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14 November 2023

Rubens and body positivity

In his representations of women, the great baroque painter sought more than merely the pleasure of flesh.

By Michael Prodger

Peter Paul Rubens, known in his lifetime as “the prince of painters and the painter of princes”, is not, perhaps, a figure sympathetic to the modern age. He was by all accounts a charming man with graceful manners who could speak Latin, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, French and German; he was knighted by both Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England; and employed as a diplomat and spy as well as a painter; he was a man as comfortable in Europe’s courts as in his studio. As such, he is just a tad too smooth when contemporary tastes run to artists with a bit of grit in the oyster.

What is more, as the pre-eminent painter of Catholicism he has never been embraced on these shores, and nor has the drama and movement of the baroque style, with which he was inextricably tied and of which he was the greatest exponent. Meanwhile, his supposed attitude towards women – their fleshy amplitude characterised as “Rubensian” – is not just out of favour but frowned on.

Dulwich Picture Gallery cannot correct all these miscomprehensions but it is going a long way to leavening the last of them. “Rubens and Women” shows just how far from the caricature of the tongue-lolling voyeur he really was. It is an exhibition that sets out to demonstrate that his attitude towards women – real and imaginary – was as full of nuance, respect and tenderness as of physical appreciation, and it succeeds.

Women played a vital role in Rubens’s life. His mother, Maria, kept the family together when his father, Jan, a man of Calvinist sympathies, fled Antwerp to escape Catholic reprisals, and she stood by Jan even when he was imprisoned for fathering a child by Anna of Saxony, wife of William of Orange. Despite everything, she refused to blame him for either his infidelity or his foolhardiness, writing to him in confinement: “How could I be so harsh as to weigh you down even more in your great misery and fear?”

Later, Rubens’s most important patron was Archduchess Isabel Clara Eugenia, daughter of Philip II of Spain and joint ruler of the Spanish Netherlands with her husband, Albert of Austria. He was on good terms too with the French Queen Mother, Maria de’ Medici, for whom he produced a series of 24 large adulatory canvases, a dramatic exaltation of female power, courage and wisdom.

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[See also: David Hockney’s clumsy late style]

Meanwhile, the painter married twice; first Isabella Brandt, with whom he had three children, and after her death, Helena Fourment in 1630, who gave him five more (the youngest of whom was born eight months after the painter’s death). He used these two women as models and their features appear again and again in his paintings. Interestingly, Isabella is often in a religious guise, as the Virgin adoring the Christ Child in an intimate devotional work of circa 1616-19, while Helena was more often repurposed as assorted goddesses in the mythologies he painted with greater frequency in the decade before his death in 1640. Something in the personalities of each woman clearly, in his mind, leant them to particular roles.

Certainly, Rubens never painted Isabella with the same frank admiration for her physical attributes that he employed with Helena. Isabella was 18 when they married, Helena a mere 16 when her turn came (he was then 53), but Isabella did not inspire a painting such as Het Pelsken (The Fur, circa 1636-38), which shows Helena, fresh from her bath, wrapped – just about – in a fur, with her breasts bouncingly cradled by her arm. It is hard to think of a more heartfelt depiction of conjugal eroticism or escape the sense that his young bride rekindled Rubens’s desire. Rubens acknowledged the privacy inherent in the painting when he specifically left it to Helena in his will, and she in turn ensured that it passed to their children rather than the offspring of her subsequent marriage.

“Painting a young maiden,” Rubens said, “is similar to cavorting with great abandon. It is the finest refreshment.” Helena refreshed his creativity. While the circumstances of their courtship are not known, he had earlier proclaimed that “such affairs should not be carried on coolly, but with great fervour” and was, it seems, as good as his word.

That is not to say the loss of Isabella, probably to plague, was either transient or painless. At the opening of the exhibition is a portrait of her, her face strikingly elfin and her gaze intelligent and a little quizzical, that he possibly painted posthumously. It is based on drawings made from life and speaks both of his despair at the curtailing of the intimacy they shared and his desire to keep her somehow alive. In a letter to a friend the painter expressed, with grave sincerity, his pain: “I find it very hard to separate grief for this loss from the memory of a person whom I must love and cherish as long as I live.”

Next to this picture hangs an equally poignant work, a portrait of their daughter Clara Serena – the spit of her mother – who died aged 12. He showed her in near monochrome, as if recasting the child as a statue – another form of permanence when life had given such stabbing proof of its precarity.

Rubens had spent much time drawing from statues as part of his training during a long visit to Italy from 1600 to around 1608. He was determined, however, that when it came to painting nudes, his should not “smell of stone”. Like Michelangelo, whose work he had studied, he drew more from readily available male models than rarer female ones and used them to discover the real qualities of flesh – its weight, springiness, folds and mass.

He tried these lessons out in numerous preparatory drawings and oil studies. A handsome selection is on display in the exhibition: crouching women (a favoured motif taken from an antique statue) who will become nymphs; a drawing after Michelangelo’s sculpture of “Night” for the Medici Chapel that is clearly a man with bolt-on breasts; and a full-length reclining nude – very obviously a real woman – beautifully rendered in his favoured trois crayons manner, using red, black and white chalks. They display, among other things, his sheer facility: he could draw with both minute finesse and broad expressiveness. One drawing, of an ancient statue of a Sleeping Hermaphrodite recently uncovered in Rome, looks more late 19th century than early 17th.

It is perhaps worth remembering that too intense a focus on Rubens and flesh does him no favours. He was both devout, attending Mass twice a day, and driven – rising at four each morning and working determinedly so that at his death he left some 1,500 paintings and 450 oil sketches. What this lovely exhibition shows is that real women interested him more than idealised ones and in his study of them he was faithful, tireless and diligent too.

Rubens and Women
Dulwich Picture Gallery,
London SE21,
27 September – 28 January 2024

[See also: Max Pechstein and the politics of paint]

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures