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Rubens’ imposing art couldn’t dazzle Europe’s Reformation

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The Royal Academy is hosting an exhibition on Peter Paul Rubens. His art celebrated wealth and power in the face of Reformation, argues Noel Halifax
Issue 2440
Peter Paul Rubens, The Tiger Hunt (1616). It was commissioned by Bavarian ruler Maximilian I to decorate the old Schleissheim Palace
Peter Paul Rubens, The Tiger Hunt (1616). It was commissioned by Bavarian ruler Maximilian I to decorate the old Schleissheim Palace (Pic: Wiki Commons)

The Royal Academy’s new exhibition on Peter Paul Rubens has split reviewers. 

In his BBC2 film Flesh of Inspiration, Waldemar Januszczak hailed Rubens as the greatest artist of his generation—if not ever—and one who was both misunderstood and underrated. 

Meanwhile, Guardian newspaper art critic Jonathan Jones lampooned the exhibition, writing that Rubens was no more than an upmarket room decorator. 

Rubens lived in a disputed area of Europe, now called the Netherlands and Belgium, which was in the centre of a great political conflict. 

The Eighty Years War for Dutch independence from the Spanish Empire raged his whole life. 

It was part of a great political conflict that pitted the Protestant “Reformation” in the north against the Catholic “Counter Reformation” in the south.

This was a product of the rising merchant and capitalist interests, and the despotic forces who opposed them. 

Rubens was the epitome of art of the “Counter Reformation”. 

His art was a must-have, and was hugely successful. Every despot and reactionary institution, such as the Jesuits, sought his art to decorate their palaces.

Rubens’ art is vast in both size and quantity, and is literally gross. It was churned out by a large army of assistants, the likes of which was not seen again until the rise of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” art in the 1960s. 


Yet Rubens was not just a painter or manager of a large studio. He was also one of the richest men, a friend of rulers and a diplomat serving the Spanish crown.  

Januszczak argues in his film that Rubens was the Henry Kissinger of his day, strangely thinking this is a compliment.

Many artists both then and now work for reactionary clients, but still produce great works of art. 

While Rubens was churning out the huge pictures of gods and mythic battles, Caravaggio was producing some of his greatest works for similarly reactionary clients. 

But Caravaggio’s work manages to transcend this, with its suffering and its joy. In contrast, there’s nothing to contemplate and empathise with Rubens’ work—it’s meant to overwhelm.  

In front of Rubens you feel either small and insignificant—or powerful to be able to own such a large and expensive thing. 

There is little emotional depth in a Rubens. It’s all surface—a vast hyperactive surface. 

The art of the Puritan north was of portraits, domestic scenes or realistic landscapes. 

It was restrained and precise, usually small in scale. But Rubens’ work  depicted wild scenes of excess, with the canvasses exuding wealth and abundance. 

But they are not just meaningless, pretty pictures—all serve a political point. In a time of war and famine, his pictures portray classical myths with mountains of naked flesh, battle scenes as ornaments, orgies of gods and goddesses all to provide a backdrop in a palace.  

In England he painted such a scene for king Charles I in the Great Banqueting Hall of Westminster. The king was to be executed outside it after the English Revolution.

Rubens’ aim was to make the viewer appreciate the wealth and power of their rulers, and to portray the divine right of kings. 

Rubens and His Legacy
Royal Academy of Arts, 
London W1J 0BD
Until 10 April
Tickets from £15, free for under 16s


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