For the next week, art lovers in the greater New York area have an unprecedented opportunity to savor several aspects of the art of the great Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens. While the exhibition of the artist's drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is not to be missed (as it runs till Apr. 3, 2005, you have a bit of time to catch it), a visit to that show should ideally be followed by one to the smaller but no less satisfying exhibition of Rubens oil sketches at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn. (a round-trip train ticket from Grand Central is under $20 and admission to the exhibition is $15, so the expedition isn't that expensive). But the show closes on Jan. 30, and subsequently travels to the Berkeley Art Museum (Mar. 2-May 15, 2005) and the Cincinnati Art Museum (June 11-Sept. 11, 2005).
Though he is perhaps best known today by the general public as "the guy who painted all those fat nudes," during his lifetime and for three centuries afterwards, Rubens was looked upon as a paradigm of artistic and social achievement. Unlike his near contemporary Rembrandt, whose rise-and-fall career exemplified the romantic glamour of despair, Rubens' life was an uninterrupted, ever-rising arc of accomplishment, success and fame.
Rubens would have been considered an extraordinary individual in any century. The son of a Calvinist lawyer who fled the Netherlands for Germany, Peter Paul was born in Siegen in Westphalia in 1577. After his father's death in 1587, Rubens' strong-willed and intelligent mother moved back to Antwerp with him, where he was re-baptized a Catholic and served valuable apprenticeships with both the painter Otto van Veen and as a page for a local court.
During an eight-year stay in Italy from 1600-08, Rubens became court painter to the Duke of Mantua, but accepted commissions in Genoa and Rome and visited Spain as a goodwill ambassador to the court of Philip III. During his time abroad, he closely studied both classical sculpture and Italian painting from Michelangelo and Titian to Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci, absorbing the lessons of Italian art while maintaining his own strong artistic personality.
Upon his return to Antwerp in 1608, he became court painter to the Spanish viceroys of the Netherlands, Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, while maintaining a busy studio where he trained dozens of pupils (the most famous being Anthony Van Dyck). Inundated with commissions from all over Europe, led by Royal courts of England, France and Spain, he became the first artist since Titian whose fame was international in scope. He once noted that "my talents are such that I have never lacked courage to undertake any design, however vast in size or diversified in subject." He was being modest.
In addition to individual pictures -- altarpieces, portraits, mythological canvases (occasionally executed with the assistance of his friends and colleagues Jan Breughel the Elder and Frans Snyders), Rubens was much in demand for ambitious decorative schemes -- the 24 monumental canvases of the "Life of Maria de' Medici" painted for the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris in 1622-25 (now in the Louvre), two altarpieces and 39 ceiling pictures for the new Jesuit Church in Antwerp (destroyed by fire in the 18th century) the ceiling paintings for the Banqueting House at Whitehall in London (1630-34), the decorations for the Triumphal Entry into Antwerp of the Governor Infante Ferdinand and the Decoration of Philipp IV's hunting lodge, the Torre de la Parada, near Madrid, which featured 112 mythological subjects largely painted by assistants from Rubens' designs.
Additionally, Rubens' irreproachable behavior and discretion, quick mind, charm and knowledge of five languages made him an invaluable and trusted diplomat, and in this capacity he served the courts of Spain and England, eventually helping to secure a peace agreement between the two countries.
Rubens was equally blessed in his private life. Handsome and fit, he seems to have been an uncommonly engaging and charismatic individual with none of the petty jealousies regarding rivals and colleagues that routinely blot the lives of ordinary mortals. He was both collaborator and friend with painters as disparate as Frans Snyders and Jan Breughel the Elder. Excepting the death of his first wife Isabella Brandt, his married life was blissful, capped by his second marriage at age 53 to the blonde and buxom 16-year-old Helene Fourment (who was only four years older than Rubens eldest son). She was pregnant with Rubens last child when the artist died in 1640.
Rubens was one of the very few 17th-century artists who inspired artists right until the early 20th century. His importance to French painting was especially profound and he was closely studied by artists ranging from Watteau, Greuze and Fragonard through to Delacroix and Renoir. The 19th-century writer-brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt described Rubens as "that founding father and that bold initiator. . . . For a hundred years it seems that the painting of France had no other cradle, no other school, no other homeland than in the Galerie of the Luxembourg, the Life of Marie de' Medici. The God is there."
Although English artists (even William Hogarth) were generally quite enthusiastic about the artist (the 18th-century American painter Charles Willson Peale named his fourth son Rubens), the Flemish master's exuberance and muscular physicality also had its detractors. One 18th-century English connoisseur snootily noted that "all his women look like wet-nurses," while the American painter Thomas Eakins actively loathed the Fleming, noting that "his people must be all in the most violent action, must use the strength of Hercules if a little watch is to be wound up, the wind must be blowing great guns even in a chamber of dining room. His pictures always put me in mind of chamber pots and I would not be sorry if they were all burnt."
Both Rubens exhibitions now on view offer excellent introductions to the artist's creative processes. The Met's show of drawings is perhaps the most surprising, where the master of the Baroque at his most turbulent is revealed as a draftsman with a surprisingly varied and often unexpectedly delicate touch. A majority of the drawings on view come from the Albertina, and it is something of a coup for its curators Anne-Marie Logan and Michiel C. Plomp and its instigator, Met drawings curator George Goldner, to have extracted so many sumptuous sheets from the notoriously lend-shy Viennese cabinet.
Rubens valued his drawings highly and did not part with them willingly. He seems to have thought of them as the private evidence of his hard work and incessant choreography in orchestrating his large finished canvases.
From his youth, he was an incessant and astute copyist of earlier painting and sculpture. In these sheets Rubens is at his most careful and methodical, copying art as varied as a 15th-century engraving by Israel van Meckenem to Michelangelo's Libyan Sibyl (Goldner could not resist the opportunity to hang the Met's own Michelangelo drawing for the same figure beside it) to heads from Titian's Diana and Actaeon (Rubens being the best pupil the Venetian painter ever had posthumously) to several front-and-back views of famous second-century Roman marble known as the Borghese Fisherman, which the artist transformed into a painting of The Death of Seneca.
But even in copies, Rubens' touch is lively instead of dry, as if he were inspired by the art in front of him instead of oppressed by it. In his later years, Rubens would take artistic inspiration from the past to a new and more direct level, through reworking and retouching the drawings of earlier artists, and several of these transformations are also included in the show.
In many ways, the most surprising examples in the show are Rubens' pen drawings. Unusually agitated and free, they are often referred to as "crabbelinge" (scribbles) and in such sheets as Studies for Diana and her Nymphs from the Rijksmuseum, the Metropolitan's recently acquired Studies for an Altarpiece and the great Dancing Peasants from the British Museum they show the artist in an almost feverishly expressive mode.
A number of early pen and wash sheets depicting Biblical heroines and hussies are especially notable. In two representations of Susanna, the surprised bather gathers her wrap frantically while glancing back in terror at a ghostly, quickly indicated elder, while in another drawing, Judith hacks off the screaming head of Holofernes with wild abandon. By the time the subject became a finished painting (now lost and known only through an engraving), a violent snapshot had been transformed by the ever-diplomatic artist into a dutiful god sent decapitation.
Rubens preferred medium for drawing was black chalk and he had a comfortable yet careful command of it, while rarely displaying the sensuous fluency in the medium one finds in the drawings of the Carracci (the most notable exceptions are the powerful studies for the Washington Daniel in the Lions' Den and the nude studies for the Antwerp Raising of the Cross). More often than not, he used it with expressive delicacy, seen in two drawings of the Jesuit missionary Nicolas Trigault and an anonymous Korean man, both clad in shimmering oriental robes, and in his breathtakingly beautiful portraits of his family, most of which he further enlivened in red and white chalk.
These tender yet formal masterpieces are the centerpiece of the Met's exhibition. Here is the dimpled Isabella Brandt, the artist's first wife with her naturally impish expression, seen in many of Rubens' early paintings, and several heads of the artist's son -- all with a serious, thoughtful mien, evident even in the famous sheet of Nicholas as an infant wearing a coral necklace. The most captivating of all is a drawing of a lady-in-waiting to the artists' great patron, the Infanta Isabella, a woman often identified as the artist's eldest daughter Clara Serena.
Though this last drawing is described in the exhibition catalogue as a "formal and serious" portrait, it is nothing of the kind. Rather, it is an exemplar of the artist at his most relaxed with a subject he knows well. While her portrait is being made, the young woman seems distracted and lost in thought, her eyes dreamily gaze at something over the artist's shoulder, while her lips tremble in a gentle smile of reminiscence. Despite her court attire and stiff ruff, her hair is pleasantly freed from its coiffure at her temples.
If Rubens' drawings belonged to his private, working realm, often displaying considerable effort and planning, brushes and color seemed to free the artist, and the hard work of chalk and pen on paper give way to a sensuous ease in his oil sketches on panel seemingly executed as effortlessly as one would swirl icing on a cake. These sketches were often shown to patrons as the initial ideas for bigger projects -- from altarpieces and tapestry designs to prints and sculptures -- while others were used as colored blueprints by members of Rubens' workshop. One gets the impression that Rubens derived deep pleasure in painting them.
Unlike Rubens' drawings, which are mostly held in the great European museums of Vienna, London, Paris and Berlin, the masters' oil sketches are widely scattered. During the 1940s and '50s they were probably better appreciated by smaller institutions and college museums, the latter especially valuing them as teaching aids that could be used best to express Rubens' working methods.
Peter C. Sutton, the energetic director of the Bruce Museum, has chosen well and among the 40-odd panels are many unfamiliar works, including Charity Enlightening the World from the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, the surprisingly tiny 22 x 18 cm panel of The Reconciliation of King Henri III and Henri of Navarre (a study for a never-realized sequel to the Life of Marie de Medici) from the University of Rochester and two extraordinary sketches for prints: the grisaille Road to Calvary from the Berkeley Art Museum and the Raising of the Cross from the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is exceptionally painted with a crumbly touch that has lead some scholars to doubt its authenticity -- yet the assured handing of even the summarily treated minor figures in the background lead me to believe it could only have been painted by Rubens himself.
"Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640): The Drawings," Jan. 15-Apr. 3, 2005, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
"Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens," Oct. 2, 2004-Jan. 30, 2005, at the Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Conn.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.