Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640) is mostly known today by the adjective “Rubensesque,” a term coined in the late 1800s that describes the full-figured, voluptuous women present in his mythological and religious paintings. Still, he also excelled in portraiture, hunts and landscapes, and was also prolific as a designer of Flemish tapestry and book frontispieces.
Not only that, but besides the visual arts — he produced an impressive total of over 1,400 artworks during the 50 years he was active — he was an architect and history expert, an art collector, an art teacher and a large workshop owner. Rubens was even a diplomat, and often found time to be engaged in information-gathering activities for the Duchy of Brabant, in the South Netherlands (modern-day Belgium).
Rubens was an erudite man. Throughout his life he read classical literature in the original languages, studied the physical remains of ancient civilizations, collected marble sculptures and carved gems, and conducted lively correspondence with fellow antiquarians across Europe.
Peter Paul Rubens was born in Seigen, in the Holy Roman Empire, today Germany, in 1577 and moved to Antwerp (modern-day Belgium) with his family when he was 12 years old, where he died in 1640 at the age of 63. In Antwerp, he demonstrated a talent for art and was placed in apprenticeships with different artists.
When he was in his early 20s, Rubens traveled to Italy and was soon employed as court artist by Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua. During the next eight years in Italy, he avidly studied a variety of ancient marble sculptures and reliefs in Mantua and Rome, as well as the works of Italian Renaissance masters like Michelangelo, Titian and Caravaggio, all of whom made a big impact on his art.
The exhibition, “Rubens: Picturing Antiquity” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, focuses on the artist’s fascination with the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Anne Woollett, curator of paintings at the Getty aptly says, “Rubens had a unique way of breathing life into the ancient works that inspired them. He manipulated his sources from antiquity and brilliantly re-imagined the classical past.”
The exhibition at the Getty pairs its impressive collection of antiquity art with 17th century Rubens renditions of them. For example, he reunited for the first time an ancient Roman sarcophagus panel depicting the mythological theme of the hunt for a ferocious boar the artist saw in Rome, and his own interpretation of it, in 1612, in the oil on panel, “The Calydonian Boar Hunt” (23 5/6 by 35 3/6 inches). The pairing provides a brilliant example of Rubens’ transformation of ancient sculptures into vivid compositions.
Rubens created this painting after an extended stay in Italy. He drew from ancient sarcophagi and statues he had seen there the poses of many figures. Rubens’ appropriation of many iconic images from antiquity was intended to resonate with learned viewers.
Note, for example, the complexity of this theme: a story from Greek mythology inspired by the Roman sarcophagus panel with the Calydonian Boar Hunt (AD 280-290), a large panel carved in a marble. In both works — the marble panel and Rubens’s painting of the same name — a group of heroic hunters chase after a gigantic beast, a boar, sent by the irate goddess Artemis to ravage the Calydonian countryside.
See how complex and obscure the story is: Every year, Oeneus, the king of the region of Calydon (in the central-west region of Greece) would make annual sacrifices to the gods, offering them a percentage of the harvest. One year, the king forgot to make a sacrifice to the goddess of the hunt, Artemis, who was infuriated. To punish him and his people, Artemis sent a boar that caused devastation in the surrounding area. The King of Calydon then assembled a group of renowned warriors, among them Meleanger, his son, who slayed the beast, and then presented its head as a trophy to his beloved huntress Atalanta who had joined him in the hunt.
Rubens visualized the story, painting the very moment the boar was slain — as it was a snapshot of the scene. Wrapped in a flowing read cape, Meleanger kills the beast, thrusting his spear into the shoulder of the massive boar. Beneath its imposing hooves lie the disemboweled carcass of a hound and the prostrate corpse of the hunter Ancaeus. On the right side of the painting are two hunters mounted on very large horses, and aiming their spears at the boar. The entire scene is depicted in a heightened sense of drama (some nowadays would say overacting), controlled chaos, a strong sense of movement, and rich colors enhancing the sense of drama and opulence in the painting.
The curators of the show at the Getty were ingenious, focusing on a side of the painter that makes him unique, the mythological genre, with the bridge he created between classical antiquity and 17th-century Flemish, and thereafter, Western art in general. Even if the subject matter of the works displayed is complex, Rubens’ rendition of mythological themes is masterful, dynamic compositions emphasizing rich, deep color, light subjects against dark backgrounds, and strong sense of drama and opulence. Baroque style at its best!
The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent, profusely illustrated, and jargon-free catalog, “Rubens: Picturing Antiquity,” edited by the curators of the show.