Rubens: A Master In The Making at The National Gallery

By Zoe Quinn | 26 October 2005
Depicts a man on a white horse about to slash a dragon with his sword

Peter Paul Rubens, ‘Saint George’, 1606 - 7, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Zoe Quinn takes in a fascinating show that charts the development of a Baroque master - at the National Gallery in London.

The National Gallery in London has put on a sumptuous exhibition of painter Peter Paul Rubens, displayed in the Sainsbury Wing until January 15 2006.

The exhibition, subtitled A Master in the Making, explores Rubens’ youthful Flemish beginnings and his development into one of the foremost Baroque painters of his time.

Rubens was born in 1577 and died in 1640 at the age of 63. In 1958, he became a Master painter of the Antwerp Guild and at the young age of 21 travelled to Venice to discover Titian, Tintoretto and Caravaggio. Later, in Rome, he discovered Michelangelo and Raphael.

Depicts a very accurate drawing of the anatomical musculature of three naked men in combat

Peter Paul Rubens, ‘Anatomical Studies of Three Nude Warriors in Combat’, 1606 - 8, Private collection © Photo Courtesy of the owner

This remarkable career is introduced by The Battle of the Amazons (1958) in the first room, which is underpinned by two pen and ink studies of the same as well as The Battle of Nude Men (about 1599-1600). Here, Rubens is sketching the movement and placement of bodies to create the energy and motion that was to become the signature of all his paintings including the Fall of Phaeton (1604-5) in the next room.

You are drawn in to that room via The Council of Gods (1601-2). To the left, is Rubens’ St George (1606-7) slaying the dragon. You can see Saint George’s elbow reaching out of the picture towards you in an almost 3D effect.

Opposite this dramatic painting are three depicting The Judgement of Paris. Each uses different mediums: oil on oak, oil on copper and oil on panel to show a remarkable evolution in style - from undefined bodies to more defined physiques. There is also a movement from the early dark scenes to a lighter approach - a ‘holy’ glow emanating from Paris herself.

From here we are introduced to Rubens’ studies of anatomy in chalk, pen and ink. Look out for the bronze statues of The Horse Trainer (about 1528-1580) and Ecorché (1562-7) by Willem van Tetrode. Rubens blatantly sketched copies of these, working on particular parts of the body, until he had intimate knowledge of every muscle.

Depicts a fighting scene with men, women and horses

Peter Paul Rubens, ‘The Battle of the Amazons’, about 1598, © Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg Photo Gerhard Murza, 1994

What he learned from this exercise is reflected in every future piece of work. As David Jaffé, senior curator to the National Gallery, put it: “This is where Rubens worked out where all the bumps go.” From here on in every muscle in every painting becomes more discerned – rather than the undefined anatomy of his earlier work.

If you can resist the temptation to stop in the main room just yet, go straight through to room four where you will be able to spot a Caravaggio on the left - look out for his trademark - the pet dog he always put in his paintings.

Caravaggio is here because he inspired Rubens to portray death and violence in all its truthful detail. Several versions of Rubens’ The Descent from the Cross (1611) and The Entombment (1612-14) follow Caravaggio’s. Each one is a finer depiction of the death of Christ. Rubens’ greatest version of this scene is The Descent from the Cross, which resides in Antwerp Cathedral.

By now Rubens is cruising. Many of his works from here on in have religious themes and you can amuse yourself by looking at the subtle differences between The Coronation of the Virgin (1611) and The Assumption of the Virgin (1613-14) .

Depicts a violent scene of women trying to stop men killing babies

Peter Paul Rubens, ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’, about 1611 - 12, Private collection Courtesy of the owner. Photo The National Gallery, London

Finally you are ready to view the grand finale of the exhibition. Take your time at the entrance and admire the large white marble statue of Naked Venus Crouching at her Bath, a masterpiece from the 2nd century AD. To the left, in the wall, is a small glass case with a bronze inside that you may have noticed in room two, Venus/Kneeling woman bathing by Antonio Susini (1590s).

Pause and look between the two sculptures and you will see Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents (about 1611-12). Amidst the brutality and drama of this painting you should spot a lady in blue in exactly the same pose as the statues. This is where David Jaffé’s own words come to mind: “the exhibition sings, the sculpture really works!”

Nearby, framed by two studies of a man’s head, is Rubens’ Ecce Homo (about 1610) in which Christ stands defiantly staring back, with bloodshot eyes, after his ordeals on the cross. Not for Rubens the usual bowed head and hands crossed demurely in front of him. As you move closer, you realise that an earlier study of a man’s head has been included in Ecce Homo.

Closing the exhibition, Roman Charity (Cimon e Pero) (1611-13) is one of the best representations of a female by Rubens according to David Jaffé, and seeing you out is a beautiful portrait of Rubens own daughter, Clara Serena Rubens looking at you with luminous eyes.

Depicts a man lying in the lap of a woman

Peter Paul Rubens, ‘Samson and Delilah’, about 1610, The National Gallery, London © The National Gallery, London

Rubens, Flemish artist, turned Baroque master, became Venetian court painter to Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua and later to the Austrian Archduke Albert. Catherine de Medici commissioned work for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris and he was knighted by Charles I in London, where he designed the ceiling decoration for the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

A major painter of the Baroque period, this exhibition is an accessible study of his considerable output. With over 100 paintings, sculptures and studies, many of the Rubens masterpieces included have never been seen in Britain before. David Jaffé and his staff have excelled themselves in putting side by side the original inspirations and Rubens own work, and the result is sumptuous.

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