Without Hesitation

John Haber
in New York City

Peter Paul Rubens: The Drawings

One expects more from drawings. Less polish, perhaps. Less of the richness of oil, its variety of color and light, the assured compositions meant for public display. But more of a revelation, the artist's first thoughts, private feelings, and hesitations.

With the drawings of Peter Paul Rubens, one is in for a surprise. He never lets go, because he never has to. He goes right for the surface of things, and he seems to bring everything to completion on his first try. If their display at the Met holds any revelation, it is that Rubens never, ever hesitates. Peter Paul Rubens's Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Coral Necklace (Albertina, c. 1619)

Artists of the next generation, such as Rembrandt, held him in awe. Modern tastes, mine included, often feel more at home with those like Rembrandt who did hesitate, who had to deal with the darkness and uncertainty of art, who had trouble separating maturity from failure. Paradoxically, one has a blockbuster exhibition without the crowds for Leonardo drawings a year before.

Still, the drawings suggest why his talents astonished others. They clarify the development of an artist and his remarkably efficient workshop system. They show his larger influence as well, in bringing the Baroque to northern Europe. In fact, Rubens draws so easily and well that one can almost forget how much he leaves out.

Forget Rubens

For starters, he omits almost everything but people. Trained in the late Renaissance, he no doubt learned that painting has to begin with the study of human form. Yet his single-minded focus still amazes. Michelangelo wrestled with the architecture of a building, a fresco, or nature itself. Rubens's drawings only hint at the variety of his painted subjects. Almost every one could pass for a portrait, much like a Holy Family by his greatest pupil, Anthony van Dyck.

Born in 1577, Rubens saw the emergence of landscape drawing as an independent form, but he has only a couple of remarkable examples. He painted complex, crowded compositions, but on paper he neglects iconography and narrative. He shows little concern for how these people—most often, one to a sheet—will ultimately come together. In some sketches, he reaches toward the grouping of the finished painting, but in more of a close-up, with none of the dark background that would baffle and fascinate Rembrandt.

He had a way in paint with lavish props, such as the feathered hat of his sister-in-law, but the preparatory drawing cuts her off at the head. On paper, his animals may pose as fearsomely as they will in Daniel in the Lions' Den, but they have the familiarity of family portraits, too. Leonardo views people with the same detachment that he brings to other species or to weapons of war. Rubens could be visiting the zoo to flatter patrons and close friends.

Conversely, he largely leaves out what the Renaissance sought most in human form, anatomy, as in the detailed drawings of Filippino Lippi. He cares more for faces, bodies in motion, and their surfaces than for their inner construction. Sure, the young Rubens studies musculature in Mannerist art. He copies painting and statuary on his long early stay in Rome. Soon, however, he takes for granted that he can get all that right.

He also largely omits psychology. Leonardo assembled faces as a gallery of human types. Rubens humanizes religious scenes further, but in an altogether different way. One cherishes the surface—the white chalk that creates the fall of light on a child's cheek, the drop of moisture on his lips. When Rembrandt paints or sketches the woman he loves, he lingers tenderly on sagging flesh. Rubens treats his own wife's ample stomach more as a center of gravity. Later, in a painting, he conveys intimacy by instead covering that flesh with a soft fur that may, at any moment, fall away.

Above all, he leaves out himself. Forget Rubens. He uses chalk to discipline his workshop—or himself. No matter how often he can set to work or how swiftly, he always has to get the job done. No wonder he happily recycles a drawing of his son when he needs to paint the infant Jesus. No wonder, too, that he has so few outright self-portraits.

Between studies and presentations

By leaving out so much, he gives drawings a unique polish and independence. Other artists divided their output on paper into studies and presentation pieces. Rubens has few of the latter, unless one counts a few late collaborations that served as models for prints. As for the former, they could well pass for finished work.

From Parmigianino through Pollock, drawings often seem to emerge as in a fever. Their informality and obvious signs of struggle can make even a slick academic artist like Jean-Baptiste Greuze look downright modern. Rubens, in contrast, never struggles—or at least he knows how to hide the traces. The drawings make clear just how consistently he works.

He has a composition to fill. Early in his career, he begins with people so that he can better adjust them to the canvas. In his maturity, he focuses on the individual for quite a different reason: he ran a workshop as efficiently as a factory. He would block out the painting himself, but assistants had to fill in subordinate actors. They needed models—and good ones. Besides, he may not have felt comfortable without characters perfected well in advance.

He turns to drawing, then, because he leaves nothing to chance. He typically starts with light traces, in an almost invisible black chalk or pencil. With black chalk, he then firms up the figure's outline. He loves curves, to emphasize a figure's movements and command of space, but they arise consciously and not systematically. They do not all but generate a composition by themselves, like Raphael's characteristic loops.

They do, however, have an instinctive unity. It may not reflect the unity of a painting's larger composition, but it is there all the same. When Rubens includes more than one head—or even a head and an arm—on one sheet, he could almost have planned them that way. In one drawing, the curators claim, he may have added a thumb merely to round out the whole.

Red chalk and, often, the tip of a brush now lends color, detail, and texture. Finally, touches of white chalk add light and surface polish. In the portraits of his family, the delicacy of those whites reminds me how much he cared for his subjects. In the landscapes, the combination of soft darkness and more precise light truly shimmers.

The drawing factory

And that is that. The drawings have few obvious pentimenti, or corrections. If he does not like the results sufficiently, he can always start another drawing, or he can adjust matters when he gets to canvas. Of course, he rarely has to.

As often in art and life, exceptions speak volumes. In their command and their focus on individuals, the mature drawings suggest the hallmarks of his style—the early Baroque's new humanism, its consistency of space, and its more direct address to the viewer. Just as the consistency of these drawings reveal Rubens's aims, scope, mastery, and limitations, however, so do the works that do not quite fit into my narrative. In particular, the very first and last drawings further describe the origins of the Baroque and of his workshop.

Even in his earliest years, Rubens's art emerges not by addition, part by anatomical part, but as a single persuasive argument. In his obvious study of and confrontation with earlier artists, he works toward that argument. He gently normalizes Mannerist exaggeration of musculature. He lightly corrects Michelangelo's formidable contrapposto, so that a Sybil from the Sistine ceiling treads easily in her niche and in the soft fabric of her drapery. Strangely, he makes many discoveries for himself, with little evidence of his admiration for Caravaggio and others who invented the Baroque in Italy or, like Gian Lorenzo Bernini, carried it forward.

One sees his growth, then, in those early adjustments to Mannerist anatomy. One sees it in his thought that one can attain the majestic three dimensions of Michelangelo through coherent motion rather than architectural crowding. This thought does not come all at once either. Rubens's Descent from the Cross in Antwerp has a dramatic unity that announces an epoch in northern painting. His drawings for it, however, still retain some Mannerist exaggeration. He leaves the outrageous gesture of an apostle pulling cloth with his teeth, close to the foreground and violently foreshortened.

The Baroque comes with a turn away from Mannerism's elite audiences toward a wider public, including more public commissions and individual purchasers. In other words, it suits perfectly the factory model of Rubens's workshop. While one sees that in his attention to each figure, one sees it, too, in a second group of exceptions, his final years. Eventually, as assistants take on more of the planning and execution, the drawings have to supply more complete compositions. Students, among them Anthony van Dyck, help set things rolling, and one gets to watch Rubens making corrections. He makes plenty of them, too.

In his command and maturity, Rubens brought a new era to European painting, and it brought Frans Hals back to Antwerp, the city of his birth, to see it. One may not see that era in full in his drawings. One cannot discover how Rubens's focus on humanity changed courtly and religious art, how his compositions changed the way artists looked at the world, and how much his rich textures made them feel it. One can, however, discover a painter and an era, without the interference of Rubens's workshop—or his taste for pomp, flesh, and circumstance. Maybe it helps get over the awe to meet an artist at his ease.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640): The Drawings" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 3, 2005.

 

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