Together Again: Rubens’s Beloved Landscape Paintings

Exhibition: 'Rubens: Reuniting the Great Landscapes'
June 10, 2021 Updated: June 10, 2021

Preeminent Flemish baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens famously painted dynamic and dramatic, action-packed religious and mythological paintings.  He used ancient classical wisdom within his paintings to portray the turmoil and peace unfolding in his own time. Among his masterpieces he also created portraits and landscapes, mostly commissioned pieces, but his particular passion and pleasure was landscape painting.

During his twilight years of semi-retirement until his death, Rubens took immense pleasure in watching rural life play out on his country estate. He captured these perhaps mundane moments by creating idealized landscapes that truly captivated and inspired viewers and artists alike.

“In no other branch of art is Rubens greater than in landscape; the freshness and dewy light, the joyous and animated character which he has imparted to it, impressing on the level  monotonous scenery of Flanders all the richness that belongs to its noblest features. Rubens delighted in phenomena—rainbows upon a stormy sky—bursts of sunshine—moonlight—meteors—and impetuous torrents mingling their sound with wind and  wave,” 19th-century British landscape painter John Constable said in a lecture on landscape painting.

Apart from meteors and moonlight, all the elements that Constable mentioned play out in two of Rubens’s largest and greatest landscapes: “The Rainbow Landscape” and “An Autumn Landscape With a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning.” The pair are thought to have once been pendants, meaning they were created with similar themes and were intended to be hung together.

Rubens is believed to have hung the pair in his country estate of Het Steen, and both were in his collection until he died.

Having been apart for over 200 years, the paintings are finally together again in the recently opened exhibition “Rubens: Reuniting the Great Landscapes” at The Wallace Collection in London. Last year, conservators at The National Gallery in London carefully cleaned and restored their Rubens painting “A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning” especially for the exhibition, where it will be reunited with Rubens’s “The Rainbow Landscape” owned by The Wallace Collection. Both of the paintings have also been set in new matching frames, which are sympathetic to 17th-century style.

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The National Gallery in London’s painting “An Autumn Landscape With a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning,” probably 1636,  by Peter Paul Rubens, as featured in the exhibition “Rubens: Reuniting the Great Landscapes” at The Wallace Collection, in London. (Trustees of The Wallace Collection, London)
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The Wallace Collection’s painting “The Rainbow Landscape,” circa 1636, by Peter Paul Rubens as featured in the exhibition “Rubens: Reuniting the Great Landscapes” at The Wallace Collection, in London. (Trustees of The Wallace Collection, London)

The exhibition is the product of collaboration among The Wallace Collection, The National Gallery, and Visit Flanders.

Rubens

In 1577, Rubens was born in Siegen, now in Germany. His Calvinist father had once been a lawyer and alderman in Antwerp. But before Rubens was born, he fled the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium) with Rubens’s mother and siblings to escape religious persecution.

When Rubens was 10 years old, his father died and his mother took the family back to Antwerp, where she raised the boy in her Catholic faith, and he received a classical education.

Around the age of 14, Rubens first took an apprenticeship with landscape painter Tobias Verhaecht, a relative. After a year, he apprenticed for four years with history painter Adam van Noort before entering the workshop of the most famous artist in Antwerp at the time, Otto van Veen, who was dean of the painters’ guild of St. Luke. It was in van Veen’s workshop that Rubens learned painting as a humanistic endeavor. 

At the beginning of the 17th century, Rubens traveled to Italy and immersed himself in studying not only contemporary Renaissance Italian art but ancient art and philology. From then on he began a serious art collection.

He returned to Antwerp in 1609 and became a court painter for the Spanish Habsburg regents of Flanders, Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella. This was the start of his illustrious career and successful Antwerp workshop, where paintings were created for regents across Europe.

Peace at Home

“By divine grace, I have found peace of mind, having renounced every sort of employment outside of my beloved profession,” Rubens wrote to a friend, the French antiquarian Peiresc, on Dec. 18, 1634, when he had retired from his diplomatic work abroad.

In 1653, Rubens bought Het Steen, a country home with 8 acres of surrounding land.

His workshop in Antwerp continued to flourish under the leadership of his assistant, whom Rubens would charge to bring paintings to Het Steen or sometimes to run errands such as bringing him figs and Rosille pears, according to the exhibition monograph.

It was at Het Steen that Rubens concentrated on painting the subjects close to his heart—his growing family and the rural landscape.

“I am leading a quiet life with my wife and children, and have no pretension in the world other than to live in peace,” Rubens wrote to Peiresc, in the aforementioned letter.

Rubens’s nephew recounted how his uncle would fastidiously copy the flora and fauna, and study the different atmospheric conditions of the land. He’d watch how the weather altered the colors and tones as the light interacted with the land. For instance, around 1615, Rubens wrote on a study of blackthorn with bramble and other plants: “blue berries like grapes covered with dew, the leaves fine green shimmering but at the back a bit pale and dull … the stems reddish,” as quoted in the exhibition monograph.

Rubens kept the studies as references and used them throughout his idealized paintings. The exhibition catalog details how his sketch of a milkmaid was used in several paintings.

In the decade before his death, Rubens found painting painful due to several bouts of gout. But his knowledge of the classics may have helped him. “He would have been familiar with Cicero’s treatise on old age (‘De Senectute’), which recommended the pleasure taken from agriculture and gardening in retirement, and from observing nature flourish as one’s own physical strength declined,” exhibition curator Lucy Davis notes in the monograph.

Perhaps that’s why Rubens chose to create one of these great paintings in summer, representing an abundant harvest, when nature reveals all its riches. The two paintings were created during peacetime, which is reflected by the depiction of jovial rural folk on fertile land at harvest time.

When he painted the pair, he did so in tandem. Rubens favored this method of working when he painted for pleasure. Each piece started as a small landscape painting, which over time he expanded by adding extra oak panels. Perhaps because Rubens could paint these pieces at his leisure, their compositions expanded in his imagination over time. Each of the completed paintings are composed of just over 20 oak boards.

Rubens painted both landscape paintings from the bird’s-eye perspective, commonly used in the Flemish tradition. He particularly admired fellow Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, who painted similar peasant scenes just a generation before. The exhibition catalog explains how the haystacks and milkmaids on the left side of “A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning” follow compositional elements of Bruegel’s paintings “Haymaking” and “The Harvesters,” which represent summer in his famous cycle “The Seasons.”

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“An Autumn Landscape With a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning,” probably 1636, by Peter Paul Rubens. (Trustees of the The National Gallery, London)

In each painting, Rubens used “repoussoir” devices, commonly used by Flemish artists, whereby an edge of the composition is framed to draw the viewer into the painting. In “A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning,” Rubens used a hunter holding back his dog as they prepare to home in on their prey, to draw viewers into the landscape.

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“The Rainbow Landscape,” circa 1636, by Peter Paul Rubens. (Trustees of The Wallace Collection, London)

In “The Rainbow Landscape,” a wagon full of hay acts as the repoussoir device as it meanders past two milkmaids, one of whom greets the wagon’s driver with a smile. A couple of cows, in the middle foreground, hold their heads up in curiosity. A white cow in the center and one on the right even appear to look out at the viewer. And the ducks on the right side of the painting are just doing what ducks do, frolicking in the water and preening themselves.

To find out more about the exhibition “Rubens: Reuniting the Great Landscapes” at The Wallace Collection in London, visit WallaceCollection.org