Can “Rubenesque” Be Feminist?

LONDON — True to the zeitgeist of championing women in the arts, 2023 museum programming has consciously put female artists front and center: Marina Abramovic was the subject of the first female solo show ever at the Royal Academy; the Barbican featured Carrie Mae Weems, Alice Neel, and RE/SISTERS; the Whitechapel Gallery presented the unsung female voices of Abstract Expressionism; the Tate Britain rehang unearthed several female artists out of storage; the National Gallery pitched Paula Rego with Crivelli. In this context, Rubens & Women at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is an extraordinarily canny idea that takes the male behemoth of Flemish Baroque painting (guaranteed ticket sales), whose voluptuous nude female flesh is so iconic that “Rubenesque” is shorthand for this body type, and argues that, far from objectifying his models, he depicted a nuanced female body, informed by a range of personal relationships translated with sophistication into the characters he portrayed.

The exhibition could easily have become a one-dimensional — and ahistorical — analysis colored by subjective 21st-century attitudes toward women, throwing out cliches such as “strong” or “empowering.” Instead, curators Ben van Beneden and Amy Orrock diligently examine how the artist’s relationships with women and the female figure, whether familial, romantic, commissioned, or simply through academic study, influenced his practice. The wall texts avoid interpretation as much as possible, instead focusing on facts and context. What emerges is an insightful narrative illustrating the development of his technical working methods, which to some may be even more compelling than the main female theme. This is as solid academic curating as one could wish for, combined with spectacular loans from a myriad of private and major collections; two major Prado pieces, and the portrait of Isabella Brant c. 1626, traveling to the UK from the Uffizi for the first time, cannot have been easy to secure. Incidentally, a separate set of captions for families encourage kids to engage with the paintings by describing the characters, or making the brushwork motions they imagine Rubens used; this is an utter delight to see.

Peter Paul Rubens, “Head of a Woman Looking Downward,” (c. 1630–31) (photo Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)

A collection of portraits opens the show, offering a comparison between personal and commissioned sitters. The artist’s first daughter, Clara Serena Rubens, is rendered as a light flurry of brushwork barely covering the brown ground in a small simple study of c. 1620–23. We are told that she died at age 12 in 1623, leaving viewers to imagine the subsequent emotional connotations. Adjacent sits the monumental Marchesa Maria Serra Pallavicino (c. 1606), surrounded by luxurious drapery and jewels, a parrot gnawing on her opulent seat. Wall texts note that Rubens’s employer, the Duke of Mantua, was frequently in debt to the wealthy Pallavicino banking family in Genoa, and this piece, with its heavy, stolid brushwork, intended for less intimate viewing, may have been made to settle dues, accounting for the subject’s powerful stance, looking down over an impossibly excessive ruff.

One of the difficulties in mounting a Rubens show is obtaining enough of his epic-scale religious/mythical work that occupies major collections — an impossibility for those pieces situated in churches. The curators ingeniously make up for these with preparatory sketches and cartoons in a section called “Figuring Faith.” Wall texts explain that Rubens was employed by Catholic rulers in Antwerp to create altarpieces that were “epic, erudite and impassioned” to bolster their Counter-Reformation efforts, and “to be successful, these needed to make a strong emotional connection with the beholder.” Several preparatory studies of female heads are presented to this end. A red and black chalk “Head of a Woman Looking Downward” (c. 1630–31), loaned from Vienna, is shown next to a scale reproduction of the Ildefonso Altarpiece for which this head was used (1630–31), originally in the Church of St James on the Coudenberg in Brussels. Not only does this demonstrate the translation of a sketch likely from life to the eventual large scale, complex religious work for which he is known, but it also offers a tantalizing glimpse into his technique. Rubens characteristically used untempered red for lowlights in painted fleshy areas, particularly around fingers, nostrils, and eye-sockets. In his chalk studies, red evidently has another specific purpose. The black “first pass” is followed by overworking in red where he either refined or clarified his compositions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his c. 1622 study for the head of Maria de’ Medici, where clear revisions to her physiognomy are overlaid in red.

Crouching Venus, Roman (2nd c. BCE), British Museum, on long term loan from The Royal Collection (photo Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)

Portraits begin the show, with drawings and cartoons taking up the middle of Dulwich’s awkward, long exhibition space. The second century BCE Crouching Venus statue on loan from the British Museum bisects its length. Viewers learn that Rubens encountered it while in Mantua, and its pose appears in several of his works. Mirrors are placed behind it so we can see all angles; one critic has likened this to the cheapening effect of Stringfellows (a chain of table dancing clubs in the UK), though given that one cannot walk around the sculpture, it is a somewhat unfair comparison. Its appearance marks a shift into the more academic treatments of the female figure in a section titled “Stone Made Flesh,” featuring pieces such as a painting derived from a print by Raphael or a faithful study of Michaelangelo’s “Night” (c. 1600–1603), for which the caption states “Michaelangelo’s female nudes were noted for being masculine in appearance, and this shaped Rubens’s work.” This uncharacteristically sweeping, unjustified, and open-ended statement is one anomalous clanger in the exhibition.

The Venus provides a classical yardstick against the final room, entitled “Goddess of Peace and Plenty,” filled with four astounding examples of the ultimate Rubenesque flesh. “Diana Returning from the Hunt” (c. 1623, Gemaldegalerie, Dresden), the Dulwich’s “Venus, Mars and Cupid” (c. 1635), and the Prado’s “The Birth of the Milky Way” and “Three Nymphs with a Cornucopia” (1636–38 and 1625–28, respectively) are populated by the abounding, sensual bodies and plethora of mythical iconography that make Rubens overwhelming and impenetrable to some. Yet the groundwork laid by van Beneden and Orrock leading up to these pieces provides viewers with information to appreciate and understand the works. They expand upon the emotional connections of the characters and how this feeds into the various treatments of the female figure. Rubens said that paintings should not “smell of stone.” Instead, his signature type of monumental flesh is a conscious technical departure from the hard, marble-like influence of classicism, and comes not from a place of dispassion but one of empathy. 

Peter Paul Rubens, “Clara Serena Rubens, the Artist’s Daughter” (c. 1620–23, oil on panel (photo Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)
Peter Paul Rubens, “Portrait of a Woman” (c. 1625–30), oil on panel (photo Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)
Peter Paul Rubens, “Venus, Mars and Cupid” (c. 1635), oil on canvas (courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery)
Peter Paul Rubens, “Portrait of a Lady” (c. 1625), oil on panel (photo Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)

Rubens & Women continues at Dulwich Picture Gallery (Gallery Road, London, England) through January 28. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Amy Orrock and Dr. Ben van Beneden.

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