PURE RUBENS at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam

With Pure Rubens, curators Friso Lammertse of the Boijmans van Beunigen Museum and Alejandro Vergara of the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid have created a glittering gem of an exhibition, one of the very best I have seen in a long time.

Peter Paul Rubens is of course best known for his giant canvases depicting generously proportioned rubenesque nude women. But this exhibition has veered away from the obvious – of the ninety or so works exhibited some sixty five are elaborate oil sketches, all of which are executed with the breath-taking mastery of a genius. They have a deftness, an assurance and immediacy which a laboured giant painting can seldom attain – they have more life. These smaller sketches and preparatory works are thought to be entirely by the hand of the master whereas the large paintings included the work of his assistants to a greater or lesser degree.

To bring together so many precious masterpieces from around the world is a major achievement by these two passionate curators who have also produced an excellent and enlightening catalogue to accompany the exhibition. The exhibition is also beautifully designed and presented with lots of airy space and light around a central circular gallery within a gallery.

Rubens was the first artist one could truly call European. He travelled to Spain and Italy learning his craft and accumulating eminent and influential patrons. On returning to the Netherlands, just thirty years old, he was already described as “the God of painting”. It is well-known that Rembrandt admired and imitated him in his early work – their lives overlapped by some thirty years but there is no record of them ever having met. But Rubens too had his idols, such as Michelangelo, Rafael and Leonardo da Vinci. Rubens ‘reprised’ elements of Leonardo’s Anghiari battle scene in his Lion Hunt, the sketch generously loaned by the National Gallery in London.

It is fascinating to see how Rubens seems to have grabbed any available surface, roughly brushed a sepia oil wash onto it and sketched out his ideas for large works with bewildering speed which show his true mastery of perspective, of the human and animal form, and most of all, of his ability to depict movement – in his work everything is in motion. By comparison, his huge well-known canvases, for me, lack that sort of wild abandon and inspiration.

Rubens, the son of an eminent lawyer, was not only an exceptional artist; he was also a shrewd business man and organiser, a diplomat and a man of the world, much courted by the royal houses of Europe. It seems his studio functioned a little like a factory – with Rubens receiving so many commissions, up to twenty or so assistants are said to have worked for him. He has gone down in history as the ultimate master, leaving the world fourteen hundred works of one sort or another.

Until now I was never a great fan of Rubens’ typically overloaded paintings. For me they are too rich, too voluptuous, too rubenesque – but the oil sketches, they are breath-taking and utterly wonderful.

Astrid Burchardt with Michael Hasted   7th September 2018

Pure Rubens continues at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam until 13th January.