CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

BP British Art Displays: Rubens and Britain

Exhibition: 22 November 2011 - 6 May 2012

Information from the museum, 29 November 2011

A draftsman of extraordinary imagination, energy and skill, Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was the leading Flemish exponent of baroque painting and the most successful international artist of the seventeenth century, producing works for several of Europe’s crowned heads. A new display at Tate Britain explores this artist’s connections with Britain’s monarchy and court through a group of fourteen key works. It unites Tate’s recently acquired initial sketch for the Banqueting House ceiling at Whitehall c.1628-30 – Rubens’s most ambitious British commission – with significant loans such as the iconic self-portrait 1623-4 (The Royal Collection) which Rubens sent over for Charles I, portraits of English courtiers, as well as the dramatic image of England’s patron saint A Landscape with St George and the Dragon, 1629-30 (Royal Collection).

Rubens and Britain briefly traces the origins and development of Rubens’s masterpiece in Britain, the ceiling at Whitehall, through analysis of the magnificent large-scale sketch in oil paint, which is the only surviving overall preparatory work, and supporting archive material. Rubens came to Britain as a diplomat in 1629 to pave the way for a peace treaty between England and Spain. King Charles I took this opportunity to conclude the commission (long under discussion) for the vast ceiling paintings at Whitehall in memory of his father James I, perhaps one of the most important artistic commissions of the period in Britain. Rubens’s confidence in the face of this epic task is revealed in a letter where he commented ‘Everyone according to his gifts; my talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size or diversified in subject, has ever surpassed my courage’. The nine canvases were produced by Rubens and his assistants in Antwerp and eventually installed in the ceiling in 1637.

Rubens was the first to bring the Baroque style to Britain. A businessman, scholar and diplomat as well as an artist, Rubens was in touch with leading art collectors at the English court from at least 1621, including the Duke of Buckingham and Earl of Arundel. Demonstrating Rubens’s wider links with English society of the time, his portrait of the Earl of Arundel 1629 (National Portrait Gallery) will be shown alongside an arresting preparatory drawing 1629-30 (Ashmolean Museum) in which the precise delineation of the Earl’s facial features crackles with energy. A portrait of James I’s physician Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne 1629-30 (The British Museum) will also be included.

Additional highlights of the display offer insight into the role of the Banqueting House as a cutting-edge example of Palladian architecture in Britain, used as a showpiece for some of the most important court occasions. These include Inigo Jones’s original architectural drawing and designs for the Queen’s costume for one of the masques held there (Chatsworth Settlement).

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) became the leading baroque painter in northern Europe. After studying in Italy, he fused his original Flemish training with the influence of earlier Italian artists including Michelangelo, Raphael, Veronese and Titian. Based in Antwerp, Rubens only visited Britain once, but the impact of his work on British art was continued through the appointment of his ‘best pupil’ Anthony van Dyck as Charles I’s court painter in 1632. Van Dyck’s influence on portraiture in Britain lasted until the early 20th century.