‘Rubens & His Legacy- Van Dyck to Cezanne’ Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

Yesterday I visited the current Rubens exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly, London. This was my first time visiting this world-renowned place, and I would like to now share my observations and personal impressions, if I may. Artistic taste is very subjective, as I am well aware, but if you are looking for this to be a balanced look at the exhibition, I’m afraid I will let you down. This exhibition struck me in good and bad ways and I’m going to be completely honest. You have been warned.

Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish Baroque artist born in 1577 and renowned for his great talent and for the works he made particularly for King James I and King Charles I of England. Rubens is one of my favourite 17th-century painters, and I was so pleased to see his The Garden of Love, c. 1635 there. I love cherubs, and this painting has no less than 9!

Image via ArtFund

Rubens died in 1640, but not before leaving a wealth of oil paintings, studies in brown, red, and black chalks, and in pens. His work is unquestionably some of the most stunning examples of Baroque art, and with good reason – the man could paint. His paintings were not only full of vibrant colour and movement, but of story and meaning. The attractive voluptuous-figured women in his paintings have since led to similarly-proportioned women being referred to as Rubenesque – a term which we use today.

Whilst this exhibition was about Rubens and his legacy, I felt that there were far fewer works by Rubens than I expected. His influence on later artists was quite apparent throughout the exhibition and there were works by Charles Le Brun, Delacroix, Landseer, Renoir, Boucher, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Fragonard, Coypel, Murillo, Fantin-Latour, Verrio, among others.

Stylistic aspects of Rubens’s portraits of aristocratic families throughout Europe were seen in the exhibited works of 18th-and-early-19th-century great painters such as Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence.

“Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt”, by Rubens and on display in Room 8 of the exhibition. Image via Royal Academy.

Rubens’s Portrait of Maria Grimaldi and Dwarf, c. 1606, is stunning. The detail is incredible. The lady holds a fan in her hand, the elaborate and large ruff at her neck is striking, and the little dog appears to be scrambling up onto her lap. Her weary-faced servant stands behind her. The glorious red curtain and the majestic Corinthian columns in the background add even more grandeur to this painting:

Rubens. Portrait of Maria Grimaldi and Dwarf, c. 1606. Image: National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty via BBC My Paintings.

Information on the wall in one of the rooms stated: “Rubens was an unequalled propagandist…subsequent propaganda painters long considered Rubens as a shining example to their trade.”

I absolutely loved seeing Sir James Thornhill’s sketch for his epic ceiling painting that we visitors to the Painted Hall all know and love: King William III and Queen Mary Presenting Europe with Peace and Liberty, c. 1710. I had never seen this before, so it was quite moving for me.

V&A Images.

Next to this piece was Antonio Verrio’s sketch for The Assembly of the Gods, c. 1680-1700. Verrio’s beautiful works can be seen adorning places such as Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace. Also, Rubens’s studies for his impressive work for the Banqueting House ceiling was a treat worthy of the admission price in itself.

In what I should have taken as foreshadowing, next to the Verrio and Rubens works, there was one work which I noted as “a hideous 20th-century work by Oscar Kokoschka entitled, ‘Loreley’, which according to the plaque beside it: “refers with irony to Rubens’s Neptune Calming the Waves.” It was hideous, there can be no other word to describe this and I was shocked it could be placed beside the other works. Again, foreshadowing.

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I purchased the exhibition paperback, Rubens and His Legacy, and also the little booklet and the cd, Rubens and the Music of His Time, which is very beautiful! The album has a mixture of Late Renaissance and Baroque music, perfect for Baroque fans such as I am. This was not an inexpensive visit – my ticket alone cost £15, and the items above totalled nearly £40.

The Royal Academy entrance

The Royal Academy entrance

Now, I have no desire to offend those whose tastes may run to the more conceptual, so if you are a Postmodern art aficionado please look away now or you will be offended. I strongly dislike modern art, and that shall soon be more than evident in the notes I made upon exiting the exhibition. I wrote: “If, like me, you do not enjoy conceptual ‘art’, please spare yourself the repugnant room that is labeled “La Peregrina” and boasted as a personal and contemporary response to Rubens and His Legacy.”

In my opinion, there was no place for this stuff in an exhibit dedicated to an Old Master. The £5 guide calls it ‘a final treat’, but to me the inclusion of this modern section in what was otherwise a breathtaking exhibition was nothing less than visually offensive. The modern art world is plagued by rubbish like this, fried eggs on tables, splatters of red paint on a white canvas, a bizarre melted humanoid model. This is laughable, but sadly unsurprising when one considers that the Royal Academy appointed messy bed “creator” Tracey Emin as their Professor of Drawing. That final room was filled with objects that, in my opinion, were utterly devoid of the talent that was so strikingly evident in Rubens’s work; and it is a lamentable tragedy that this is what passes for art. I felt as though those behind the exhibition had aggressively tacked-on this section, arrogantly assuming that what was within was tantamount to what was previously seen. Generally speaking, I’d imagine that many people who love Rubens and 17th-century art will feel the same as I do about this.

Unfortunately, what would have been a 5-star from me is now a 3 because of the inclusion of the incongruous modern portion.

For tickets and more information, please go to the Royal Academy of Arts website.

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Hear ye! One thought — so far — on “‘Rubens & His Legacy- Van Dyck to Cezanne’ Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts”:

  1. Lisbeth Ekelof

    I visited this exhibition in Brussels. Of late, I have become a great fan of Rubens. Visited his house in Antwerp recently. It is lovely. I am not very knowledgable about art, but I know what I like. His paintings are so powerful, they almost jump at you, out of the frame. I agree that to mix it with modern, often not very understandable art (at least for me), is not a good idea.

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