, after delivery was made, it was discovered that the paint had begun to crack, and the larger part of the surface had to be refinished. That the canvases were never right, technically, is clear, and the rapid decay of the paintings on the ceiling of the chapel, where they now are, mere ghosts of the original work as it left Ruben's studio, is thus accounted for.It is entirely different with Rubens' sketches in general, and the Institute's panel especially illustrates the truth of the statement. Not only in its execution characteristic of the master, but the condition of the paint is as nearly perfect as one could wish. The sketch in question has long been appreciated. It had an important place in the Demidoff Collection in the San Donato Palace, Florence, whence it was sold in 1880 for 11, 200 francs, a large sum for that period. According to the catalogue in the Demidoff sale, this picture was formerly in the possession of Charles I and afterward in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds. But Smith's Catalogue Raisonne describes the paintings in those two collection as being somewhat smaller than the Institute's painting, a difference easily accounted for by careless measurements by local informants of the cataloguer. Be that as it may, the painting itself is a most important acquisition, valuable to student and layman alike. It represents Rubens at the peak of the Renaissance. And it shows what glories of coloring are possible in the hands of a great craftsman.Referenced Works of Art
- Sketch for ceiling panel of Whitehall Palace, London, painted 1630 by Peter Paul Rubens, and recently acquired from the Dunwoody Fund.
- Detail from Rubens' sketch.
- Allegorical figure from Rubens' sketch.