BOOK REVIEWS: Renaissance Man Who Altered Course of Art; Rubens by Susan Lawson. Chaucer Press, Pounds 30. the Triumph of - Various Contributors. Fontanka, Pounds 25
Byline: Reviewed by Richard Edmonds
Painter, collector, diplomat, linguist and scholar, Peter Paul Rubens was revered in his own lifetime by scholars and great collectors alike.
He lived in violent times. Wars, social inequality and religious oppression, along with dirt and disease, were hazards to be endured daily. Yet out of all this came paintings of a magnificence which may be said to have altered the course of art.
It was not uncommon for an artist in the late Renaissance to promote, even market, his own work
For example, Albrecht Durer, the genius of the Renaissance woodcut, took his prints from city to city and attended print fairs in person.
Rubens, too, networked the various European courts both great and small marketing his great paintings and accepting at the same time much-needed commissions both from church and state.
Susan Lawson, in this attractive, beautifully-illustrated book, notes that the preoccupations of his times seeped into the canvases Rubens showed to the world.
Born into a Protestant family in 1577, Rubens saw his father convert to Catholicism when he was ten-years-old. Yet, was it such a bad thing?
Much of the painter's later work when he reached artistic maturity would be predicated upon a Catholic bias. Rubens was a cautious man politically and like many artists and writers working in unsettled times knew quite well which side his bread was buttered, especially when a commission from some great cathedral or other was in the offing.
In fact, the diversity of his painting styles is given due weight in this book. If it was a church commission for an altar study, then Rubens could turn his hand to any number of virgins ascending to a heaven symbolically endorsed by the priests and princes of the church.
Yet painting after painting, whether made at a ducal palace or decorating the rooms at Whitehall, show that Rubens had an uncanny understanding of space, scale and setting.
But Rubens was undeniably a painterly voluptuary. His images of the naked Christ, for example, promote a male sexuality that is also found in Car-avaggio.
And when Rubens looked back to the classical world he could produce a full frontal drawing of old Silenus, which leaves nothing to the imagination, while his young nude males in intimate situations are lyrical within the unabashed pleasure Rubens took in the exposed body.
Yet there is no voyeurism here, as there is nothing of that particular stance in Rubens' females - women obviously painted to arouse the viewers emotions - possibly painted with an admiration pure and simple of the female form.
There is a Venus shown on page 125, which seems to say in pose and gesture: "I have it all - accept or get lost. …