Thematic issue: Oud Holland 136 (2023) 2/3
26 September 2023
With five articles on Peter Paul Rubens and landscape the present issue of Oud Holland is a special one. As first drafts, these articles were presented at the symposium ‘Rubens: Reuniting the great landscapes’ at the Wallace Collection in London in 2021, on the occasion of the spectacular reunion of Rubens’ Het Steen (c. 1636) and The rainbow landscape (c. 1636). The symposium was organised by Lucy Davis, who kindly agreed to be the guest-editor of this issue.
Oud Holland published its very first special issue in 1885 – just two years after its foundation in 1883 – on Gerbrand Adriaensz Bredero (1585-1618) in celebration of the poet’s 300th birthday. This year, we celebrate our own 140th birthday by publishing the digital issue on Rubens’ landscapes entirely open access.
In the meantime, we have worked hard to reduce publication time and are proud to announce that the entire process from submitting to publishing currently takes about one year. We very much look forward to receiving your manuscripts. And, as always, we thank our readers and authors for their support.
The editors of Oud Holland
Thematic issue: New perspectives on Rubens’ landscapes
Susanna Avery-Quash & Lucy Davis – New perspectives on Rubens’ landscapes: Separation and reunion of Het Steen and The rainbow landscape – pp. 70-88
The articles in this Oud Holland special issue ‘New perspectives on Rubens’ landscapes’ reassess Peter Paul Rubens’ late landscapes from a number of new perspectives. The occasion for this was the landmark exhibition Rubens: Reuniting the great landscapes held at the Wallace Collection, London from 3 June to 15 August 2021, preceded by a conference ‘Rubens’ great landscapes’ held at the Wallace Collection on 17-18 May 2021. The exhibition was in fact a reunion of A view of Het Steen in the early morning (c. 1636) from the National Gallery, London and The rainbow landscape (c. 1636) from the Wallace Collection – two great panoramic landscapes that were created as a pendant pair, but which had been separated for more than two hundred years.
This introductory essay explores the journeys and changing ownership of the two paintings from after their separation in 1803 to the time of their reunion in 2021. It investigates the growing fame of the companion pieces in Britain in the nineteenth century, where the greatest proportion of Rubens’ landscapes were already to be found. It focuses on the decisive moment in the history of the two paintings: the auction of the collection of the third Earl of Orford in 1856, when the chance was lost to reunite the pair at the National Gallery, and the negative press that consequently ensued against the winning bid (4th Marquess of Hertford) and the outbid (the leading national collection of old masters) alike.
The authors investigate the fate of Het Steen, from its acquisition by Lady Margaret Beaumont that effectively separated the pair, its role in Sir George Beaumont’s collection and its brief reunion with its companion piece at the British Institution of 1815. As part of the Beaumont Gift, it is one of the foremost paintings within the earliest collection of the National Gallery. The rainbow landscape, on the other hand, passed through a succession of private collections, where it became increasingly visible, engraved and discussed as one of Britain’s greatest masterpieces. The 1856 purchase was a possible turning point for Lord Hertford, the reclusive collector, who at this stage was considering what to do with his collection after his death. This article charts the trajectory of Rubens’ two great landscapes from the ownership of dealers, to private collectors, exhibitions, and finally to public museums, with increased visibility at each stage of their journey. Originally painted by Rubens for his own collection, to be displayed either on the walls of his manorial castle, Het Steen, itself or his Antwerp home, they would have been seen by a range of visitors, including artists and collectors. Two centuries later, they were to be found on the walls of Coleorton Hall and Wolterton Hall, two grand country houses in England. During periods of leisure spent at the invitation of the owners of these homes, later artists were able to contemplate these works and the surrounding landscapes and draw inspiration from them, and formulate their own artistic responses, in much the same spirit of ‘otium’ as outlined by Corina Kleinert in her article. In keeping with the themes of this special issue, their history in Britain encompasses both the ‘prosaic’, transactional account of how they were sold, and the ‘poetic’ account of how artists travelled some distance to see the works in situ, to copy and be inspired by them. The pattern therefore complements the earlier provenance of these works, as part of a story of a gradual transferral from the private to the public domain.
Nils Büttner – Rubens’ landscapes and the Dutch Republic – pp. 89-102
Peter Paul Rubens is generally regarded as the painter of the Counter-Reformation and the embodiment of Flemish Baroque. Since the founding of the Belgian state in 1830, he and his art have been increasingly appropriated as a point of reference for the cultural identity of Flanders. Art was also appropriated in the formation of the national identity of the Kingdom of the Netherlands – in particular the depiction of nature and landscape that had become a specialty of many painters in the northern provinces.
But Rubens too was admired by his contemporaries for his landscapes, and in the Dutch Republic they were held in high esteem. For his part, Rubens can be shown to have followed closely developments in landscape painting on the Northern side of the border. Despite the difficult political situation, there was also an ongoing exchange between North and South, even during the Eighty Years’ War. Rubens bought and owned Dutch pictures, and added human and animal figures to landscapes of his Dutch colleagues. He took a general interest in such pictures as an incentive to paint landscapes himself, which, reproduced in prints, became well-known in the Dutch Republic.
In terms of landscape art, not only can a lively exchange of images and ideas be demonstrated, but it can also be shown that the existing differences were not understood as an expression of different political or religious contexts. The example of Rubens and his landscapes shows the value of a change of perspective to focus not on the differences between Flemish and Dutch art, but on cultural crossborder connections.
Corina Kleinert – Rubens and his landscapes: Reflections on the notion of ‘otium’ – pp. 103-124
This article sheds light on Peter Paul Rubens’ intentions or possible underlying reasons for the ‘organic’ growth of his landscape paintings by analysing the fundamental contemporary notion of ‘otium’ (fruitful repose). Understood as contemplative leisure encouraging artistic and intellectual endeavour in accordance with Cicero’s advocacy of ‘otium cum dignitate’, it was deeply rooted in the classical writings of Horace, Virgil and Pliny the Younger. Ample research has shown that life in early modern Europe was tempered by the conceptual force of ‘otium’ and its opposite form, ‘negotium’. However, Rubens’ response to this dyad, and especially the effect it had on the creation of his landscapes, has only been addressed superficially.
By teasing out the strands of ‘otium’ and ‘otium ruris’ (fruitful repose in the countryside), the author indicates multiple ways in which the topos of retreat played a notable part in Rubens’ poetic response to nature and landscape, to the aesthetic appreciation of the countryside in real life and in painting. Exploring both places and spaces present in the notions of ‘otium’ and ‘otium ruris’ in Rubens’ day not only consolidates our understanding of the personal dimension of landscapes, but it also sheds new light on the artist’s attentiveness and receptiveness to and his ongoing preoccupation with many of his large compositions in the 1630s.
Although Rubens did not follow the idea of ‘otium’ programmatically, exploring it as a form of contemplative leisure nonetheless offers a key to understand the productive energy, artistic invention, and unique evolution of many of his landscapes. The examination of the important, but hitherto neglected landscape Return from the fields (c. 1635-1638) at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence not only provides new insights to the painting’s intriguing genesis, it also demonstrates that Rubens’ landscapes may have provided a growing space of ‘otium ruris’ – for their creator and beholders alike.
Elizabeth McGrath – Earthly fruitfulness and the gods of nature in Rubens’ imagery – pp. 125-136
This article explores themes of fertility and fecundity in Peter Paul Rubens’ work and investigates their role in a peculiar Rubensian category of subject, somewhere between landscape and myth, which can perhaps be described as ‘mythological genre’. Here we see the ancient gods of nature inhabiting the countryside and engaged in their ‘everyday’ activities, though, as in the Feast of Venus (c. 1638), their presence is usually sensed rather than seen by any human characters depicted alongside them.
A particular focus of the article is one of Rubens’ most personal works, the Nymphs and satyrs gathering fruit (c. 1615). It was his happy invention to give the nymphs, satyrs and even the old Silenus the job of collecting fruit together, to keep the cornucopia – symbol of abundance and fecundity – in a state of constant overflow. It has not been realised, however, that Rubens had a classical source for the idea of Silenus and the satyrs helping the nymphs gather apples: a passage in Propertius’ Elegies (II.32.37-40).
The poetry of Propertius was especially familiar to Rubens’ circle as Justus Lipsius planned an edition of the poet’s work. Moreover, the lines had been the subject of a notable emendation by Joseph Justus Scaliger, as well as an extensive discussion by Lipsius in his Antiquae lectiones (III). Rubens was surely familiar with the Propertius passage, whether he came across it in his reading or in his conversations on ancient literature and customs with his brother, Philip, Lipsius’ favourite pupil. In Nymphs and satyrs, the poet’s lines seem to have helped inspire a joyous celebration of the earth’s fruitfulness by the gods of nature themselves.
Bert Watteeuw – Surveying Rubens’ late landscapes: New cartographic and archival sources on Het Steen – pp. 137-156
Since the late nineteenth century, no new archival research on Peter Paul Rubens’ estate Het Steen has been published. Throughout the twentieth century, it has been assumed that art historians, such as Max Rooses, had depleted the archives for clues on Rubens’ country seat. No further targeted searches were undertaken.
When the castle was acquired by the Flemish government in summer of 2019, the last private owner handed over a laundry basket filled with archival documents to a local circle of historians. While the trove contained but a handful of documents relating to the period in which Rubens inhabited Het Steen, it prompted a wider search for relevant archives. This included those left by various local and central administrative bodies and those formerly kept by neighbouring estates.
Surprisingly, the search resulted in a wealth of new finds, including the 1635 deed of sale to Rubens, a surveyor’s map showing the first iconographic rendition of Het Steen after Rubens’ landscape at the National Gallery, and a second set of much larger surveyor’s maps which, through their relation with property ledgers, allow us to very precisely locate a substantial part of Rubens’ land holdings. Other documents testify to agricultural activity on the estate, such as timber trade or water management.
Read in conjuction, these new archival and cartographic sources allow us to identify Rubens’ holdings in the Senne Valley and to glimpse some of the activities on the estate. Combined with a good knowledge of the terrain in this relatively small pocket of land, they also hold important keys to our reading of his two large landscapes, A view of Het Steen in the early morning (c. 1636) and The rainbow landscape (c. 1636), and several of his smaller late landscapes.