In 1621, the Danish royal physician Otto Sperling visited an artist’s studio in Antwerp, in what is now Belgium. The great painter he encountered there, he wrote, was not only working while someone read the Roman historian Tacitus to him, but he also dictated a letter and answered his visitors’ questions all at the same time, before sending them off on a tour of his antiquities with his servants. This somewhat over-the-top account gives us an idea of the powerful impression the artist in question, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), and his erudition made on his contemporaries.
Over the course of his illustrious career, Rubens produced altarpieces for the cathedral in Antwerp, rich, mythological scenes for the likes of Philip IV of Spain, and portraits of various dignitaries. He also contributed images for a number of publications on ancient coins, customs, and clothing. Many artists since the Renaissance were trained through the study of ancient sculptures and were familiar with myths, but for Rubens it was an all-encompassing interest. He was actively involved in scholarly discussions with antiquarians of the day and, in his letters, used quotations from a range of ancient Latin, and also Greek, literature – poetry, philosophy, histories – to express himself.
The ways in which the Baroque artist lived with the distant past, envisioned it, and recreated it in chalk and in paint are explored in a new exhibition opening at the Getty Villa in November. In Rubens’s mind, however, the ancient world was not such a remote concept, as Anne Woollett, one of the exhibition’s three curators, explains. ‘I always think that Rubens was building throughout his life a very rich tapestry of his own classical past. He had a kind of alternative universe that transmits his knowledge of sources, both written and formal. It’s like an alternative history. The past isn’t a stale, distant thing, it is a thing that could be lived in his psyche in a way. It becomes part of his art.’
Born in 1577 in Siegen, Germany, where his family had moved after his father was involved in a scandal, Rubens and his family returned to Antwerp in 1589. The prosperous port city had returned to Spanish rule after a year-long siege in 1584-1585, during the Dutch Revolt, and became a Catholic bastion. Protestants were expelled, there were rules as to how people could live in the city, and expressive religious art conforming to Counter Reformation ideals was in high demand.
The young Peter Paul studied at Rombout Verdonck’s Latin School in Antwerp, giving him a thorough familiarity with classical languages and literature, and went on to train with two artists before joining the studio of Otto van Veen (or Otto Vaenius, to give his Latinised name) in about 1594. This was an interesting time of change, when painters in the Southern Netherlands were contemplating their status and seeking overtly intellectual approaches to painting to show the ways in which their art was equal to, if not superior to, sculpture. When you work in a city of distinguished painters, choosing unusual topics offers a chance to stand out. Woollett remarks, ‘Otto van Veen really wanted to bring an intellectual approach to new subjects of painting. We see Rubens, even as a young man, painting really non-standard subjects that are taken from classical mythology and literature – for example, the Battle of the Amazons in the late 1590s, which was not a subject painters were doing before that time.’
Like Otto van Veen and many artists from the Netherlands, Rubens travelled to Italy. He made the journey in 1600, working in the court of Vincenzo I Gonzaga in Mantua and staying in Rome in 1601-1602 and 1606-1608, before returning to Antwerp. Rome provided the opportunity to study ancient masterpieces up close, rather than relying on prints. Rubens drew works in the Vatican’s Belvedere Courtyard such as the Laocoön Group, a sculpture of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons grappling with two sea snakes sent by Apollo. The expressive suffering of Laocoön’s face (which Rubens knew from images before his travels) was a useful source for the devotional art of the Counter Reformation, which aimed to enhance the viewer’s connection to Christ and the Passion.
There was also the brawny Belvedere Torso (a headless body) and Farnese Hercules (the hero Hercules leaning on his club). Muscular figures like these appear often in Rubens’s work. He was perhaps drawn to these sculptures as he admired the physical fitness of ancient Romans, which he viewed as linked with moral fitness. They represent a physical perfection – achieved through vigorous exercise, eating well, and generally looking after oneself – that Rubens saw as impossible to match up to in the flabbiness of his own day.
In his treatise De imitatione statuarum (‘On the Imitation of Statues’), Rubens set out his views that an artist should be discerning, select only the very best statues, and should fully imbibe the ancient sources and distinguish between the form and the material rather than merely copying marble in paint. That way their creations do not ‘smell of stone’, but rather are made to breathe. ‘That’s a very powerful idea’, says Woollett, ‘and it gives him the licence to fulfil the full array of inspirations from the antique. By that I mean also to interpret the emotional content of particular topics or the relationship between figures. When you are an artist working in relation to a source, you want people to see your source, but Rubens doesn’t allow us to just linger on that notion. It’s not just the Belvedere Torso. It becomes part of his narrative, part of the expression that he’s bringing to these ideas.’
A variety of forms borrowed from sculpture can be seen throughout his work. The slouching, drunken figures of satyrs and Silenus, both companions of Dionysus, and the shape of the goddess Venus as rendered in bronze and marble find themselves in Rubens’s canvases. So does the many-breasted figure of Artemis of Ephesus, used for a fountain in his depiction of the discovery of the infant Erichthonius, the future king of Athens who had been born from the earth. This episode from classical mythology was rare in art.
Rubens also made use of less familiar visual sources. One artefact on display in the exhibition is a skilfully sculpted sarcophagus, full of bounding figures on the hunt. The 3rd-century AD marble sarcophagus was installed above a door in a private home in Rome that Rubens must have seen. Its influence can be seen his depiction of the same subject, the Calydonian Boar Hunt, painted on an oak panel shortly after his time in Rome. Despite the popularity of hunting scenes in the Renaissance, this mythological hunt, in which the Calydonian Boar sent by Diana (Artemis) is wounded by Atalanta’s arrow and then killed by Meleager’s spear, had largely been ignored by artists. Yet it was, as the sarcophagus hints, a popular motif in antiquity. Rubens probably drew from some other ancient sources in his depiction of the myth, but there are clear similarities between the two compositions, particularly in the stance of Meleager who thrusts his spear into the boar. Rubens returned to the subject at least four more times, up until the late 1630s, producing some markedly different compositions. The goddess of the hunt was herself another frequent protagonist in Rubens’s mythological scenes. He showed her, for example, on the hunt while her nymphs are accosted by a satyr. The athletic Diana is dressed in red tunic – a vision of beauty that no doubt appealed to the artist’s patrons, as part of a scene that was designed for replication in the workshop.
In Antwerp, where he returned in late 1608, Rubens built an Italianate villa home, which he expanded from an existing Flemish house, and set up his studio. In the garden stood a grand portico, whose overall design, with three gateways and a pair of lofty statues of Mercury (symbolising painting) and Minerva (wisdom), shows the influence of the Roman triumphal arch. Inside, Rubens kept drawings of antiquities he had studied in Rome, as well as depictions of artefacts that had been discovered after his sojourn in Italy, possibly using student-artists to draw the freshly uncovered works. He also had a collection of ancient gems, perhaps brought back from Italy, and an assortment of busts, including one that was then thought to be of the Stoic philosopher Seneca. Together, gems, coins, drawings, and the sculptures, which were displayed in a semi-circular, domed gallery, showcased their owner’s erudition and interests, and provided valuable reference materials.
Gems were critical to Rubens’s engagement with the ancient world. He discussed questions about the subjects of cameos and their dates with others in a number of letters. Clothing was of particular of interest to him, and these small objects proved a useful source of information when he produced some drawings that were to be engraved for a book on the customs and dress of the ancients by his older brother Philip, a keen classical scholar. In the text, Philip acknowledges his sibling’s contributions, not just of images, but of ‘keen and unerring judgement’.
‘Rubens was highly admired for his scholarship and his erudition,’ Woollett says. ‘People were writing to him all the time for his opinions and his insight – and it was a very distinguished group of people. The process of discovery and refinement went on until his death. We know that Rubens had firmly held viewpoints on things based on what he’d been reading and studying. And so he’s also shaping the study of antiquity in a way.’
Cameos also brought him in touch with one of the leading antiquaries of the day: Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc in France. Their first direct encounter was when Peiresc was working in the Treasury of Sainte-Chapelle, the royal chapel in Paris, in 1620 and discovered a spectacular agate cameo showing the imperial family with Germanicus taking leave of his father the emperor Tiberius. Measuring 31cm in height, the Gemma Tiberiana (or Grand Camée de France) is the largest surviving Roman cameo. While investigating this new discovery, Peiresc wrote to Rubens to ask for his drawing of another large cameo with a similar composition involving the imperial family above a group of Roman soldiers with captives, the Gemma Augustea, initiating years of friendly correspondence between the two men. Rubens was to draw the Gemma Tiberiana for a book on gems he and Peiresc were planning, and which would have included some of Rubens’s collection, but the project ultimately languished. The artist did leave behind a masterful painting of the cameo, which he produced for his learned friend – though only after some prompting to deliver on his promise.
This spirit of friendly debate and conversation is reflected in one group portrait, which includes Rubens’s earliest surviving self-portrait. Painted around 1602, this work shows six men in Mantua (Lago di Mezzo is visible through the window). The date of the work and the identities of the figures are still debated, but it is generally agreed that the man looking out at us on the right is Rubens, and the one just behind him is Philip Rubens, who joined Peter Paul for most of his time in Italy. On the far right, we see the classical scholar Justus Lipsius, whose brand of Neo-Stoicism made the ancient philosophy palatable to the Christian world. Lipsius taught many figures in Rubens’s circle, including Philip and, most likely, the three men on the left of the painting. Though he was not present in Mantua, the inclusion of this authoritative figure highlights his importance among these like-minded friends.
Tight-knit groups like these were an important part of scholarship in the 17th century, as Woollett explains. ‘Knowledge of the ancient world was shared through the process of friendship. It’s transmitted and expressed among like-minded individuals. In a funny way, it somewhat mirrors how the exhibition came about. We’re three curators who all have a love of Rubens and we all have different areas of work. When we were selecting the objects for the exhibition and working on the catalogue, I was struck time and time again by how much Rubens communicated with his friends, people who were very dear to him because they had this shared love.’
For Rubens, relics of antiquity could be brought to life. One of the most potent ways in which the Roman past could be made modern was through triumphs. He composed triumphal scenes glorifying the Church, produced a series on Constantine, and, on commission from Marie de’ Medici, included a scene of her late husband Henry IV of France’s triumphal entry into Paris in an unfinished series for the Luxembourg Palace. Cameos were an important source for such images, with their chariots and personifications of Fame bearing laurel wreaths.
The artist was even involved in transforming the triumph into a lived experience. In Antwerp, as with other cities in the Low Countries and Italy, there was a tradition of welcoming rulers in a grand spectacle. Rubens’s teacher Otto van Veen collaborated on the celebratory entry into Antwerp in 1599 of Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabelle, the new governors of the Southern Netherlands, and the young artist may have assisted on that. Decades later, he stepped into a much more prominent role, as the main designer for the entry of the later governor, the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand in 1635.
‘It’s a ridiculously ambitious idea,’ Woollett remarks. ‘What an incredible visual feast – that modernises, makes relevant to his contemporaries, these ancient ideas.
‘The difference between the earlier one and the 1635 entry is the complexity and the scale, and that has a lot to do with its aim. Antwerp really needed to impress the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand. The entries are a contract, in a sense, between the city and the visitor. The city says all those lovely things about the visitor, but they’re asking that person, who is usually the ruler of the region, for certain things in return: to honour certain privileges that the city may have in terms of trade, to protect it from certain challenges from other places. It’s a way of presenting your agenda, in a very glorious way.’
A series of 20m-high triumphal arches made from wood and plaster, decorated with paintings, flags, and flowers, formed the backbone of the magnificent occasion, as grand stops along the procession route. ‘But things don’t go to plan,’ Woollett says. ‘The Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand postponed his visit and this gives Rubens a little bit more time. He redesigns the first element of the entry, which was the stage of welcome. It was initially just a single-field architectural feature that Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand and his procession would pass in front of it. But then Rubens added two scenes, one on each side like a humungous triptych. This enables Rubens to elaborate on the iconography of celebrating the Cardinal-Infante’s recent military victory, his long journey from Spain to the Netherlands, the way that nature assists him in his journey, and all of these things.’
Despite the winter rain, the event was a success and, when offered a gift of his choice by the city, Ferdinand decided to take the Rubens paintings. They were dispatched to Brussels, where most were unfortunately destroyed in a fire in the early 18th century. But as well as a couple of oil sketches that have survived, there is also a commemorative volume written by one of Rubens’s friends and collaborators on the grand project, the Latinist Gaspar Gevartius, which offers insights into the look of and ideas behind the design.
As Woollett says, ‘It was a propagandistic statement in a language that’s drawn from ancient models – gems and marble sources from the Forum and other places in Rome. Rubens took all of these ideas and then reformulated them so they represented one of his contemporary military commanders.’
Through elaborate productions like this, lively correspondence, and vivid paintings, no matter how steeped he was in classical statuary and monuments, Rubens made sure his version of the ancient world did not ‘smell of stone’.
Rubens: picturing antiquity runs at the Getty Villa from 10 November 2021 to 24 January 2022. See www.getty.edu/visit for more information.
A lavishly illustrated catalogue will be published to accompany the exhibition. Rubens: picturing antiquity, edited by Anne T Woollett, Davide Gasparotto, and Jeffrey Spier, Getty Publications (ISBN 978-1606066706, price £30/$40).