Peter Paul Rubens is considered as the epitome of European Baroque painting. As no other artist he has influenced this era through his monumental oeuvre, with voluptuous female and athletic male bodies encountering in dynamic image compositions. The exhibition at the Städel Museum Rubens. The Power of Transition explores one aspect of his artistic work that has been paid only little attention to so far: how Rubens got inspired by the works of other artists and reworked them to charge them in terms of subject matter and to condense them into innovative compositions in a creative transformation process.
With about 100 works, among them paintings, drawings, graphic prints and sculptures by Rubens and other artists from the ancient world, the Renaissance and contemporaries of the Baroque period the show visualizes the image sources of the Flemish master. The exhibition in Frankfurt was conceived in cooperation with the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and is the second station after Vienna, loans come from international collections and museums, such as the National Gallery in London, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Alongside 31 paintings and 23 drawings by Rubens works by Titian, Tintoretto, Elsheimer and Giambologna are presented. The imagery of Peter Paul Rubens covers all genres of painting, from altarpieces to portraits and landscape painting. Reflecting contemporary tastes Rubens created pictures with biblical subject matters from the Old and New Testament and above all mythology, in which he brought the ancient gods impressively to life, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Rubens presented the educated and at the same time voyeuristic audience sensuous female nudes and muscle-bound heroes in elegiac landscapes, by means of allegory and mythology he smartly got around the taboo of nudity imposed by the Catholic Church and social morals of his time.
The comprehensive show at the Städel Museum allows the visitor to look over Rubens’ shoulder during his creative working process and to witness how he turns works by his precursors and contemporaries into images of his own. Dealing with art history was common at the time of Peter Paul Rubens, the pursuit of outperforming preceding masters in their perfection by using their own works and even reworking them is called emulation. The competition with role models was seen as a legitimate creative act to ignite an evolutionary transformation process by adaptation. Rubens mastered the art of quoting skillfully and assembled elements from the works by other artists so smartly that one gets the impression, that these originals only had waited for centuries to be put in a broader spiritual and philosophical context.
Michiel Coxcie (1497/1501 – 1592), Abel Slain by Kain, reworked by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1609, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Rubens didn’t shy away from cutting original drawings by other artists.
Rubens also felt no qualms about drawing over drawings by contemporaries or Renaissance artists purchased by him, to cut them and to transform them like a collage into his own composition ideas. This handling of works of art reveals an entirely different understanding of artistic practice in the baroque era than today, art wasn’t considered as a cultural asset protected by copyright that needed to be preserved for following generations, but as raw material that could be modified in the sense of emulation. Using the stylistic device of emulation Rubens already anticipated the sampling of today’s hip-hop.
Peter Paul Rubens was one of the most popular painters of the Baroque and presented himself as a painter prince surrounded by international clients. Born in 1577 in Siegen in Westphalia he was endowed with his world career already at birth. Coming from one of the best families of the merchant class he was familiar with the aristocratic conventions ever since childhood, which was to be beneficial for his career as a European diplomat. His education as a painter he got in Antwerp with his teacher Otto van Veen and at the age of only 21 years he entered the Guild of Saint Luke, the Antwerp guild for painters, as a master, where he got in touch with the highest intellectual circles of the city. After his rise to one of the most celebrated painters of his time he created paintings for the royals throughout Europe, for statesmen, diplomats and the clergy.
Rubens swapped ideas with academics and aristocrats and travelled through Europe on a mission for Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia of Austria to contribute to signing the peace treaty between Spain and England in 1630. In addition to his mother tongues German and Dutch he spoke fluently Latin, Italian, Spanish and French. As a successful entrepreneur Rubens was running an expanding workshop with a large number of apprentices, with around 2000 works being preserved, partly painted by his own hand, partly with the aid of his assistants. To continually educate himself as an intellectual he afforded a comprehensive library and an art collection of his own. His self-portrait from 1638 depicts him as a self-confident nobleman who dresses trendily after the fashion of his time: with broad-brimmed hat, cloak, lace collar, glove and rapier. As painting was still considered as a craft in the Baroque era, any attribute of the painters’ guild is missing. This wouldn’t have done justice to Rubens’ portrayal as superstar of the nobility and the church.
Peter Paul Rubens, Self-portrait, 1638, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Without his journey to Italy Rubens wouldn’t have been able to reinvent Flemish painting.
During a stay in Italy from 1600 to 1608 Rubens got important impulses for his artistic development, he was to live on as an artist for his entire life. The first stopover of his journey through Italy was Venice, where he studied the altarpieces by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. As court painter to the duke of Mantua he got the opportunity to travel throughout Italy. In Florence he was invited to the wedding of Maria de Medici and Henry IV, the future king of France, and admired the art treasures of the Medici and the sculptures by Michelangelo. For Rubens the highlight of his journey, however, was his stay in Rome, where he visited the papal art collection of the Vatican, the Galleria Borghese and the archaeological excavations of ancient Rome. Ancient sculpture was to have the strongest influence on his work, he captured the sculptures in hundreds of drawings from all possible perspectives, he explored their anatomy, poses and facial expressions. In 1634 he wrote: “On all my journeys I never missed to view ancient objects exhibited in public or owned by private persons and to study them and to purchase certain rare things…”.
The image pool he created in Italy Rubens drew from his entire life and used the ancient originals in ever changing combinations. He treasured the drawings and devised that after his death they should not be sold before it was certain that none of his sons or future sons-in-law would become a professional painter. But also the light of the south changed the colors of his paintings and added warmer shades to the northern European cool color palette of his early work. In addition to creating sketches from ancient sculptures Rubens also made copies of paintings by the Renaissance masters, above all the work by Titian he delved into. In the spirit of emulation Titian, whom he tried to outperform, was 35 times the starting point to create works of his own.
A particularly impressive example of Rubens’ appropriation and metamorphosis that proves how important it was in the Baroque period to refer to role models and to surpass them in order to find the approval of the art enthusiasts is the juxtaposition with Titian’s late work Venus and Adonis from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Titian shows the goddess of love hit by Cupid’s arrow from behind, while she holds Adonis in a tight embrace, who is trying to free himself. Rubens depicts Titian’s image mirrored, maybe influenced by the reversed reproduction of etchings, and shows Venus from the front. Just like the viewer of the image Adonis is captured by the voluptuous body shapes of Venus, but he resists the carnal temptation to follow his dogs.
Titian, Venus and Adonis, 1555-60, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Peter Paul Rubens, Venus and Adonis, 1630, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Rubens took the liberty to transform a wild centaur into Christ.
How free Rubens used his inspiration sources shows his painting Ecce Homo from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg right in the entrance area of the Frankfurt exhibition, where he turns the body of a centaur into the maltreated body of Christ without any qualms. A plaster cast and a drawing by the hand of Rubens after the Roman original sculpture visualize his creative process of composing images. The chimera half-man, half-horse is tamed by a little cupid who is pulling its hair painfully. Rubens turns the contorted upper body of the centaur into the slightly twisted body of Christ wearing the crown of thorns, and also the facial expression contorted with pain he transfers to his painting by turning it into the suffering of the Son sacrificing himself. Rubens draws the dynamic and innovation of the Ecce Homo depiction not least from the fact that the animal sex drive of a centaur from ancient times worshipping pagan gods becomes the starting point for the passion of Christ.
Roman, Centaur Tamed by Cupid, 1st-2nd century AD, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Peter Paul Rubens, Centaur Tamed by Cupid, 1601/02, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne
Peter Paul Rubens, Ecce Homo, no later than 1612, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Also Rubens‘ Venus Frigida, the freezing Venus from 1614, was inspired by a Roman marble sculpture. The Crouching Venus rests her right knee on the floor, while she turns her head to the right and puts her right arm on her left shoulder to cover her breasts. Rubens adopts the identical posture of the ancient crouching Venus, but through a new context he gives her an entirely different mood. Crouching under a tree together with her son Cupid she is freezing, while she is exposed to the voyeuristic gaze of a lusty satyr carrying a cornucopia. Rubens portrays the goddess with human traits, her apathetic look illustrates a popular saying of the time: “Love freezes without eating and drinking.” The ears and fruit in the cornucopia of the satyr are meant to warm Venus to love. Rubens used the original Roman sculpture not only for Venus Frigida, but also for The Death of Adonis, painted in 1614 as well.
Roman, Crouching Venus, 2nd century AD, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Peter Paul Rubens, Venus Frigida, 1614, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp
Peter Paul Rubens, The Death of Adonis, 1614, Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Rubens also was a master of horror who satisfied the voyeuristic leanings of his contemporaries.
Also applied arts represented a source of inspiration for Peter Paul Rubens, which he exploited for his images. For his scary painting The Head of Medusa from 1617/18 from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna he used an ornamented shield out of browned iron that was manufactured in Milan in the Renaissance period around 1533/41. In Greek mythology the look of scary Medusa with snakes as hair turned any opponent to stone. By means of Athena’s golden shield, in which the approaching Medusa was reflected, Perseus finally succeeded in beheading the monster and used the head of Medusa, hidden in a bag, as lethal weapon against his enemies.
Legend has it that The Head of Medusa horrified Rubens’ contemporaries so terribly that it had to be hidden behind a curtain, which even increased the horror effect. For the illustration of the snakes, which are painted in an extremely realistic way, Rubens engaged the animal painter Frans Snyders who had specialized on the illustration of animals and cooperated with Rubens in numerous projects, among others the eagle in Rubens’ image Prometheus is said to be painted by him. Last but not least The Head of Medusa is a metaphor for the horror of the Thirty Years’ War which had been triggered by the Defenestration of Prague in 1618 and devastated Europe.
Milan, Medusa Shield, 1535 / 1541, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Padua, Creeping Snake, 1st half 16th century, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Peter Paul Rubens, The Head of Medusa, 1617/18, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
In 1420 an ancient marble torso was discovered during excavations in Rome which was considered as one of the greatest masterpieces of the ancient world since the Renaissance period. The torso of a naked athletic man was attributed to sculptor Apollonios of Athens, although it also might be a Roman copy. Around 1530 the sculpture was put up in the museum of the Vatican, where it was named after its location, the Belvedere court, and since then has gone down in art history as Belvedere Torso. Legend has it that Pope Julius II requested Michelangelo to complete the torso, which was reclined by him.
In interpreting the work art historians waver between Hercules, the wounded Philoctetes and the satyr Marsyas before his death by flaying. Also Peter Paul Rubens was impressed by the torso and made numerous drawings from different perspectives. In his altarpieces The Resurrection of Christ and Saint Augustine between Christ and the Virgin, which were both painted in 1615, Rubens used the upper body with the naturalistically shaped abdominal muscles to give Christ the vitality and expressiveness of a living human being. Rubens attached great importance to the animation of his marmoreal role models in his sketches, which he mostly drew with chalk or red ochre, by highlighting the muscles and blood vessels under the skin.
Apollonios The Athenian (attributed), Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC, Musei Vaticani, Rome
Peter Paul Rubens, Study of The Belvedere Torso, 1601/02, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Peter Paul Rubens, The Resurrection of Christ, 1615, Palazzo Patti, Florence
Peter Paul Rubens, Saint Augustine between Christ and the Virgin, 1615, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid
For Rubens The Judgement of Paris was the ideal subject matter to celebrate the beauty of the female body.
The Judgement of Paris was a mythological subject matter that fascinated the audience in the Golden Age of Dutch painting and also kept Rubens occupied for his entire life. No less than eight versions of this subject matter by Rubens are known respectively preserved, no other myth of the Greek ancient world reveals the stylistic development of Rubens more clearly than the Judgement of Paris. The story is about the dispute at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis on Mount Ida, where all gods were invited except for Eris, the goddess of strife and discord. In revenge she threw a golden apple with the inscription “For the most beautiful one” in the middle of the wedding party. The goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite got into an argument about the apple, whereupon Zeus had to decide on who was the most beautiful one.
However, he dodged this task by requesting the Trojan king’s son Paris to make the decision, who was fetched by Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Hera promised Paris to rule the world, Athena wisdom and Aphrodite the most beautiful woman of the world, Helena. Paris let himself be tempted by Aphrodite’s offer and presented the apple to her. However, Helena was already married to Menelaos, the mighty king of Sparta, her rape, which had been inevitable to fulfill the divine promise, was to become the origin of the Trojan War that king of the gods Zeus had been wishing for several reasons.
The Judgement of Paris represents the prototype of all beauty competitions and today‘s model castings. For Rubens this subject matter offered an ideal opportunity to present female nudity in absolute perfection and from different perspectives, with the moralizing undertone of the story saving him from the accusation of obscenity. For Rubens the most important source of inspiration was an etching by Marcantonio Raimondi from 1517 that he had made after a painting by Raphael, which has gone lost unfortunately. Raimondi closely collaborated with Raphael, through his etchings after works by Raphael he significantly contributed to his degree of awareness. In its composition and content Raphael’s Judgement of Paris clearly stands out from its predecessors and pays homage to the beauty of the human body and the ancient world. Just like Rubens also Raphael celebrated the nudity of the protagonists.
Marcantonio Raimondi, The Judgement of Paris, ca. 1511/20, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
Peter Paul Rubens, The Judgement of Paris, ca. 1597/99, National Gallery, London
Rubens focused on the crucial moment of the presentation of the apple and varied this composition again and again. In the earliest version from 1597/99, a loan from the National Gallery in London to the exhibition in Frankfurt, Rubens still closely follows Raphael’s composition, his figures in a Nordic landscape painted with cool colors are still influenced by the Mannerism of his teacher Otto van Veen. Over the following four decades of his creative work Rubens picked up the Judgement of Paris again and again, subjecting it to a constant metamorphosis. Due to his stay in Italy his palette finally changed to warmer color shades, and on the other hand the study of ancient sculpture had an essential impact on the development of his own style with his characteristic Rubenesque figures.
Rubens insisted on his artistic independence and defied censorship by the Spanish court.
This transformation process can be clearly observed in Rubens’ last version of the Judgement of Paris which he created for the Spanish King Philip IV. The goddesses are portrayed in life-size in distinctly brightened colors, with the naturalistic depiction of Venus being a covert portrait of Rubens’ second wife Hélène Fourment. However, the Spanish court was bothered by the displayed nudity of the figures, what made things even worse was the fact that Rubens was a diplomat in the service of Spain, which automatically made his wife Hélène a member of the Spanish courtiers. To portray a member of the Spanish court in the nude represented a rude breach of etiquette. Changes to the picture that were meant to cover the nudity of the goddesses weren’t made by Rubens, he declined to respond to the request of the Spanish court. Hereupon the painting that is presented in the Prado in Madrid in the meantime was hung in the Buen Retiro Palace of the Spanish king behind a red curtain, where it was inaccessible to the public.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Judgement of Paris, ca. 1639, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
The exhibition Rubens. The Power of Transformation impresses with its extraordinary intensity with a great number of outstanding loans. The show at the Städel Museum offers an intimate view of Rubens’ creative practice, the many facets of his oeuvre can be experienced in a fresh way through the dialogue with his sources of inspiration from the ancient world and the Renaissance. Today his principle of appropriation and assembling of foreign image content that he subjects to an intensive transformation process to put it in an entirely new and unfamiliar context is more topical than ever. Although Rubens primarily re-established 17th century Flemish painting as an antipode to Italian art, he was the first pan-European artist who recognized the cultural heritage of Europe in its entirety and anywhere, where he was creative, if in Antwerp, Rome or Madrid, he left works that transcend any purely national understanding of art.
08.02.18 – 03.06.18 Städel Museum, Frankfurt