How influential was Rubens? The Royal Academy explores his legacy

By Kirstie Brewer | 23 January 2015

Kirstie Brewer leaves the Royal Academy impressed by the technique and influence of Rubens

a painting of Pan surprising a naked woman by a stream
Pan and Syrinx (1617). Oil on panel© Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel. Photo: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister/Ute Brunzel
Rubens’ buxom nudes may have once been the toast of Europe, but it's taken a long time for the Flemish ‘Prince of Painters’ to land a first major UK exhibition exploring not just how prolific and versatile he was, but also the extent of his influence.

In keeping with Rubens’ epic endeavours, the Royal Academy has divided its exhibition into six grand themes: Poetry, Elegance, Power, Lust, Compassion and Violence.

Alongside the works are those of the artists they say he inspired - from his assistant Van Dyck to Boucher and Watteau in the 18th century; Delacroix, Constable, Manet and Daumier in the 19th; to Cezanne, Picasso and Klimt, some 300 years after the death of the artist.

According to curator Dr Nico Van Hout, only the best artists were able to translate Rubens’ visual language into a personal idiom. It is less about trying to comprehensively catalogue Rubens’ work, and more about capturing ‘Rubenism’.

Even in his day, Rubens’ compositions, in all their fleshy splendour, were greeted by some with ambivalence. Yet Rubens was an unequaled propagandist, deftly moving through the princely courts of the 17th century.

His altarpieces, adorned with all the trappings of Catholic dogma, became useful aides for missionaries and had a great impact on his Spanish contemporaries. An artistic bastion of the Catholic establishment, Rubens' religious works were disseminated all over the world, even as far the Qing dynasty – as a porcelain plate on show here demonstrates.

Click below to launch a gallery of images from the exhibition:

But history and politics aside, there is no denying what a visual treat this exhibition is. The voluptuously baroque women in the ‘Lust’ section might leave an unsavoury taste in the mouth, but the visible coursing of blood beneath their delicate mother-of-pearl skin is beguiling, as is the monumental Tiger, Lion and the Leopard Hunt, which is worth the entrance fee alone.

The choreography of such an improbable scene, which Rubens makes so dynamic and rich, is very impressive.

Under the theme of ‘Violence’, we’re confronted by free-falling bodies descending to hell, horror etched across their twisted faces. Some 400 years on, these depictions of damned souls still make you shiver. Again, the composition of this tumbling nightmare gives some credence to the epithet ‘the Homer of painting’. Either way he is undoubtedly an accomplished storyteller. 

Rubens’ influence is further examined by Jenny Saville, who responds to the exhibition’s themes with a display of works by artists including Pablo Picasso, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Sarah Lucas.

Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela), a painting created specially by Saville, was still wet when I visited and her display adds a vibrant dimension that brings Rubens’ legacy bang up to date.

Saville believes that, like Warhol, Rubens "changed the game of art", and that his influence “runs through the pathways of painting”. She might just be right - whether you think you like Rubens or not.

  • Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London until April 10 2015. Admission £10-£16.50 (free for under-16s), book online. Follow the Academy on Twitter @royalacademy and use the hashtag #Rubens.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More from Culture24's Painting section:

Van Dyck takes a seaside holiday in Margate as self portrait heads out on exhaustive UK tour

Dulwich Picture Gallery lines up major Eric Ravilious retrospective for summer 2015

Pallant House Gallery offers first survey of British art in relation to Spanish Civil War

Follow Kirstie Brewer on Twitter @KirstieJBrewer.
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