Bruegel To Rubens: Flemish Art At The Queen's Gallery

By Tara Booth | 17 October 2008
An image of a village will snow on the ground. In the centre there are soldiers on horses gathered into a group. The village people walk around and there seems to be conflict between the soldiers.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents, 1565-1567. © 2008 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Exhibition Preview – Tara Booth takes a look at Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, running until April 26 2008.

The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace certainly seems the most ideal location to display this stunning collection of Flemish masterpieces.

Taken from The Royal Collection and exhibited together for the first time, the 51 Flemish paintings from the 15th to 17th centuries include works by artists including Hans Memling, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Jan Brueghel, Van Dyck and Rubens.

On entering the building and journeying to the gallery space, the exquisitely detailed marble floor and pillars certainly add to the ambience. Yet with low ceilings and limited space, there’s something quite intimate and delicate about this exhibition.

An image of a large room with paintings displayed on all of the walls. There are men in the centre and one is crouched beside a painting, taking a closer look. A woman and child stand in the doorwar of the room.

Jacob de Formentrou, A Cabinet of Pictures, 1659. © 2008 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Entering the gallery space through a heavy wooden door, Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents (1565-1567) immediately grabs the eye and draws you in as if by gravity. It sits on the far wall and, from a distance, is much larger in size than imagined.

On closer inspection, it doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s far more intriguing. Intricate details of facial expressions and textures come alive, and colours become more vivid against the whiteness of the snow.

It’s a deceptively beautiful scene of a Flemish village under snow, but also one of the most savage satires in the history of art. It’s an unflinching depiction of humanity.

An image of an angel among cherubs in the sky, with people on the ground looking confused and amazed.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Assumption of the Virgin, 1611-1612. © 2008 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It depicts the biblical story of the massacre of children ordered by King Herod the Great of Judea, after the birth of Christ. But, deemed politically too difficult in a time of unrest, it was toned down after arriving in King Rudolph II’s possession.

Slaughtered babies were painted over with bundles, food and animals - so instead of a massacre, it appeared to be a general scene of disorder and plunder. If looked at closely, smudges, outlines and parts of the children can still be seen.

Elsewhere on the other walls of the gallery, the other paintings are almost dwarfed by the spectacle of The Massacre, but still worthy and vivid in their own right.

The paintings were created in the Southern Netherlands during a period of great turbulence. In the 16th century, the Netherlands comprised the modern Netherlands, Belgium and a swathe of northeastern France.

An image of jesus holding his hands out in front of him. He is looking at a man with a white cloth. Another man stands beside him and Jesus's apostle stands beside him.

Sir Anthony van Dyck, Christ Healing the Paralytic, c.1619. 2008 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Eighty years of war (1568 – 1648) resulted after the people of the Netherlands rebelled during the reign of Phillip II of Spain, causing the irrevocable division of the northern and southern Netherlands.

It is said that much of the greatest art is produced during periods of strife. And it’s clear from these works how civil unrest played a central role in the way they were constructed. Underlying themes and multiple interpretations can be derived from them.

Christianity plays a central theme across the works too. Moving into the next room, a larger rectangular space with a range of small and large paintings, Sir Peter Paul Rubens’s Assumption of the Virgin (1612-1615) stands out. The vivid colours, detail and flattering angles contribute to the drama of the piece.

An landsape image of trees and grass. There are animals in the forefront of the image; a horse, swans, rabbits and parrots. In the far distance in the right hand corner there is a naked man and woman walking.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Adam and Eve in Garden of Eden, 1615. © 2008 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The oil sketch was created in a bid to secure the commission for the high altarpiece of Antwerp Cathedral prompting the artist to produce something exceptional and to play on atmosphere for emotive effect.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s Christ Healing the Paralytic (c. 1619) is taken from St Mark’s Gospel and symbolises redemption. It’s a beautiful painting reminiscent of Italian Renaissance art and possibly influenced by Reubens – Van Dyck worked as an assistant in Reubens’ workshop. It is believed they developed successful careers after absorbing Italian art into their native Flemish tradition.

Featured on the opposite wall, sitting adjacent to and complementing one another in a pleasant way, is Jan Brueghel the Elder’s A Village Festival (1600) and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (1615).

An image of a village festival. There are adults and children and animals in the scene. Some people are dressed up in costume. There are people dancing in the centre of the image and music is being played.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, A Village Festival, 1600. © 2008 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A Village Festival provides a stark contrast to the Massacre of the Innocents, with scenes of hustle and bustle, and the excitement of a village fair. It’s a packed composition filled with people, joyous colour and exquisite detail. Made in 1600, it is perhaps the depiction of healthier times after the appointment of Archduchess Isabella and her husband Albert as rulers of Southern Netherlands two years earlier.

Flora and fauna are central to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Colourful animals in considerable accuracy are depicted in the forefront while Adam and Eve are just visible in the background, leaving their role as protagonists to the animals.

It’s a highly prized piece, and for Jan Brueghel the Elder, it displayed knowledge and talent in the midst of scientific learning and the study of the natural world. Perhaps it depicts the blessings of peace and fertility of the region, characterised by the Twelve Year’s Truce 1609 – 1621.

An image of two women asleep with dead animals at their feet. Two men are seen climbing around the rocks to spy on the women.

© 2008 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

(Above) Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders, Diana and Nymphs Spied on by Satyrs, c.1615-1616.

As the exhibition ends, a door leads into another exhibition featured at The Queen’s Gallery, entitled Treasures. Two very large paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders, feature in one of the grand baroque rooms, on opposite sides.

Diana and Nymphs Spied on by Satyrs, (c. 1615-1616) and Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism, (c. 1618-1630) were too large to feature in the dedicated rooms for Flemish paintings but should be viewed in all their glory.

Bruegel to Reubens reveals a stunning selection of works, with each painting full of meanings and political and religious contexts. Each has an intriguing narrative with skilled detail, exuding a poetic affiliation with the rest of the works on show.

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