CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Peter Paul Rubens and the art of drawing in Flanders

Exhibition: 29 August - 22 October 2000

Museum press release, 5 May 2000, taken from museum website, 28 February 2009

Los Angeles-
Universal, spontaneous, and direct, drawings provide a fascinating glimpse into an artist’s creative process. Peter Paul Rubens and the Art of Drawing in Flanders, on view August 29 through October 22, 2000 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, features drawings that span this legendary master’s career. Regarded as one of the most influential and successful painters and draftsmen of his day, Rubens is well-represented in the Getty’s collection. A new acquisition is the focal point of the exhibition – Rubens’ magnificent drawing The Assumption of the Virgin (about 1624), which he rendered over a sketch by his student Paulus Pontius. The drawing was made as the model for an engraving, which will also be on view. The exhibition also features drawings by Rubens’ contemporaries – Flemish artists such as Anthony van Dyck, Frans Snyders, Jan Cossiers, and Jacob Jordaens.

Rubens (1577-1640), who lived and worked in Antwerp, synthesized artistic styles and techniques in an extraordinary manner. Inspired by artists of his native Flanders (the Netherlandish region of modern-day Belgium of which Antwerp is the capitol) as well as Italian masters such as Titian, Michelangelo, and Raphael, he achieved compositions of unprecedented vitality, monumentality, and scope. His imagery helped define the international Baroque style, famous for its heroic portrayal of the human form in motion, coloristic bravura, and vivid contrasts of light and shadow.

This exhibition bears witness to the flourishing artistic culture of Flanders in the 1500s and 1600s – a remarkable period of economic, scientific, and cultural achievement. As European trading around the world led to a broader perspective on life, artistic subject matter expanded from religious works to landscapes, depictions of exotic peoples, and portraits that were more naturalistic than ever before. Advances in printmaking allowed great works of art to be circulated to an even wider public. A distinctive Flemish style emerged that featured dynamic, extroverted imagery; broad, sweeping handling of paint and ink; and vivid colors with strong visual impact.

Rubens harnessed, honed, and perfected these Flemish traits, while adding his own innovations. In depicting the human figure, he plumbed the depths of human emotion in an unmatched way. With Medea Carrying Her Dead Children he captured the desperate torment of this tragic character of Greek myth, who, in a vengeful rage, murdered her own young sons. In landscapes such as A Man Threshing Beside a Wagon, Rubens applied his signature grandeur of scope to an otherwise mundane genre subject. The pulsing dynamism set up by the threshing motion of a peasant and the massive wheels of a wooden cart evoke the larger life-giving forces invigorating the landscape. His remarkably subtle use of pastel chalk, a rare medium at the time, created an uncommon sense of light and space. In A Korean Man, the first known depiction of a Korean on European soil, Rubens mixed black and red chalks in a technique that had enormous impact both on his Flemish contemporaries and future generations of artists.

The Assumption of the Virgin drawing and related engraving are excellent examples of Rubens’ groundbreaking work in printmaking and reflect his influence as a teacher of the arts. In 1624, in collaboration with Pontius, Rubens drew a copy of his own painting The Assumption of the Virgin (Düsseldorf, Kunstmuseum) and supervised Pontius’ production of the enormous copper-plate engraving. The drawing, done in a painterly style with black chalk, white gouache, and oil paint, was a celebrated work in earlier literature, but barely known in the present century until it re-emerged recently. It was, in part, a training exercise for the young Pontius who later became Rubens’ master engraver. Pontius drew a copy of the painting in black chalk, but Rubens reworked it entirely down to elaborate details-from fine wisps of hair to tiny changes in the positions of fingers. The matching engraving, which spread Rubens’ work to a larger audience, subtly suggests the drawing’s effects of light, shade, and texture by modulating the direction and width of the engraved lines.