Visited the National Gallery here and saw a small show about Rubens, the Flemish (Belgian) painter, scholar and diplomat (some say he was more like a spy) and his work methods. The factory style production he adopted when he became super popular was surprisingly contemporary, as was the size of his ego:
“My talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size . . . has ever surpassed my courage.”
He was a multitasker who would paint, dictate a letter and listen to a book read aloud, all at the same time. He became hugely successful and devised an innovative way to meet the demand for his work. He delegated, or should I say he subcontracted, much of the work. He turned his studio into a place that could mass-produce (unique) large paintings.
This show described how he ran his painting factory: he would sketch out a painting in brown ink, then, with the layout decided, he’d quickly do a rough oil sketch which would get passed to the client, and if it met approval (which presumably meant guaranteed payment), then Rubens would indicate to the various apprentice painters he had on hand which colors were to go where—sort of a paint by numbers technique, eh? He would even daub a little of the approved colors on the canvas in the appropriate areas to make sure they matched.
These initial sketches were often modest in size, but the masterpieces the apprentices worked on were giant.
Then, after the basic work was done by these subordinates (van Dyck was one who later made a name for himself), Rubens would then add the finishing touches (often just on the face and hands) himself and sign it as a Peter Paul Rubens original. He also developed a technique by which the various layers of the paintings could dry faster so the whole process was quicker than that done by the Italians, for example.
Often he would paint studies of background characters in advance, and he would then instruct the apprentices to add these to various parts of “his” paintings. He “cast” the characters for them, as Fellini or Norman Rockwell would, grabbing interesting people at a casting call or off the street. He’d then paint or sketch them from various angles—there were multiple portraits done—so the assistant painters could pick the one portrait that matched the head angle needed for a character in the background of a nativity or some other biblical or mythological scene.
Here is one such painting:
Scholars divide Rubens work into three categories. Those he painted pretty much entirely himself, those he “finished” (as described above) by usually touching up the hands and faces, and those he merely supervised. Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst have nothing on this guy.
At one point he made a trip to Italy and saw a painting by Caravaggio, which he decided to copy: The Entombment of Christ. His version was fairly faithful, but after a bit, he gave up on being exact (or maybe his drawing was sketchy), and he began to add his own touches…like giving Christ the same hair color as himself.
Here’s the Caravaggio:
And here’s the Rubens copy:
So, whose painting is it? It this an appropriation, as is said today? Or is it stealing someone else’s idea? I don’t think it qualifies for what is now called fair use because it doesn’t “comment” on the Caravaggio. I suspect he hoped no one up North knew about the Italian painting…there weren’t exactly a lot of art books floating around in those days (the 1600’s). Some writers feel that Rubens added his own aesthetic sufficiently to his version to make the copy qualify as his own version conveying his special sensibility, but that could be said about any amateur copy as well.
As a painter to kings and clergy he had to be “diplomatic” to stay on top—he was the number one painter in Europe for a while. He painted Marie de’ Medici (of the famous art patron family and mother of Louis XIII), and way before Photoshop and plastic surgery he managed to present her in a more favorable light.
Here is a sketch he did of Marie:
I like his epic paintings of mythological scenes, which, in my opinion, include his biblical narrative paintings. They’re like giant scale movie stills that manage to capture key moments in a narrative. The guy does seem to be every bit the hustler as some of our contemporaries.
Ottawa Jazz Festival
Our show—outdoors as part of the Jazz festival— almost got rained out. There was lightning and thunder, and we were told to vacate the stage, but it passed in 10 minutes, so we continued and almost got to the end of our show when it started again, and this time we were told to clear out. The Ottawans stuck it out for the most part.
Biked around the water’s edge for hours—there are lovely paths.
Lots of rain recently…some forests were flooded.
Then to a Vodou show at the Civilization Museum (which was essentially one woman’s collection used to explain this religion and its mythology)…strong resonant pieces.
On the way back to Ontario, I pass the art museum where a Greenland artist had covered a large part of the museum with printed tarps that turn it into a melting iceberg. A timely reminder and gorgeous—you can see it from all over town.
Dinner at The Whalesbone (oysters, seafood) and some of us went to catch Kelly’s friends, The Luyas, across the river in Hull, in a part of town where there is the beginnings of an art and performance scene. Great band by the way.