Early Rubens – Audio Tour Script
TOM CAMPBELL: Hello, I’m Tom Campbell, Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Welcome to the Legion of Honor, and to our special exhibition.
Peter Paul Rubens had one of the most glittering artistic careers of the seventeenth century. A brilliant draughtsman and painter, his imagery is full of drama, color, movement and emotion. A member of scholarly and humanist circles, he would eventually work for royal courts around Europe, both as an artist, and as a diplomat. The exhibition explores a pivotal period in his early career. After eight years in Italy, where he immersed himself in modern Italian and ancient art, he had returned to Antwerp, in what we would today call Belgium. There, established himself as one of the foremost artists of northern Europe, in demand as a painter of moving religious images, spectacular mythological scenes, and portraits with a vivid sense of life and character.
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Lamentation of Christ, c. 1602-06, Galleria Borghese
NARRATOR: Exhibition co-curator Kirk Nickel:
KIRK NICKEL: Not long after entering Antwerp’s Painters Guild and thereby becoming a master painter in his own right, Rubens traveled to Italy. This was a relatively common sort of trip that talented and ambitious European artists would take.
NARRATOR: Rubens went to Italy in 1600, then in his early twenties. During his eight years there he made this painting, probably for a wealthy cardinal. It shows Christ’s dead body, just taken down from the cross. Behind him is his mother, Mary. Here’s exhibition co-curator, Sasha Suda:
SASHA SUDA: The Virgin is in incredible anguish. // She looks up to the sky, presumably to God for strength. God’s own presence is indicated through the stream of light. The physicality of Christ is notable.
NARRATOR: The poignancy of seeing Christ’s helpless, dead body like this, right after he died to save mankind, is intended to strengthen a viewer’s Christian faith. Rubens’ ability to portray the human body with such expressiveness and realism grew during his time in Italy, as he studied Italian Renaissance and contemporary painting. And so did his knowledge of classical sculpture, which he would draw on for the rest of his career. Notice that the tomb Christ rests on is actually a beautifully-rendered Roman sarcophagus.
Hero and Leander, c. 1604, Yale University Art Gallery
NARRATOR: Surrounded by sea-nymphs, a young man’s body floats on the dark waves. It’s Leander, who, in Greek mythology, fell in love with Hero, a young priestess. Every night, she lit a lamp in her tower across a narrow stretch of sea, and Leander would swim to her. But one evening, after stormy winds blew out the lamp, Leander lost his way and drowned. To the right, Hero, dressed in red, plunges to her death after seeing her lover die.
The painting reveals Rubens’s intense study of classical literature – begun during his education at Latin school in Antwerp, and deepened during his time in Italy.
KIRK NICKEL: The story of Hero and Leander is developed first by Ovid and then is elaborated on by other ancient authors, and Rubens draws from those versions to create a single scene that combines both deaths.
Whoever the painting was made for, very likely would have displayed it among other mythological scenes where they could discuss with friends the story being shown, and how clever Rubens has been in bringing the two deaths together in this one tragic moment.
Self Portrait in a Circle of Friends from Mantua, 1602-04, Wallraf-Ritchartz-Museum and Fondation Corboud
NARRATOR: The young man looking out at the viewer in this painting is Rubens himself. It’s his first known self-portrait.
An Italian trip was then the highlight of an artist’s education. There, you learned from great art of the Renaissance and of the modern masters. And you studied classical sculpture, considered by many the foundation of artistic knowledge. In addition, Rubens quickly found employment at the court of the powerful Gonzaga family, who ruled the area around Mantua in northern Italy.
To commemorate this prestigious appointment, Rubens made this self-portrait with friends – and his brother Philip, who’s just behind him.
KIRK NICKEL: It has long been thought that this is a group of expatriates — colleagues, mentors, that very likely passed through Mantua while he was there.
He shows himself not in the act of painting. but in a conversation with colleagues at the court – he is a courtier. And that would be Rubens’ habit for the rest of his life. Ruben’s pose communicates real self-possession at this moment in his young career – he thinks a lot of his abilities, and intends to do great things in Italy.
Portrait of Rogier Clarisse, Portrait of Sara Breyel, c. 1611, FAMSF
NARRATOR: Rubens painted these portraits of a husband and wife soon after returning to Antwerp after eight triumphant years in Italy. Now just into his thirties, he quickly established himself back home as an extremely sought-after artist.
This couple, the wealthy silk merchant Rogier Clarisse and his wife Sarah Breyel, were the parents-in-law of Ruben’s close friend Jan Woverius. You’ll find a portrait of him nearby.
KIRK NICKEL: When Rubens painted these portraits, the Clarisse family was on the rise in Antwerp. Rubens shows the pair as well dressed but conservative in taste. Sara Breyel’s dress is decorated with a very fine, but narrow, band of gold buttons.
NARRATOR: In her hand, she holds a white handkerchief made from silk – a subtle reminder of the source of the family’s prosperity.
KIRK NICKEL: The portrait of Rogier Clarisse is only slightly less restrained than that of his wife. And it’s really in this fur lining to Rogier’s cloak where we see Rubens let loose with his brushwork. The rich dense, luminous, fur is created from just a welter of thin brush marks, and it’s this passage where Rubens’ artistry matches Rogier’s display of wealth.
Portrait of Isabella Brant, c. 1620-25, Cleveland Museum of Art
NARRATOR: This is Rubens’ first wife, Isabella Brant. The daughter of an Antwerp city official, she married the artist soon after he arrived back from Italy. Together, they had a daughter and two sons.
KIRK NICKEL: And this portrait is a very loving representation of her not as his new bride, but as his beloved wife and mother of his children.
What I love about this portrait is the way Rubens captures this finely regulated emotion that’s expressed on her face. She has a real glint in her eye and seems entirely amused by this act of her husband painting her, but a real joy at the same time.
NARRATOR: It’s a quickly-painted, intimate portrayal of the person closest to Rubens, Isabella’s expression conveying a vivid sense of her character and the connection between them. But the year after he made this painting, Isabella died at age thirty-five.
By now, the family lived in the splendid mansion you’ll see in the engraving nearby. There, Rubens worked on commissions for aristocratic and royal patrons, and kept his library and extensive collections of antiquities. In short, he lived like a nobleman – which was extremely rare among artists at this time.
Portrait of Paracelsus, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
KIRK NICKEL: Paracelsus was a Swiss physician and alchemist, who lived more than a hundred years before Rubens.
NARRATOR: So why – and how – did Rubens paint his portrait?
KIRK NICKEL: When Rubens returns to Antwerp he starts taking commissions and he gets married and he becomes involved in various intellectual circles, but he’s also interested in to connecting to the origins of great modern painting in Antwerp, which is what this represents – this is Rubens doing his rendition of an earlier style of painting.
NARRATOR: He has included several elements drawn from portraits of an earlier era, such as placing the figure behind a parapet, in front of a vast landscape receding into a misty blue distance.
KIRK NICKEL: This seems to have been a means to both learn how earlier painters developed their signature effects, and it was also a way for Rubens to connect himself to a long tradition of great painting in Antwerp that dated back a hundred years.
The Annunciation, c. 1610, Kunsthistorisches Museum
NARRATOR: In a dark, nighttime setting that heightens this painting’s intensity, the Angel Gabriel arrives with momentous news for Mary.
KIRK NICKEL: Mary has just been facing away from the viewer reading the holy scripture when this tumult of heavenly light and angelic beings cascades into her bedroom. She turns to face Gabriel, her body expressing some surprise, but her face entirely placid, showing no anxiety about this moment of revelation where she is told that she will conceive a child through the Holy Spirit.
NARRATOR: The painting is full of lessons Rubens learned in Italy, including the way the figures look rounded and fully three dimensional. And the intensity of Ruben’s colors, the sense of movement in the bodies, and the billowing draperies all add visual excitement to this key moment in Christ’s story.
By these means, the painting was intended to move and enthrall those who saw it. It was commissioned by the Jesuit seminary in Antwerp. They received generous funding from the Catholic rulers of the Spanish Netherlands to assist in strengthening the Catholic faith there, in the face of growing Protestantism in northern Europe.
Tribute Money, c. 1612, FAMSF
NARRATOR: This dramatic conversation is centered around the figure of Christ.
KIRK NICKEL: Rubens is well known and well-loved for his tense, dramatic action.
The moment is recounted in the gospels when the Pharisees send their followers to confront Jesus about whether the Jewish people should pay taxes to the Roman government, or if their tithes were due to God alone. This lays a verbal trap for Christ to fall into with the hope that by denouncing the Roman government, the Romans might put Christ to death.
Rubens takes this moment and turns it into a lesson about human sight. The scene seems very confrontational, everyone leaning in, craning their necks to see how Christ will answer this impossible question.
NARRATOR: In response, Christ simply takes a coin with Caesar’s head on it, saying “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God, the things that are God’s”. In this way, he astonishes his audience with his intellectual dexterity, and grasp of fundamental truth.
Christ on the Straw, 1618, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen
NARRATOR: The two outer panels of this altarpiece were designed to be closed, like doors, over the precious central image – and opened, to spectacular effect. Here’s Nico van Hout, a curator at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp.
NICO VAN HOUT: We are standing in front of a masterpiece of color. This is truly spectacular. You see Christ on the Straw, which is of course one of the most emotional religious paintings Rubens ever did.
NARRATOR: In the center, Christ’s dead body, taken down from the cross, is laid gently on a bed of straw by his mother, Mary, and his followers. To the left, the infant Christ seems to gaze across at his future self and his fate in a way which is almost unbearably poignant. And to the right is John the Evangelist, who will spread the word of Christ in his gospel.
The lifelike expressions and poses of the figures in Rubens’ paintings are due to extensive preparatory studies.
NICO VAN HOUT: In order to have a good amount of variety amongst them, he had to make head studies before, that could be introduced a little bit in every composition. So he used to depict one model seen from different sides – in profile, from underneath, from above, so that he could use those heads here and there where needed.
Holy Family with St Elizabeth, St John and a Dove, 1608-09, MMA
NARRATOR: At first glance, this portrayal of the Holy Family is endearingly intimate and playful. Leaning back in his mother Mary’s lap, the infant Christ pulls a dove away from his older cousin John. John’s mother Elizabeth appears to the right, and to the left is Joseph the carpenter, Christ’s earthly father.
But despite the sense of informality, the painting is full of symbols that point to God’s miraculous powers, and Christ’s serious future. The dove itself represents the Holy Spirit. It’s often shown hovering above Christ’s head as John baptizes him later on, when they are adults. Also, Christ’s chubby little foot points toward his wooden cradle. It subtly echoes the shape of a tomb, and in this way, foreshadows his death to save mankind.
Rubens would have painted this intimate scene for a patron’s home, rather than for a church setting – which required a more formal depiction of the Holy Family. Nearby, you’ll see another, larger version of this painting. For a successful artist with many commissions to fulfil, copying paintings, often with studio assistants helping out, was common.
Lot and his Daughters, c. 1613-14, Private Collection
KIRK NICKEL: Reubens’ scene of Lot and his daughters comes from a Biblical narrative fraught with transgression.
NARRATOR: Lot and his daughters have fled the town of Sodom which God vowed to destroy, and shelter in a cave.
KIRK NICKEL: The two daughters, afraid that their father’s lineage may have come to an end, devise to get him drunk and become pregnant by him.
The scene certainly lends itself to the display of flesh, and that would have been a significant aspect in its appeal for the patron who ultimately acquired the work. Rubens also layered the scene with a surprising amount of moral ambiguity. Rubens presents Lot as the more complicated character – his leering gaze at his naked daughter presents him as perhaps the predator.
NARRATOR: And in fact, Rubens modeled Lot’s head and torso on an ancient sculpture of a Satyr – a notoriously lecherous creature. But the old man’s reclining pose draws on a famous Michelangelo painting of a young woman, who is seduced by Zeus, king of the Gods.
KIRK NICKEL: So in the single figure of Lot, Rubens is pitting references to seducer and seduced in equal parts. For those viewers who were aware of the references Rubens was making, the scene becomes all the more ambiguous and harder to read for its moral lesson
NARRATOR: – as well as flattering to their knowledge of classical and Renaissance art.
The Capture of Samson, 1609-10, AIC
NARRATOR: In the center of this tumultuous scene, the Old Testament hero Samson is captured. To the left is his lover, Delilah, who has betrayed him to his enemies by allowing them to cut his hair and deprive him of his strength. In this dynamic oil sketch, Rubens is working out how to tell Samson’s story.
NICO VAN HOUT: He chooses the moment where he’s captured and before he’s blinded and that enables Rubens to oppose the drama of the violence, with a very quiet and rather diva-like appearance of Delilah.
Her sensuality is opposing that sort of violence that breaks loose and it always comes in mind to me that a scene like this shows Rubens as a filmmaker. We see the same tricks used in film as in in oils. You see the drama of the action with the oblique, and the foreshortening of the figure of Samson, and we see the light falling mainly upon the female actress here, Delilah.
NARRATOR: Elsewhere in this gallery, you’ll find another oil sketch – this time, showing an earlier point in the story where Delilah watches while the sleeping Samson’s hair is cut – a charged moment that will set off the catastrophic consequences we see playing out here.
The Dreaming Silenus, c. 1610-12
SASHA SUDA: In The Dreaming Silenus, we encounter this god who reports to Bacchus – himself the chief partier – drunken after a long night of revelry.
Behind Silenus himself, we see two satyrs, both of whom are still indulging, and in the center right of the painting, we have a quite incredible still life. That includes contemporary glassware, tableware and other objects that would have been collected extensively in 17th century Antwerp.
NARRATOR: The beautiful panther beside Silenus was probably painted in by Rubens’s friend Frans Snyders, who specialized in animals. He and Rubens could have seen real exotic animals in the royal collection in Brussels, as well as in prints and books.
SASHA SUDA: One can’t help but think that he could pounce at any moment, and all of these very fragile objects on the table could be destroyed. It’s a painting that reminds us that happiness, indulgence, calm, can be momentary. But it also celebrates the everyday life and indulgences of those people who would commission such a painting.
Head of Medusa, Moravian Gallery in Brno
NICO VAN HOUT: The painting we’ve got in front of us is called the Medusa.
NARRATOR: According to some versions of Medusa’s story, she was once a beautiful young woman, who was raped by the sea god Poseidon in the temple of Athena. Unfairly blaming Medusa for having desecrated the sacred space of her temple, Athena became enraged with her.
NICO VAN HOUT: She was punished by the goddess, who transformed her long hair into horrible snakes and all sorts of small creatures you see creeping out.
NARRATOR: Anyone who looked at Medusa was turned instantly to stone. But eventually the hero Perseus managed to cut off her head by looking only at her reflection in his polished shield.
Rubens portrays Medusa’s severed head. Disturbingly, the snakes are still full of life, while her ashen face is frozen in an expression of pure horror. Around her lurk a scorpion, a lizard, spiders and a worm.
NICO VAN HOUT: Reubens really took care to look at books and to look for small images of strange creatures he could use in in this work.
NARRATOR: In his splendid Antwerp mansion, Rubens had collections of art, antiquities and curiosities, as well as an extensive library of books he could consult to help inspire details like these.
The Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1610, AGO
NARRATOR: Babies wrenched from their mothers’ arms, and dying beneath their feet. A child raised up high, to be brutally dashed to the ground. And a grandmother, about to be mercilessly killed. This violent and shocking scene pictures an event early in the life of Christ. Herod, King of Judea, heard that a child who was “King of the Jews” had been born in Bethlehem. Infuriated, he ordered his men to murder all the baby boys there. Luckily, Christ’s family had fled, following a warning from an angel, before the terrible massacre began.
SASHA SUDA: Nothing can redeem the tangle of figures at the center of the composition. Children to the bottom right of the painting are already blue and lifeless. The intensity of this image I believe is meant to convey the toxicity of one leader’s desire for power above all else.
NARRATOR: As well as displaying extreme drama and emotion, the painting shows off Rubens’ knowledge of classical art and architecture.
SASHA SUDA: The bodies of the figures are absolute quotations of antique sculptures that Rubens saw in Rome. And this ruin behind the three figures furthest to the right suggests the Roman ruins that Rubens might have encountered.
NARRATOR: A breviary contained everything you needed for Catholic worship – prayers and hymns for daily use, and the wording for church services too.
SASHA SUDA: This is the kind of book that would have been either owned by or available to all Catholics living in Antwerp and elsewhere in the Catholic realm, and would have helped to guide people through their own devotional practice.
NARRATOR: This particular breviary was published in Antwerp, by the Plantin Moretus press, which commissioned its illustrations from Rubens. You’ll find his delicate and lively original drawings for some of the images on the wall nearby.
SASHA SUDA: Rubens’ engagement with printed images increases towards the end of his life. It’s really the Plantin Moretus press that begins his journey on this path and which helps him to become one of the most prolific printmakers of his time.
Vorsterman, Battle of the Amazons, after Rubens, 1623, Rijksmuseum
NARRATOR: The fierce female warriors known as the Amazons battle the Greeks in this violent scene.
NICO VAN HOUT: Now Rubens, what he tries to do here is to capture this sort of world of aggression of like a wild tornado.
NARRATOR: Rubens painted the original composition – but this print was made by an expert engraver, Lucas Vorsterman.
NICO VAN HOUT: Rubens was very interested in printmaking – it enabled him to reach a larger public than he would have reached by simply selling a one picture at a time. The print business was quite lucrative too.
NARRATOR: This is an unusually large engraving – you can probably see it’s made from six pieces, joined together.
NICO VAN HOUT: Monumental prints like this were definitely made for a larger public, for a public of rich citizens, but also for royalty.
Daniel in the Lions’ Den, 1614/1616, NGA
NARRATOR: Looking upward, the Old Testament hero Daniel beseeches God to save him. Angry that Daniel refused to worship the Babylonian gods, the Babylonian king had thrown him to the lions, expecting them to tear him apart.
KIRK NICKEL: So Rubens has selected a moment from that story where Daniel is alone in the pit, looking up to the heavens, praying for his safety. One of the most intriguing parts of this painting is the collection of emotional expressions that are shown through these lions.
NARRATOR: Rubens could have studied real lions in the royal menagerie in Brussels. He has done an astonishing job of conveying emotion, both through the lions’ expressions, and through Daniel’s face and his tense, knotted posture.
KIRK NICKEL: – You feel this taught sense of agitation, expectation, hopefulness, fear, all at once.
He has an interest in finding the precise moment in the narrative when human experience is stretched to some ultimate limit and this allows him to demonstrate his skill at expressing these extreme human emotions.
Boar Hunt, c. 1615-17, Musées de Marseille
NARRATOR: Dynamic action. Incredible realism. A complex weaving-together of figures and animals. And a story that grabs and holds our attention, as we see this mighty boar surrounded, a spear plunged into his throat. This scene gives us a wonderful summary of Rubens’ extraordinary talent as an artist, which we’ve seen unfold in the exhibition.
The painting, made for a royal Duke, combines two of his main interests. Hunting was, of course, a noted royal and aristocratic sport. The scene echoes classical images of boar hunts – including Hercules killing the Erymanthean boar. This alludes to the Duke’s love of ancient art and culture – which Rubens shared. The Boar Hunt is also a great example of how he uses color to heighten drama, and to draw our attention to key details. Here, touches of brilliant red make our eye move quickly to different parts of the scene, including the eye of the boar, full of anger, fear, and defiance, at the moment before death.
FINE ARTS MUSEUMS OF SAN FRANCISCO
LEGION OF HONOR – EARLY RUBENS
Audio tour script
WRITER – FRANCES HOMAN JUE
PRODUCERS – FRANCES HOMAN JUE/MIRANDA SMITH
SOUND DESIGNER – PETER DUNNE
INTERVIEWEES – KIRK NICKEL, NICO VAN HOUT, SASHA SUDA
NARRATOR – NINA GREELEY