PETER PAUL RUBENS
A Whole Lot of Wildlife Beyond
Those Acres of Pinky, Puckered Flesh
It’s easy to understand why the Flemish- and French-speaking peoples of Belgium have been unable to form a government since April 2010. Just look back to the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), which ravaged the Low Countries after they separated into the Roman Catholic Southern Netherlands, ruled by the Spanish Hapsburgs, and the more Protestant United Provinces of the Netherlands, or Dutch Republic.
Into that turmoil, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was born in Siegen (Westphalia), Germany, where his converted-to-Calvinism parents lived in exile from Antwerp. His father, a lawyer, damaged his family’s already fragile standing by becoming the lover of Anna of Saxony, second wife of William I of Orange, the main leader of the Dutch revolt against Spanish occupation, and fathering her child. He was condemned to death, and saved only by his own loving wife’s pleas.
Later, his again-Catholic widow and three children returned to a devastated Antwerp, a mercantile, provincial capital whose fortunes fluctuated with history’s. When young Pieter Pauwel proved ungifted as a page to Countess Marguerite de Ligne-Arenberg, he apprenticed to a landscape artist, and later to the renowned painter, scholar, and humanist, Otto van Veen. In 1598, Rubens was admitted as a master to the painters’ Guild of St. Luke.
Although Rubens preferred speaking Italian and lived for years in Italy, Spain, France and England, he remained a son of Antwerp and is buried there. Antwerp’s interests also defined Rubens’ 30-year-career as a diplomat, where his role as esteemed court painter allowed him to act as the ears and mouth of the Spanish Hapsburg rulers of Southern Netherlands.
Like all intellectually ambitious artists, Rubens traveled to Renaissance Italy where he discovered the palettes and brush strokes of Veronese, Tintoretto, Mantegna, Correggio, and Titian. (At the end of his life he still owned 21 of the copies he had made of Titian’s work.)
He became court painter to the Duke of Mantua, and was sent on an art-bearing diplomatic mission to the court of Philipe III of Spain. There, Rubens may have seen Lucas Cranach’s remarkably panoramic Hunt in Honour of Charles V, or the impressive “cartoons” painted by Bernard von Orley for the Duke of Brabant for a set of 12 tapestries, The Hunts of Maximilian. In fact, it’s possible Rubens’s series of huge Flemish Baroque “Hunts,” or equestrian battles between knights and warriors, lion and tiger, hippopotamus and crocodile, boar and bear, wolf and fox, originated in the Alcázar.
Semi-secret diplomatic missions led to commissions from royalty, aristocracy, burghers, town halls, and Southern Netherlands’ Counter-Reformation churches. Rubens’s output—paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and engravings—was enormous, equaling one major work per week, every week for 32 years! But he wasn’t alone in his studio, and his contracts clearly state whether a work was entirely of his own hand; whether specialists, such as animal painters Frans Snyder and Paul de Vos, flower painter Pieter Brueghel the Younger, landscape artist Jan Wildens, or his brilliant student Anton Van Dyck, had worked on parts of the painting; or whether it was a replica or variant of an original, made under the master’s eyes and finished by the artist himself. Prices varied accordingly.
Rubens’s decision to revive hunt scenes was built on a solid foundation. His already great knowledge of classical mythology, philosophy, natural history, the Bible, and languages had become encyclopedic abroad, and he was certainly familiar with the African and Asian hunts and animals described by Pliny, Homer, Herodotus, and in Oppian’s didactic poem, Cynegetica. We know his library contained bestiaries and zoological treatises by Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) and Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605). He’d also observed some species firsthand, especially lions, in zoos such as the one in Ghent. And although there was no living hippopotamus in Europe before 1850, it’s possible he saw the hippo stuffed by a Neapolitan surgeon and displayed in Rome in 1601.
Already as a youngster, Rubens had copied animal motifs from engravings by 16 th century illustrator Jost Amman; later, in Italy he studied and duplicated scenes that included animals from Roman reliefs, friezes, and sarcophagi, such as Ovid’s account of the ax-wielding Ancaeus lying dead, cut through the belly by the Calydonian boar’s tusks. His lions in Daniel in the Lions’ Den were rooted in a 16 th century bronze statuette from Padua, and his heavily Christian St. George prototypes and clashing horses were inspired by Leonardo’s now lost fresco, the Battle of Anghiari (1503).
Rubens also drew upon the 12-plate series of courtly hunt scenes by Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630), published in 1598. In fact, he “borrowed” many times the subject and compositional model of a lion or tiger goring and tearing an Oriental rider from his curveting horse. There were also the widely published engravings of the cartoons by Bruges-born Johannes Stradanus (1523-1605) for his 28 hunting tapestries for the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano, and other of his some 100 hunting scenes.
Once Rubens found a theme or composition that worked, he recycled it. His equestrian battles of sword-wielding warriors astride fiery mounts imitate his own images of St. George pivoting in the saddle to slay the dragon. His tiger hunts are lion hunts in striped clothing.
Maximilian I, Duke/Elector of Bavaria commissioned four monumental, wildly violent Baroque epics—Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt,Boar Hunt, Tiger Hunt, and Lion Hunt—for his castle at Schleissheim, where country life was the theme. Rubens didn’t hesitate to make a smaller replica of the Lion Hunt for Sir Dudley Carlton, English ambassador to the United Provinces at The Hague. (After Napoleon’s army removed the four hunts to France, the Bavarian Lion Hunt was destroyed in the Bordeaux museum fire of 1870.) He also re-used objects, such as daggers and quivers, that lent authenticity to his period pieces, which he often set in the North African colonies of the Hellenistic or Roman Empire periods.
Rubens changed hunting art by changing its perspective or point of view. Stradanus looked onto the scene from a “high horizon” and filled the pictorial space and far distances with a kaleidoscope of images on the same plane, but Rubens looked up from below. He placed his huntsmen’s figures heroically against an unencumbered expanse of moody sky, which emphasizes their cool dominance over life-and-death dramas at their deadly climax. Their large scale and “in-your-face” composition create a centrifugal pull on the eye, sending it to the whirling core of intertwining bodies, where cold metal meets seething flesh.
Rubens emphasizes the tension by having his forms and forces pull away from each other diagonally across the canvas; look from the prostrate figure (lower left) toward the horseman’s swinging sword (upper right) in Lion Hunt and Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt. He further strengthens his composition by establishing strongly contrasting areas of light and dark.
Rubens’s European confrontations, Wolf and Fox Hunt and Boar Hunt, strike a less savage and more aristocratic tone. The feather-helmeted chevaliers on rearing steeds, poised for the coup de grâce, aloofly survey the melee at their feet. Here, Rubens seems to be paying tribute to the ethical pretensions of the Flemish “noblesse d’épee” under the Spanish Hapsburgs, whose hunting privileges, including controlling wolves, were restored by extensive legislation in 1613. No wonder men like Philippe-Charles d’Arenberg, the Duke of Aarschot, and Grand Falconer and Grand Huntsman of Flanders, were clients for paintings such as Wolf and Fox Hunt, which he kept until his dying day.
Rubens is credited with seeing animals through Humanist eyes, arousing the viewer’s emotions by exploring, on the same level as humans, their anatomy, expression, and character or allegorical prototype as defined by their behavior during animal combats, or Venationes, such as the 1515 rhino and elephant fight in the Lisbon arena. Animals play important roles in numerous major works, such as Samson and the Lion, Four Continents, and Romulus and Remus.
The origins of several hunt paintings can be traced back to drawings or oil sketches, especially to Rubens’s studies of lions. Although in some places he applied color rather loosely and thickly, he used very un-Flemish sweeping, fluid brush strokes and made his own mixture of linseed oil, turpentine, and varnish to accommodate his technique of applying layers of translucent paints to achieve his characteristic luminosity.
Interestingly, after Rubens’s (second happy) marriage at 53 to 16-year-old Helena, his hunt scenes became more tranquil. He turned to frieze-like compositions of Huntress Diana running with her hounds after deer in profile across the space, pictured before blood is shed outside the frame. In his earlier hunts, frenzied lions or enraged hippos aggressively occupied the middle of the pictorial space.
It’s fun to track down Rubens’s substantial oeuvre of jaw-dropping hunt scenes in the MET, Art Museum of Worcester, Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, and in Vienna, Munich and Dresden, as well as copies by Landseer and Delacroix. Once you’ve seen them, all that pinky, puckered flesh in Rubens’s more familiar works will never be the same.
Brooke Chilvers was surprised that Rubens’s words about Charles I of England still ring true today: “I am filled with pity for the young king who, through bad advice, is about to hurl himself and his kingdom into such a terrible plight. It is easy to start a war when one wants, but wars are not so easily ended.”