CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Rubens and his age: treasures from the Hermitage Museum

Exhibition: 2 October 2002 - 26 February 2003

From the museum website, 10 March 2009

The exhibition Rubens and his Age: Treasures of the Hermitage Museum
which is to open to the public in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao on October
2, provides the European audience with their first opportunity of seeing,
outside Russia, an extraordinary selection of masterworks of the Flemish
baroque, one of the most exuberant periods of artistic creation in the History
of Art.

This exhibition in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao marks the beginning of an
alliance between the State Hermitage Museum and the Guggenheim
Foundation which will allow the Museums belonging to the international
Guggenheim network to undertake ambitious projects in close collaboration
with this Russian Museum. Founded in 1764, the State Hermitage Museum
currently houses more than three million works of art, many of which were
collected by the Russian Empress Catherine the Great (1729–1796). In fact,
her residence, the immense Winter Palace, now forms the core of the
Hermitage Museum, one of the finest museums in the world. Catherine’s
advisers scoured Europe in search of the most prestigious art collections,
which, thanks to the enormous wealth of the Russian Empress, they were often
able to purchase en masse. By means of these sensational acquisitions, the
Empress intended to demonstrate Russia’s wealth and prosperity to the world,
and succeeded in reinforcing the established opinion abroad of Catherine as
“the Minerva of the North”.

The work of artistic genius Peter Paul Rubens (1577−1640), created mainly in seventeenth-century Flanders, occupies a prominent space in the Hermitage Museum. Despite the fact that Rubens is known the world over for his painting, in which he exquisitely fused the spirit of Flemish baroque with the influence of Italian painting, the expression of his creative intensity went beyond the realm of painting, leaving its mark in other areas associated with the plastic arts.

With the exhibition Rubens and his Age: Treasures from the Hermitage Museum the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao aims not only to focus on the diverse artistic facets of Rubens, but also to shed light on the environment in which he created his art and the influence he had on his contemporaries. In putting together this exhibition, more than 150 pieces were selected from the Hermitage
Museum collection. Included are works by Rubens and other acclaimed artists such as Anthony van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens and Jacob Van Oost the Elder, among others, most of whom were Rubens’ pupils or collaborators. Through natural, historical and biblical scenes, portraits of renowned personalities and a wide range of pieces and objects, the exhibition sets out to show viewers the history of an age and its art.

The exhibition provides an intense vision of the Flemish baroque, a period of which the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg has one of the richest and most extensive collections in the world. This period represents, without doubt, an extraordinary age of artistic creation, dominated by one of the most outstanding figures in the history of art, Peter Paul Rubens, who is given pride of place in the exhibition. This brilliant Flemish painter was a singular figure not only because of his artistic genius but due to his enormous intellect and interest in the subjects of his day which drove him to amass a profound knowledge of humanist themes, a command of Latin and several modern languages as well as diplomatic skills, which made him a reference model
for many other artists, including the Spaniard Velázquez, among others.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Rubens became the central figure on the artistic scene in Flanders, a region in the southern Netherlands. The nerve centre of this region was Antwerp, which at that time was under Spanish rule. With his paintings, which bring together detailed Nordic humanism and the expressive exuberance of southern Europe, Rubens introduced the baroque style which had originated in Italy, where he had worked for eight years.

The exhibition explores Rubens’s artistic influence in seventeenth-century Flemish art and beyond and is organized by theme: allegory and mythology, religion, portraits, genre, and landscape. The exhibition features works by more than 40 artists, many of which were pupils of the great master.

Rubens and his age contains seventeen paintings and eight drawings by Rubens. He had a profound, encyclopaedic knowledge of classical literature and art and for this reason many of his works contain complex allegories. The central work of the exhibition is, without doubt, a large decorative canvas entitled: The union of Earth and Water, one of the major works of this great master, which is presented for the second time in a foreign Museum since its incorporation into the Hermitage Collection, after being shown at the exhibition in the Ontario Art Gallery in Canada. Among Rubens’s works contained in the Hermitage Collecti n and in this exhibition, there is a predominance of oil sketches. The most noteworthy of these is the series of projects for the decoration of interiors in Antwerp on the occasion of the ceremonial entrance into the city on April 17 1635 of Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, The Arch of Ferdinand and The Arch of Hercules; Roman Charity, also known
as Cimon and Pero and Landscape with Rainbow, are also included among the major works by the artist that can be seen in this exhibition.

Rubens’ enormous production would not have been possible without the help of a
organized workshop with well-trained followers and apprentices. Rubens’ two most talented assistants, Jacob Jordaens and Anthony van Dyck, seem, in their earliest works, to have been more influenced by the theatricality of their master’s earliest paintings than by the classicism characterized by his later work. After creating an infinite number of religious and mythological paintings, Jordaens, of whom there are two paintings and five drawings in the
exhibition, evolved towards a style more dependent on Rubens, combining the master’s motifs with his own imagery of popular realism. Rubens and His Age features two superb examples of Jordaens’ work: as a history painter, in Cleopatra’s Banquet (1653), and as a portraitist in Portrait of an Old Man (ca. 1637).

From his earliest period Van Dyck was more attracted by the dynamism of Rubens’s work. After discovering Rubens’s Genoese portraits, Van Dyck developed the extraordinary Baroque ceremonial portrait that would prevail in Europe until the eighteenth century. In many respects he surpassed his master as a court portrait painter especially with his appointment to the court of England’s Charles I, during which time he painted Ladies-in-Waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria (Anne Killigrew with an Unidentified Lady) (ca. 1638). The exhibition contains sixteen works by van Dyck, Rubens’ youngest contemporary and the best of the master’s pupils, including The Appearance of
Christ to His Disciples
, one of the few religious compositions of this painter in the collection of the Hermitage Museum.

Alongside paintings by Rubens, Jordaens, and Van Dyck, Rubens and His Age presents works by other significant contemporaries. Brouwer, a superb master of genre scenes, acquired a taste for the grotesque treatment of character types from predecessors Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Although filled with distorted figures, The Village Charlatan (Operation for Stone in the Head) (1620s) reveals Brouwer’s engagement with the sublime as seen in the landscape and subtle, luminous coloring. David Teniers, an outstanding Flemish master, produced a wide variety of works, including
landscapes, religious paintings, genre scenes, animal paintings, and portraiture. Teniers was highly skilled at intimate and individual as well as formal and group portraits. One these group portraits, Portrait of the Members of the Oude Voetboog Guild in Antwerp (1643), is considered among his masterpieces. An important feature of this work is its urban setting. The dominance of architectural forms sets this painting apart from similar group portraits by earlier Dutch artists, such as Frans Hals and Rembrandt, in whose works figures were given clear priority over any such specificity of setting. Teniers seems to have been determined to evoke a forceful impression of Antwerp’s power and prestige. This effect, asserted by works throughout the exhibition, confirms the cultural legacy of Rubens and his age. Of the brilliant collection of works by Frans Snyders, one of Rubens’ closest
collaborators, contained in the Hermitage Museum Collection, two works are shown which show the skill of this artist as a highly observant painter of animals and a magnificent painterof still lives. Frans Snyders successfully raised still life painting from the level of the intimist chamber style which prevailed at the transition from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries, to the heights of true monumental art.

Together with the religious masterpieces, the penetrating portraits and still lives, the exhibition also includes priceless art treasures ranging from golden goblets to ivory carvings, the design and creation of which were commissioned in many cases by Rubens himself. These items provide visitors to the exhibition with an idea of the cultural context in which this artist worked.


On the occasion of this show, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao will publish a catalogue of the works contained in the exhibition, as well as articles and texts on specific items by expert curators of the Hermitage Museum such as Natalia Gritsay, Natalia Babina, Alexey Larionov and Tatyana Kossourova as well as by Christine Göttler, University of Washington, Seattle.




Rubens and his age: treasures from the Hermitage Museum, Russia
Christina Corsiglia and Catherine Philips, with contributions by George C. Estey and Mikhail B. Piotrovsky
256 pp.
London (Merrell Publishers) 2001
ISBN 18-5894127-X (hardbound)

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