Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 2, 2000
Alexander Vergara Rubens and His Spanish Patrons Cambridge University Press. (0521632455)

It is curious that Peter Paul Rubens’s relationship with Spain has never received monographic treatment. Certainly the Flemish artist’s most notable commissions for the Spanish Hapsburgs have been analyzed in the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard series: relevant volumes include those on the portraits of the Spanish monarchs, their families, and members of their court (Frances Huemer, 1977; Hans Vlieghe, 1987); the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series (1627-28), commissioned by the Archduchess Isabella, daughter of Philip II (Nora De Poorter, 1978); the program of arches and stages for the triumphal entry (1635) of the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand (John Rupert Martin, 1968); the decoration of Philip IV’s hunting lodge (1636-38), the Torre de la Parada (Svetlana Alpers, 1971); and the works depicting historical subjects that appear in additional volumes. These commissions, as well as others, have also appeared in a number of exhibitions in Belgium, including Splendeurs D’Espagne (Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, 1985), and, more recently, Albert and Isabella, 1598-1621 (Brussels, Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, 1998); a full listing of relevant exhibitions is included in Vergara’s index.

In considering Rubens’s Spanish commissions, Vergara joins a group of scholars—including, most notably, Arnout Balis, Jonathan Brown, Steven Orso, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and Mary Crawford Volk — all of whom have focused on particular patrons and projects. However, Vergara’s investigation differs in terms of its scope: in spite of the book’s title, Vergara considers Rubens and his art in a broader context — the political and artistic environment in Spain during the first half of the seventeenth century. This is particularly clear in the last chapter, where Vergara discusses the demand for works by Rubens after his death (1640), a trend that continued until 1700. This chapter is perhaps the book’s most original contribution; in spite of the novelty of Vergara’s topic, as well as the considerable background and insight that he brings to it, there remains a question of just how new this material is. Nonetheless, Vergara’s well-written and beautifully produced volume is a welcome addition to the Rubens literature.

Rubens’s first encounter with Spain dates from his trip in 1603-4. Charged by Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua, with the delivery of gifts to Philip III and his chief minister, the Duke of Lerma, Rubens set off on his initial adventure in diplomacy. As his letters to Annibale Chieppio, Gonzaga’s secretary of state, indicate, nothing about this embassy had gone as planned: the voyage was hazardous, the paintings Rubens was to have delivered were severely damaged, and the court had moved from Madrid to Valladolid; Rubens immediately set off for Valladolid, where, upon his arrival, he found that Philip III and his retinue were by then in Burgos. There was little left to the artist but to await Philip’s return. However, in the meantime, Rubens set about studying works in the royal collection in Madrid and at the Escorial; both the quality and the quantity of paintings, particularly those by the Venetians, were a revelation. Rubens’s letters say less about contemporary Spanish art, for which he expressed considerable contempt. During his stay in Valladolid, he executed his single significant work from this period: an equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma (1603; Prado) which shows the influence of El Greco.

Rubens was not to return to Spain until 1628, when as a more mature and more seasoned diplomat, he undertook a mission for the Archduchess Isabella, the governor of the Spanish Netherlands. Although Rubens had ostensibly been sent to negotiate a peace between Spain and England, Vergara suggests that it was during this second sojourn that the artist executed the vast majority of his numerous copies of works by Titian and other Italian artists in the royal collection. Furthermore, Rubens sought to rekindle Spain’s golden past by creating a relationship with Philip IV that echoed what had existed between Titian and Charles V. This ploy was not lost on Philip, who realized that by selecting Rubens to paint his portrait in the equestrian mode, he was proclaiming himself Charles’ heir, and, at the same time, Rubens as the heir of Titian. In this chapter, Vergara considers Philip both as a patron and as a collector who took considerable pride in his growing collection. Following Rubens’s death in 1640, Philip was an active buyer at the extensive sales of the painter’s estate; many of these works are now in the Prado.

Precisely why Philip turned to Rubens in the 1630s is not clear. It may have been because of the extensive plans to redecorate the royal residences in Madrid — especially the new royal summer palace of Buen Retiro. In addition, the eclipse of Philip’s chief minister, Gaspar de Guzmàn, the count-duke of Olivares, allowed the king to develop his own taste. Finally, the installation in Brussels of the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, a considerable connoisseur, in 1634, may have led to Rubens’s involvement in the decoration of the Torre de la Parada, and concurrently in that of the Alcazar in Madrid. As Vergara notes, the size of the commission made Rubens the best candidate; furthermore, Rubens’s extensive study of Titian’s mythological paintings, the most famous mythological allegories to be seen in Spain, also contributed to his selection.

Vergara’s book will surely spark interest in this topic. Thus, in addition to well-deserved accolades, a few cautionary words are in order. First, Vergara—and scholars more generally— need to be more critical of Rubens’s letters: one should not accept every word as truth. Rubens’ missives are artfully composed to maximize his position; his letters from Valladolid during his first visit were intended to remind Chieppio of how he had persevered in a difficult situation — with the hope that he would be suitably rewarded on his return. Vergara takes Rubens’s contemptuous dismissal of painting in Spain too seriously when he suggests that Rubens seems to have been wholly unaffected by what he saw during his first trip. As his equestrian portrait of Lerma indicates, he was certainly inspired by the works of El Greco.

Second, one might want to take a closer look at exactly what was going on in Valladolid during the months that Rubens was in residence. Although Rubens gives a rather bleak account of this period, Valladolid in 1603 was being rebuilt by Lerma as a new capital, where he, as the favorite of Philip III, could have direct access to the king without going through the bureaucracy of Madrid. Lerma had encouraged members of the aristocracy to relocate to Valladolid, to build and decorate luxurious palaces there, and to begin assembling collections. Thus, contrary to what Rubens’s letters might indicate, Valladolid was at this point a virtual beehive of artistic activity. Furthermore, until his first trip to Spain, Rubens may never have encountered a monumental multipaneled retablo, or a paso, those mammoth tableaux, composed of life-size polychromed sculpted figures, which were carried through the streets on feast days. Perhaps the artists were not up to the standards of the Venetians in the royal collection, or to those concurrently active in Rome, or even those back in Antwerp; nevertheless, their influence is apparent in several important works Rubens executed on his return to the Spanish Netherlands, and if only for this reason, these painters and sculptors deserve more careful consideration.