Although Rubens was a Flemish artist, he spent a fair bit of his time in London, working for Charles I; he even appears to have offered his own views on foreign policy to try to bring England and Spain together (it didn’t work, though both countries gave him knighthoods). It’s not surprising then that if you want to see Rubens’s work, you don’t have to go to Brussels, Antwerp or Mechelen – nor to the Prado – because a lot of it was commissioned by British buyers, and ended up in British collections.
Here are my top ten Rubens pictures in London. There’s a bit of legwork (and a few admissions fees) involved in finding them all – but if you want a whirlwind tour of Rubens, Room 29 of the National Gallery will net you a superb haul in one fell swoop.
- It would be unthinkable to miss the most public and perhaps the most political of Rubens’s works in the capital, the painted ceiling in the Banqueting House on Whitehall which shows the apotheosis of James I. The foreshortening is brilliantly handled, and the full-on baroque painting seems to lift the lid off Inigo Jones’s far more classical, restrained building. But Rubens’s vision of James in Glory, and his patron Charles I’s ideas of the Divine Right of Kings, didn’t go down well in England; a crowning irony is that this splendid painting is one of the last things Charles would have seen as he stepped out from one of the windows of the Banqueting House on to the scaffold, in January 1649.
- The Courtauld Gallery has the luxury of hanging three Rubens paintings in the same room. The two early paintings, Cain and Abel, and Moses and the Brazen Serpent, share a palette with cool turquoise and emerald tones in the background, but it’s the later sketch for the Descent from the Cross that really impresses, with its theatrical, diagonal slash of the white shroud contrasting with the muted colours of the rest of the painting.
- At the end of his life, Rubens bought the manor of Het Steen and settled down as a member of the landed gentry. His View of Het Steen in the Early Morning in the National Gallery is a marvellous landscape, with the luminous clouds and hard light of winter dawn. Slender trees strive upwards; a cart leaves the house on its way to the market; a solitary hunter sets out in pursuit of partridges; and the land falls gently away into the far distance. Sheer poetry.
- Most people don’t think of Rubens as a landscape painter though; he’s better known for his blowsy women. Venus, Mars and Cupid in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, fits this Rubens to a T: sensual and indulgent, though there is also a political message – the desirability but also the fragility, of peace, represented by Venus, against the sinister warlike looks of Mars. But look closer and you’ll see it’s a very odd scene – perhaps comic, perhaps psychologically rather disturbing. Mars in the background seems sidelined in his black shiny armour, while a naked, puffy white Venus shoots breast milk towards the scrambling infant Cupid.
- Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (in the National Gallery) reprises the theme, though in this picture it’s Ceres, goddess of fertility, who’s doing the breastfeeding, and Mars is being driven away by Minerva – war being driven away, and peace defended, by the goddess of wisdom. Again, there’s a hidden political message – the painter’s hopes for a rapprochement between his two patrons, Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England.
- The Miraculous Draught of Fishes isn’t a well known Rubens but it’s a favourite of mine for its very dynamic feeling, and the wonderful, wintry colours of the North Sea coast, all mists and sea foam. This is Ostend or Friesland – not the Red Sea. It’s also incredibly modern in feeling – while the blowsy ladies in his allegories are obviously baroque, this could almost be a work of the 1930s by Nash or Nicholson. It’s also exactly the same subject as in the church of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-over-de-Dijle in Mechelen, not far from Rubens’s Antwerp home.
- A much more famous painting is ‘The Straw Hat‘ (a misnomer, as the hat is felt not straw), probably a portrait of Rubens’s sister-in-law Susanna Lunden, also in the National Gallery. It has an intriguing sense of melancholy, with the sitter’s face half shaded by the hat; she hugs herself, and wraps her dress around her and even the clouds seem to embrace her, as if she’s a precious, vulnerable thing.
- The National Portrait Gallery displays Rubens’ portrait of Sir Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, in room 5. It’s another intriguing work; Howard was one of the greatest art collectors of his day, but here, the lifted eyebrow, the heavy eyes, tousled hair and dark armour make him look a bit of a bruiser. I can never quite make out whether he’s frowning or about to smile, but it’s the kind of portrait that makes you feel disturbingly close to a real human being.
- Rubens, as a painter and art dealer, knew Howard well. Another of his close associates was compatriot, former assistant, and later rival painter, Sir Anthony Van Dyck. The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace contains Rubens’s portrait of Van Dyck – a rather startled looking man who evidently takes great care over his personal grooming, with flowing hair and a luxuriant moustache. It’s not an entirely approving portrait, but it suggests hidden depths in a man best known as a fashionable portraitist to the aristocracy.
Let’s close the list with another landscape painting, the Rainbow Landscape in the Wallace Collection. It’s actually a companion piece to the Het Steen picture in the National Gallery, a bountiful harvest time picture with warmer colours, showing the countryside transformed by the marvellous rainbow in the distance. There may well be an allusion to the Biblical story of Noah’s Flood – the rainbow a symbol of God’s bounty to man, just like the harvest which is proceeding in the foreground. The dark colours of the foreground recede as our eyes follow the line of trees towards the bright promise of the rainbow and the ethereal clouds.
Concierge Tip: After a busy morning spent discovering everything that is Rubens, a complimentary afternoon tea (or even something slightly stronger) is in order – the perfect way to round off a day of artistic delight.