SAN FRANCISCO — Almost every popular cliche about art and artists that has emerged in the past two centuries is spectacularly nonapplicable to Peter Paul Rubens. The great Flemish painter who dominated European art in the first half of the 17th century was sociable and connected, charming and erudite. He served power happily, embraced and furthered the dominant ideology of his day, prospered as a businessman and was honored and celebrated in his own time. He didn’t live in a garret, wasn’t inept at the ordinary business of life and was happily married (twice). To the extent that he was ever disgruntled with the world, he mainly complained of being too busy.
So a new exhibition, “Early Rubens,” at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, isn’t about the painful birth of genius, the struggle for recognition or success, or the inner turmoil of forging a distinctive style. It’s about an artist who was fully formed in his early 30s and arrived on the world stage ready to make the most of every opportunity. It surveys Rubens’s career from just before his return to his native Antwerp in 1608 (after an eight-year stay in Italy) to 1621, when he was already well on his way to riches and could declare — to a powerful English envoy — that he was “by nature, more fit to execute large works than small curiosities.”
The exhibition opens with three of those large works, including the National Gallery of Art’s “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” — all of them full of cinematic energy and vibrant color, teeming with incident and detail yet instantly legible. In the depiction of Daniel, the senses are fully engaged, lions roar and snarl, there’s a whiff of death from old bones scattered through the lair and someone has put a miraculous spotlight on the elegant hero’s pale skin, inspiring him, perhaps, to point his toe with a dancer’s grace, theatrically confident in the power of prayer.
In “The Boar Hunt,” hanging just to the right, a ruddy-faced man blows a hunting horn, which is just barely audible over the tumult of dogs baying and biting the bristling, red-eyed beast. And in “The Flight of Lot and His Family From Sodom,” hanging to the left, the sense of touch prevails, from sumptuous fabrics to a gleaming heap of gold treasures, including drinking vessels, carried in a basket by one of Lot’s daughters. As Lot’s wife dabs a salty tear off her face, the act of touching prefigures the salt pillar into which she will be turned for disobeying God’s command, and one of Lot’s daughters touches a drinking vessel, which may well be the one she uses to get her father drunk before copulating with him in a later episode of one of the Bible’s most lurid stories.
All three paintings were made within a decade of Rubens’s return to Antwerp. These were key years in the cultural and artistic history of the city, following the 1609 signing of the Twelve Years’ Truce, a pause in the bloody and destructive religious wars between Catholic Spain, which controlled much of what is now Belgium, and Protestant forces to the north in the Dutch Republic. Antwerp, once the dominant trading power of northern Europe, was perilously close to the front lines of the religious conflict, had suffered bouts of iconoclastic destruction that damaged churches and religious imagery in the mid- to late 16th century, and was physically and economically devastated by the war. The truce, which coincided with Rubens’s return, was a period of rebuilding, as artists, politicians and Catholic leaders worked together to consolidate spiritual and sectarian ideology in an exuberant display of Counter-Reformation messaging.
Rubens was almost immediately at the center of this bustling, citywide project. He was quickly made court painter to the ruling archduke and archduchess in Brussels (but allowed to live and work in Antwerp), found a powerful champion in the city’s mayor, and married well. It’s hard to overstate his success. In a catalogue essay, co-curator Sasha Suda of the Art Gallery of Ontario, where the show will open in October, writes: “Rubens had the most prolific and successful career of any artist in history.” That’s a big claim, especially the “any artist in history” part, but it’s not wrong to say that Rubens was the most successful artist of his age. He ran a vast factory for art, employed an army of “pupils” who did much of the painting, traveled as a painter and a diplomat throughout Europe, was knighted by both the king of Spain and the king of England, and left behind an enormous estate (one of his sons retired to a castle as the Lord of Rameyen).
Success is always a little suspicious, especially in the art world, so it’s hard for contemporary viewers and critics not to look for flaws or cracks in the idol. Rubens was born to a Protestant father, but raised by a Catholic mother, and his Catholicism was both deeply felt and a smart career move. The cinematic quality of his work may remind us of Steven Spielberg: an artist who never loses sight of popular entertainment, who cannily deploys all the deep-seated mythologies of his day to maximum effect. Then there are those old, popular myths about art, which suggest that some kind of suffering or conflict is essential to depth of vision and emotional authenticity — and did Rubens ever really stumble? He was human, so certainly he suffered.
And it’s not quite accurate to say that Rubens suddenly appears as a fully made artist, like Athena jumping out of Zeus’s skull — armed, gorgeous and ready for battle. There are a few works in the first room of this exhibition that feel decidedly like pre-Rubens Rubens, including “The Conversion of Saint Paul,” possibly painted before he left Antwerp in 1600 or a bit later, circa 1601-1602. It feels a bit muddled and confused, the figures lack the sculptural quality of his mature work and the colors feel more like an ornamental afterthought than something that emerges from the natural play of light on forms.
In this and two other early works (the circa 1604 “Hero and Leander” and a “Lamentation” from 1602-1606), light streams into the painting from above, rendered as deliberate rays or shafts of illumination. In later works, light is more complex, more immanent to the scene. It feels a bit as if the light was added to these early paintings, similar to the way designers today try to “activate” social space, turned on with a switch, a contrivance of staging and trickery. And the “Lamentation,” probably made as an altarpiece when Rubens was in Italy, renders the dead Christ with clumsy legs, the right one pointing out of the picture and foreshortened, the left one seemingly borrowed from a bigger Jesus.
But in the early “Hero and Leander,” we also get something that never fails Rubens in his larger, later works: a distinct sense of energy connecting the figures and defining a basic pattern or architecture behind the drama. In a related drawing, made about the same time or a little earlier, those energy lines are made explicit, creating a wide, swirling U-shaped force field on the paper that will channel the stormy energy of the sea in the painted version.
Finding these underlying vectors of energy is one of the great pleasures of Rubens, whose work is almost always not just successful, but also almost comically successful, with a virtuoso energy that overwhelms suspicion. Comparisons to figures like Spielberg go only so far, and Rubens’s mix of wit and erudition almost always compensates for any reservations about his religious sensibility or his energetic embrace of the widest possible audience. In “The Tribute Money,” we have a powerful rendition of one of the great and problematic moments in Christianity — Christ’s statement “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
There are myriad ways to interpret this dictum, one of which is a permission slip to compartmentalize the radical demands of the religion (humility, service, sacrifice) from the convenient rewards of service to worldly power, with its promise of complacence and prosperity. Rubens probably didn’t read it this way, but he almost certainly found ambiguity in the message, which he renders by dividing the canvas from upper left to lower right, using light not just to expose the Jewish elders and frame Christ in shadow, but also to suggest a fundamental ambiguity in the story itself.
In “The Tribute Money,” the eyes travel from the coins in Christ’s hand to his upward pointed left index finger, indicating the things that are not of this earth. This is a thrill ride of sorts: Once you’re in the painting, there’s no getting off until you’ve traveled its course, and it’s a giddy feeling.
The exhibition includes more than 30 paintings, a gallery of portraits and about 20 works on paper, including magnificent prints, which often reveal the energy lines of his paintings with even greater impact. It also includes an early group portrait with Rubens himself among the figures. And, yes, he was good-looking. That seems unfair, given all the other blessings he enjoyed. But you can’t hate him no matter how hard you try.
Early Rubens Through Sept. 8 at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. famsf.org.