Peter Paul Rubens – The power of transformation

27. June 2019

He was already one of the most versatile and well-known painters of his time in the 17th century: Peter Paul Rubens. And even today, the painter, born in Siegen in 1577, is one of the most important artists in the history of art. In his paintings, he executed fantastic pictorial worlds with virtuosity and showed the viewer colourful and multi-layered realms, piled up with biblical, mythological and artistic quotations. He was an intellectual and versatile. He was an artist who corresponded with many scholars, including Galileo.

The Städel Museum is now showing new aspects of the master’s work in a comprehensive exhibition “Kraft der Verwandlung” (“Power of Transformation”) with around 100 works, including 31 paintings on canvas and 23 drawings by Rubens himself. The show relates his work to his role models and contemporaries, illustrating the extent to which Rubens took inspiration from other artists and used it again and again for his works. He used sketches as models, which he used again and again in his paintings, quoting antiquity, contemporaries, role models, and the entire history of art. The exhibition began on February 8 and will end on May 21, 2018. The presentation closes a large gap; there have already been numerous exhibitions of Rubens’ works, but not one that documents this work and approach. The exhibition is structured according to pictorial motifs and themes.

With this large-scale exhibition project, we can present the genius of an extraordinary artist in all its facets to our audience. The comprehensive show opens up a fascinating view of masterpieces of the Baroque, which fascinate the viewer – then as now, says the director of the Städel, Philipp Demandt.

Hardly any other artist had influenced art history and the Baroque as much as Peter Paul Rubens had. In the process, antique and contemporary sculptures, elements from Titian’s or Tintoretto’s paintings repeatedly find their way into his pictorial works. The exhibition at the Städel now presents this aspect and raises the following questions: How much was Rubens influenced by other influences such as antiquity, Renaissance artists, or even contemporaries? And how did Rubens incorporate these influences and models into his own work? This is illustrated by juxtapositions and comparisons, so that Rubens enters into a direct dialogue with previous and contemporaneous masters.

Museo Nacional del Prado

The exhibition begins impressively and setting the tone, with a charismatic painting of Christ, “Ecce homo”, around 1612. In this work Rubens shows all his skills, the play of colours harmonises, the drapery appears realistic, Christ with the crown of thorns suffers noticeably. Next to it is a statue showing a centaur. The chest of Christ is the chest of the centaur, in comparison. Rubens drew and practiced on the statue. Used the elements for his paintings. This becomes clear in the juxtaposition of works and drawings that Rubens made for it.

The State Hermitage Museum

On closer inspection, the viewer repeatedly sees references to antiquity in Rubens’ works. The painter studied the sculptures of this period intensively in his sketches and used them as models for his own figures. Again and again he used this self-created store of ideas for his own masterpieces. Rubens used an allegorical pictorial language and mythological symbols. Some of his drawings are independent works because they are so detailed and well studied.

The Kentaur tamed by Cupido

In art history it was quite common to travel around looking at and sketching, practicing, and refining one’s own art masters and techniques. For example, Tintoretto already took figures from Titian or Michelangelo into his own works by copying them directly. But he also did it to show that he was in no way inferior to his role models. It comes as no surprise that Peter Paul Rubens, during his travels through Europe, also drew inspiration from them and practiced on them. In the process, he created books of models and sketches from which he drew again and again and which he quoted again and again.

The Flemish artist made quick sketches in advance, also in oil. This enabled him to develop his ideas and concept for the forthcoming work and, if necessary, to communicate them to the client or his workshop. It was a stock of graphic ideas, from which he always drew new ideas. These sketches were often created on the basis of his models. In the exhibition at the Städel, the viewer thus gains the impression that Rubens was already preparing his later paintings, which he wanted to realize, in his drawings. This preparation included drafts and sketches. Often also individual drawings with enlarged motifs, in order to have already determined the details.

The exhibition also features a sculpture of Venus, on which Rubens had worked his way through. The sculpture is squatted and bathes. The Flemish artist used this motif as a model for a freezing and crouching Venus in “Venus Frigida”, 1614. But also in the painting Venus mourning Adonis, created around 1614, the model of Venus reappears.

In this approach, however, it should be noted that Rubens did not simply draw the line. No, he animated his figures, added colors, made them alive through movement and form. Through movement and rotation, Rubens developed a dynamic that made his paintings come alive. The works of Peter Paul Rubens stand out through their colourfulness and his virtuoso use of light.

Rubens entered into dialogue with ancient works, his predecessors and contemporaries of art. In his work he dealt intensively with the history of art, which certainly influenced him in his own artistic work. To what extent Rubens adapted the art history and works of other artists is possible and vivid in the exhibition in direct comparison and through references.