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Understanding Antiquity – The American Curator


The Calydonian boar hunt, by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1611-1612. (Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum)

Review of “Rubens: Picturing Antiquity” at the Getty Villa; November 10, 2021 to January 24, 2022

In the 17th century, the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was the most renowned painter in Europe. Its production and influence were enormous. Rubens was also a superb classical scholar, a keen art collector and a serious diplomat who worked on a peace treaty between England and Spain in which the two monarchs knighted him. Yet, too often today, Rubens is reduced to the painter of female flesh. His extraordinary accomplishments made him a role model for artists who had no interest in portraying overweight women. Simon Schama considers Rubens to be the “Paragon” and devotes the first 150 pages of Rembrandt’s eyes to the astonishing achievements of the Flemish master.

What made Rubens such a superstar? His classical humanistic upbringing as a boy growing up in Antwerp shaped his enormous talent and aspirations. At school he read Plutarch Lives of Greek and Roman Nobles. With its incisive stories of the character of virtuous statesmen and the greatness of Republican politics, this book has set the hearts of generations of young men and women alight, including Montaigne, Shakespeare, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexander Hamilton, Ralph Waldo Emerson and even Nietzsche. How could that not also inspire teenager Rubens?

Rubens apprenticed with three Antwerp painters. Admitted to the Painters Guild, the 23-year-old Rubens quickly followed the tradition of artists from the North supplementing their guild status by traveling to Italy. He visited Venice, found a job as a painter for the Duke of Mantua and went to Padua, Florence, Genoa, Rome and even Spain. Over the next eight years, alongside his official duties in Mantua, Rubens studied “modern” art by Raphael, Michelangelo and Caravaggio alongside sculpture of the ancients, while continuing to read the classics.

The encounter with the visible and literary vestiges of the classical Greek and Roman past is the theme of the exhibition “Rubens: Picturing Antiquity” at the Villa Getty until January 24, the first exhibition to bring together ancient sculpture, reliefs and precious carved. gems that have inspired the masterpieces of the artist during his career. Beginning with its founder, J. Paul Getty, the museum has acquired a superb collection of paintings, oil sketches and drawings by Rubens, which curators Anne T. Woollett, Davide Gasparotto and Jeffrey Spier have completed with national and international loans.

Since the Renaissance, young artists have learned to draw the human figure by looking at ancient sculptures and live models. Rubens believed that in order to achieve “the highest perfection in painting” it was necessary to understand the ancient. He warned young artists to focus on form, not material, and especially to avoid “the smell of stone” in their paintings or the “stained marble” effect on the flesh. His innovative process led to an imaginative reconstruction of the work studied, even when, as in the case of the famous Belvedere torso, only a fragment remained. The goal was to bring the characters back to life with dynamism, pathos, drama and above all color.

Rubens spent considerable time in Rome with his brother, the classical scholar Philip, whose Professor Justus Lipsius was the founder of Neo-Stoicism, an attempt to harmonize ancient Stoicism and Christian thought. One of the most revealing loans is a self-portrait of Rubens in the company of five friends including Philip and Lipsius in Mantua. The painter emphasizes brotherhood and friendship with like-minded artists and academics. He continued to tap into this community throughout his life, as his extensive correspondence, filled with classic quotes, makes clear.

The Getty exhibit focuses on three areas, mythology, history and philosophy. One of the highlights of mythology is the Calydonian boar hunt, which adjoins an ancient relief of a Roman sarcophagus that Rubens would have known. At Ovide Metamorphosis, the goddess of the hunt, Diana, takes offense at a kingdom’s lack of sacrificial offerings and sends a boar to terrorize it. The king’s son, Meleager, gathers a group of warriors to kill the beast. Several hunters are killed or mutilated before Meleager finally thrusts his spear into the boar. Rubens portrayed him naked to reveal his heroic muscular body. Following a long intellectual tradition from Xenophon to Machiavelli, royal bosses considered hunting the best preparation for virile virtue. Understanding the philosophy of this tradition, Rubens became the greatest painter of hunting scenes of his century.

Another fascinating example of Rubens’ learning from antiquity is his incorporation of the figure of Hercules Farnese. He was introduced to this legendary figure from prints while still in Antwerp and, upon arriving in Rome, studied the nearly ten-foot statue. As a young man going alone, Hercules faced a choice between Virtue and Vice, personified by two women. Vice promised him easy pleasure, virtue difficult but lasting fame. The muscular superhero chose the latter and became the Stoic embodiment of physical and moral virtue. Rubens used Hercules to mold all of his sturdiest males, from Samson to St. Christopher.

Rubens was also a connoisseur and collector of art, especially of ancient coins and precious stones, which provided the only authentic ancient portraits of classical rulers. Rubens’ network of academics alerted him when an important antique work appeared on the market. the Apotheosis of Germanicus was a large Roman cameo unearthed in 1620. In the center, the military hero, beloved by the people and soldiers, bids farewell to his adopted father, the Emperor Tiberius, accompanied by members of the royal family of yesterday and today ‘hui. Above, we see the hero ascending to heaven. Rubens’ version, with its natural warmth added to cold stone, is a fitting homage to one of the noblest figures of the First Empire.

Finally, there is the Death of Seneca. The ancient Stoic philosopher advised men to bow but not to break under the worst that fate and history could bring them: war, tyranny, pestilence, untimely death. During his years as Emperor Nero’s tutor and chief advisor, the philosopher honorably served his country. Seneca, unjustly accused of treason by the emperor, was ordered to commit suicide. The painting shows a doctor and a friend opening the philosopher’s veins as he stands in a tub of hot water to speed up blood flow. A student records the philosopher’s last words: “VIR[TUS]” (virtue). The moral quality evoked is first of all the stoic composure in the face of suffering and death, but it undoubtedly also relates to his life guided by the four cardinal virtues of courage, moderation, justice and wisdom.

Why was Rubens so passionate about the ancients? He considered his time to be “wrong” and “degenerate”. He wondered if perhaps “our creeping genius would not allow us to ascend to those heights which the ancients reached by their heroic sense and their superior qualities.” Through an in-depth study of the literature, art, and philosophy of Antiquity, as well as his own experiences, he discovered a moral virility and practical wisdom that guided his personal and diplomatic life and creation. artistic.

Is this exhibit relevant in today’s world where the classics are under attack for their elitist and pernicious character? What can he teach us? Are the lessons of someone like Seneca and his fellow Stoics not relevant to the present day? It’s a sign of hope that a cultural institution like the Getty has taken on a business that allows us to capture the lessons a brilliant man discovered in the classics and imparted to the world.

Joseph R. Phelan taught at the University of Maryland, the Catholic University of America, and the University of Toronto.