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Understanding the Antique

The encounter with the visible and literary remains of the classical Greek and Roman past defines much of Peter Paul Rubens' work.

 Review of “Rubens: Picturing Antiquity” at the Getty Villa; November 10, 2021 to January 24, 2022

In the 17th century, the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was the most renowned painter in Europe. His output and influence were enormous. Rubens was also a superb classical scholar, a discerning art collector, and a serious diplomat who worked on a peace treaty between England and Spain for which both monarchs knighted him. Yet all too often today, Rubens is reduced to the painter of female flesh. His extraordinary achievements made him a model for artists who had no interest in portraying overweight women. Simon Schama considers Rubens the “Paragon” and devotes the first hundred and fifty pages of Rembrandt’s Eyes to the astounding achievements of the Flemish master.

What made Rubens such a superstar? His classical humanist education as a boy growing up in Antwerp shaped his enormous talent and aspirations. At school, he read Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. With its incisive stories about the character of virtuous statesmen and the grandeur of republican politics, this book has fired up the hearts of generations of young men and women, including Montaigne, Shakespeare, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexander Hamilton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Nietzsche. How could it not also inspire the teenage Rubens?

Rubens apprenticed with three Antwerp painters. Admitted to the painter’s guild, the 23-year-old Rubens soon followed the tradition of northern artists topping off their guild status by journeying to Italy. He visited Venice, found a job as a painter for the Duke of Mantua, and traveled to Padua, Florence, Genoa, Rome, and even Spain. Over the next eight years, along with his official duties in Mantua, Rubens studied the “modern” art of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio alongside the sculpture of the ancients, all the time continuing to read the classics. 

The encounter with the visible and literary remains of the classical Greek and Roman past is the theme of the exhibition “Rubens: Picturing Antiquity” at the Getty Villa until January 24, the first show to bring together the ancient sculpture, reliefs, and precious carved gems that inspired the artist’s masterpieces over the course of his career. Beginning with its founder, J. Paul Getty, the museum has acquired a superb collection of Rubens’ paintings, oil sketches, and drawings, which curators Anne T. Woollett, Davide Gasparotto, and Jeffrey Spier have supplemented by national and international loans. 

Since the Renaissance, young artists learned to draw the human figure by looking at antique sculptures and live models. Rubens thought that to attain painting’s “highest perfection,” it was necessary to understand the antique. He cautioned young artists to concentrate on the form, not the material, and above all to avoid the “smell of stone” in their paintings or the effect of “tinted marble” for the flesh. His innovative process led to an imaginative reconstruction of the work under investigation, even when, as in the case of the famous Belvedere Torso, only a fragment remained. The goal was to bring the figures back to life with dynamism, pathos, drama, and above all, color. 

Rubens spent considerable time in Rome with his brother, classical scholar Philip, whose teacher Justus Lipsius was the founder of Neo-Stoicism, an attempt to harmonize ancient stoicism and Christian thought. One of the most revealing loans is a self-portrait of Rubens in the company of five friends including Philip and Lipsius in Mantua. The painter emphasizes fraternity and friendship with like-minded artists and scholars. He continued to draw from this community throughout his life, as his extensive correspondence, filled with classical quotations, makes plain.

The Getty exhibition concentrates on three subject areas, mythology, history, and philosophy. One of the mythological highlights is the Calydonian Boar Hunt, which is side by side with an ancient relief from a Roman sarcophagus that Rubens would have known. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the goddess of the hunt, Diana, is offended by a lack of sacrificial offerings from a kingdom and sends a wild boar to terrorize it. The king’s son, Meleager, assembles a group of warriors to slay the beast. Several huntsmen are killed or maimed before Meleager finally thrusts his spear into the boar. Rubens depicts him naked to reveal his heroic muscular body. Following a long intellectual tradition from Xenophon to Machiavelli, royal patrons viewed hunting as the best preparation for manly virtue. Understanding the philosophy behind this tradition, Rubens became the greatest painter of hunting scenes in his century.

Another fascinating example of Rubens learning from antiquity is his incorporation of the figure of the Farnese Hercules. He was introduced to this legendary figure from prints while still in Antwerp and on reaching Rome studied the nearly ten-foot statue. As a young man setting out on his own, Hercules faced a choice between Virtue and Vice, personified by two women. Vice promised him easy pleasure, Virtue difficult but enduring fame. The brawny superhero chose the latter and became the Stoic embodiment of physical and moral virtue. Rubens used Hercules to model all his most robust males, from Samson to St. Christopher.

Rubens was also a connoisseur and collector of art, including old coins and gems, which provided the only authentic ancient portraits of classical rulers. Rubens’ network of fellow scholars alerted him when an important antique work appeared on the market. The Apotheosis of Germanicus was a large Roman cameo unearthed in 1620. In the center, the military hero, beloved by the people and the soldiers, is saying farewell to his adopted father, the emperor Tiberius, accompanied by members of the royal family past and present. Above, we see the hero ascending to heaven. Rubens’ version, with its natural warmth added to the cold stone, is a fitting tribute to one of the noblest figures of the early empire.

Finally, there is the Death of Seneca. The ancient Stoic philosopher counseled men to bend but not break under the worst that fate and history could bring their way: war, tyranny, plague, untimely death. During his years as the tutor and chief advisor to the emperor Nero, the philosopher honorably served his country. Seneca, having been unjustly accused of treason by the emperor, was ordered to commit suicide. The painting shows a doctor and friend cutting open the philosopher’s veins as he stands in a tub of warm water to speed blood flow. A student records the last words of the philosopher: “VIR[TUS]” (virtue). The moral quality referred to is, first of all, stoic composure in the face of suffering and death, but it undoubtedly also relates to his life guided by the four cardinal virtues of courage, moderation, justice, and wisdom. 

Why was Rubens so passionate about the ancients? He viewed his time as “erroneous” and “degenerate.” He wondered if perhaps “our groveling genius will not permit us to soar to those heights which the ancients attained by their heroic sense and superior parts.” Through a close study of antiquity’s literature, art, and philosophy, along with his own experiences, he discovered a moral manliness and practical wisdom that guided his personal and diplomatic life and artmaking. 

Is this exhibition relevant in today’s world where classics are under attack for being elitist and pernicious? What can it teach us? Are the lessons of someone like Seneca and his fellow Stoics irrelevant for the present age? It is a hopeful sign that a cultural institution like the Getty has undertaken an enterprise that allows us to grasp the lessons that one brilliant man discovered in the classics and gave to the world.

Joseph R. Phelan has taught at the University of Maryland, the Catholic University of America, and the University of Toronto.