« PreviousContinue »
the air hover a cloud of white-robed genii extending palm-branches and wreaths of bay above the grave and noble-looking King. Both those pictures now hang in the room of the Niobids of the Uffizi Gallery at Florence. They are still unfinished having the ground colour only laid on. Indeed they can scarcely be described as pictures, but rather as colossal sketches done in the enthusiasm of first ideas: which is perhaps the reason why they have so great an effect on the spectator. It seems,— although it certainly was the case—, difficult to believe that the master worked upon them for only a few days. But they were fated never to be completed.
In the summer 1630 Maria di Medici arrived in the Netherlands as a fugitive. Richelieu had gained more power over her son than she possessed over him. She there met again the painter who had glorified by his pencil her earlier history, and she visited him in his studio during the autumn of 1631. But she was no longer in the position of a patroness of art, nor had she the means of paying for so great and costly a work as the Henry IV. Series would have been, had they been finally executed by the master. The poor homeless queen had not enough now for her own maintenance , and we learn that Rubens even lent her money on the security of a portion of her jewels. It is a curious coincidence that Maria di Medici, thus banished and a wanderer from place to place for eleven years, finally ended her life in the very same house at Cologne in which Rubens, who immortalized her, had passed his first childhood.
In conjunction with these two scenes from the life of Henry IV. we must mention another work, likewise unfinished, now in the Berlin Museum which represents the Siege of Tunis by Charles V. This also is characteristic of the master's methods of inspiring modern battle-pieces, with heroic grandeur and thus adapting them to his own particular taste and that of the time.
In 1631 Rubens was elected Master of the Guild of St. Luke at Antwerp, on which occasion he presented to that Corporation one of his early paintings, now known at the Antwerp Museum under the name of The Madonna with the parrot. Although an attempt at composition in the style of the great Italian masters, it is not without importance, for the lovely Infant Christ, so characteristic of the maste r, has peculiar charm. There is in the same Museum also another painting of the Virgin Mary which must, however have been executed about thirty years later. Originally it adorned the Carmelite Church at Antwerp. It is not a large composition, but is remarkable for its display of sentiment. The Holy Virgin, a mere child with a book in her hand, stands beside St. Anne who, seated on a stone bench, is instructing her with loving patience. Behind the bench, Joachim leaning upon a balustrade watches the group with an expression of affectionate tenderness. Charming child-angels hover amid a blue sky dotted with tiny silver clouds, and lovingly support a wreath of roses above the Virgin's head; while beside her a bower and a tall bush of roses stand in strong relief against the distant landscape.
We may also find at St. Martin's Church in the small town of Aalst (Alost) a large altarpiece of the year 1631. The plague had been ravaging in that town, and it was in commemoration of its deliverance from that dire disease that this picture was dedicated by its inhabitants to St. Roch famed as the heavenly protector against pestilence. The picture is divided into two parts; a divine one above, and an earthly one below. Above, attended by an angel, we see Christ himself, before whom the Saint kneels in deep devotion in an attitude of dignified humility, interceding for suffering humanity. Below we can see the terrible results of the plague: — a dead man lies on the ground, while near him another haggard victim of the same scourge, wrapt in a shroud looks the image of utter despair. We
may also at the same time observe relief given in answer to prayer. An old man, hoary with age his arms uplifted, passionately implores the succour of Heaven: and we can even discern reviving vigour in the expression of a young woman though at the point of death. In certain groups of
Knackfuss, Rubens. 9
figures Hope appears to be calming the prevailing terror, thus displaying the result of the Saint's intercession. This picture, on account of its affecting sentiment, ranks among the artist's greatest master-pieces.
Whilst he here infused all the force of his genius into a religious subject, he also during the first period of his second marriage created certain compositions full of strenuous delight in life and love. Amongst these is the so-called Garden of Love or as it is still better designated in a contemporary engraving the Court of Venus. Rubens himself called it Conversatie a la mode (Figg. 104, 105). Among the various versions of this composition, which differ slightly in size and lesser details, that in the Dresden Gallery is the one best known; whilst that in the Museum at Madrid, with half-size figures, is generally considered the finest. The Dresden example is on a smaller scale, but is most carefully executed. The artist also designed this composition for reproduction as a wood-cut, which Christopher Jegher, who had already been so successful in copying from the master's sketches, executed, and which Rubens himself undertook to publish. The subject is treated with great freedom. A number of elegant cavaliers and ladies, dressed in the luxurious fashion of the period, are assembled in a garden, and seem to be full of life and spirit. It is a brilliant summer day, and the shady gloom of a grotto adorned with satyrs, hermae, and cascades of water tempts the heated reveller. Beside the broken rocks, is a fountain adorned with a marble statue of Venus, at whose feet most of the gay company are assembled. Upon the edge of the fountain a number of putti are sporting. They float in the air with brandished weapons; they hide in the rose-bushes and flutter around to assist the love-making of the various couples. Here they caress one timid maid: and there they whisper courage in the ear of another. There is throughout the whole scene the indescribeable charm of exuberant gaiety. It is easy to recognize in the centre of the composition the lovely features of Helena Fourment, radiant in youthful grace. She can also be traced as the original of a sketch, now in the Louvre, (Fig. 101), intended as a study for a lady in the Garden of Love, who in a reclining position is supported by a cavalier, towards whom she playfully bends her head on one side and listens with apparent pleasure.
But Rubens depicted the charms of all-powerful Love in a much more riotous and unruly manner in another picture, called the Sacrifice to Venus, now in the Imperial Museum at Vienna. Here we do not find as in the first composition ladies and gentlemen who in spite of the spontaneous freedom expressed in their gestures are restrained in their behaviour; but nymphs and satyrs, uncontrolled by nature, rendering homage to the Goddess of Love, around whom reels a crowd of intoxicated putti. But this Venus also does not limit her power to the indulgence in absolute license, for a stately female figure devoutly scatters incense upon the sacrificial flame, and two elegantly attired ladies draw near with offerings. In one of these ladies we may recognize the head of Ruben's well-known Magdalen, while strangely enough the features of Helena Fourment are given to one of the most wanton of the nymphs.