I never appreciated Peter Paul Rubens until 2003, when my middle brother and I visited Munich’s Alte Pinakothek for the first time.
I remember that day vividly. It had been a beautiful Sunday morning. My brother and I had attended early service. Our plan for the rest of the day was to spend the morning at the Alte Pinakothek and the afternoon at the Bavarian National Museum.
We never made it to the Bavarian National Museum that day.
My brother and I had anticipated, inaccurately, that our visit to the Alte Pinakothek would be complete by 1:00 p.m. Our belief had been a reasonable one, since the main galleries of the Alte Pinakothek consist only of nine large exhibition rooms, alongside which are a series of smaller exhibition rooms. Anyone looking at the floor plan of the museum might easily conclude that a half-day would provide more than ample time in which to view the permanent collection.
It does not. Virtually every painting in the collection is a top-tier masterpiece, and it requires a full day to get through the collection, as my brother and I were to learn.
By the fourth room of the Alte Pinakothek (which is the second of the nine large exhibition rooms), my brother and I were falling to the floor, gasping for breath. We were encountering so many major masterpieces, one after another, in succession, that our heads were spinning.
My brother and I made it through half of the collection before we were overwhelmed and had to stop for lunch. We went downstairs to the museum restaurant and ordered a full lunch, excitedly discussing what we had just witnessed. After lunch, we returned upstairs and resumed our visit to the collection, picking up where we had left off.
The first room we visited in the afternoon was the large exhibition room lined with Rubens and Rembrandt paintings, all oversized, with one or two Van Dyck paintings thrown in for good measure. This was the room in which hangs “Rubens And Isabella Brant In The Bower Of Honeysuckle”. My brother and I fell in love with the painting instantly.
Until I encountered “Rubens And Isabella Brant In The Bower Of Honeysuckle”, I had never liked Rubens’s work. At the time, I had always viewed Rubens as a painter prone to Baroque excess. For me, Rubens was typified by his giant allegorical paintings, such as the twenty-four massive canvases (now in the Louvre) commissioned by Marie De Medicis for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, canvases that never appealed to me because I saw them only as overstuffed, overdone, overwrought conceits. (And, in my defense, I must note that the Marie De Medicis paintings were created not by Rubens himself but by craftsmen in Rubens’s workshop—although the craftsmen had worked from Rubens’s own oil sketches.)
Seeing the affecting double portrait of Rubens and his bride at the Alte Pinakothek that Sunday afternoon in 2003, I was able fully to appreciate Rubens for the first time. That single painting made me look at Rubens in a new light, and to begin to appreciate his limitless genius.
It was after that visit to the Alte Pinakothek that I engaged in some serious reading about Rubens the man and Rubens the artist. From my reading, I learned, among many other things, that paintings in Rubens’s own hand were entirely different in quality from paintings created in Rubens’s workshop.
The men working in Rubens’s workshop painted to order. They were, more or less, in the commodity business, albeit an up-market commodity business.
Whenever Rubens himself picked up a brush, he worked for his own pleasure and satisfaction.
He was an artist.
Among things I have learned in the past six years, I have learned never to be disappointed in a painting in Rubens’s own hand.
In 2007, when we visited The Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace, we examined another great Rubens masterpiece, entirely in his own hand, and in a genre mostly unassociated with the great Flemish master: landscape painting.
Rubens was a great landscape painter, but there is very little evidence of this in the U.S. Few Americans even realize that Rubens was a master of the genre, and this is because there are few, if any, first-rate examples of Rubens landscape paintings in American public collections. Most Rubens landscape paintings remain in Europe—and in private collections, no less, seldom seen by the public.
The Royal Collection owns several Rubens landscape paintings, but the only one on view during the 2007 Summer Opening at Buckingham Palace was “Milkmaid With Cattle In A Landscape”, now more often known as “The Farm At Laken”.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Milkmaid With Cattle In A Landscape (“The Farm At Laken”)
The Royal Collection, London
Oil On Canvas
34 3/8 Inches By 50 3/4 Inches
“The Farm At Laken” is generally considered to be the prize among Rubens landscape paintings in The Royal Collection.
It is one of Rubens’s earliest works in the genre, but also one of his finest. It provides evidence that, once Rubens embarked upon a new genre, he was able to master it fully and immediately.
Rubens painted landscapes for his own pleasure. Indeed, in the very last years of his life, excepting a few family paintings, Rubens painted landscapes and nothing but landscapes—and always for his own pleasure.
Rubens’s landscape paintings were not commissioned, and they were not sold. Rubens generally kept his landscape paintings for himself, or offered them as highly-prized gifts to his closest personal friends. All Rubens landscape paintings are entirely in the artist’s own hand, which cannot be said of any other genre of his work. Even Rubens family paintings were sometimes farmed out, in whole or in part, to assistants.
Based upon ancient correspondence, there is some evidence that “The Farm At Laken” hung in the Rubens family dining room during the artist’s lifetime. Such would suggest that the painting was one of Rubens’s very favorite examples of his own work.
A remarkable degree of activity is portrayed in the painting without the canvas appearing in the least overcrowded. The painting is appealing at first glance—yet prolonged examination offers multiple rewards not apparent unless one spends time with the work. A wealth of interesting detail emerges, from the Classical poses of the two female figures in the foreground—borrowed from one of the artist’s own contemporaneous Classical paintings—to the farmer plowing in the distant field. Incident is everywhere.
The artist’s theme is the bounteous nature of the seasons. Fruits and vegetables are being gathered for the winter, while at the same time a distant field is being prepared for spring planting, on which occasion the whole cycle will begin anew.
Scholars have ascertained that the topography and church portrayed in the painting were painted from life. It is now known that Rubens painted this canvas immediately outside the Belgian village today known as Laken (which is how the painting acquired its modern name).
While the church in the background no longer stands, it survived into the 20th Century. It was a critical piece of evidence in permitting scholars to identify the particular landscape that inspired Rubens.
As an example of landscape painting, “The Farm At Laken” is fully worthy of the pure landscape painter. It is the equal of anything by Claude Lorrain or John Constable.