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New book explores gender, politics and allegory in Rubens' works

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


Lisa Rosenthal
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Lisa Rosenthal, a professor of art history, has written the recently published book “Gender, Politics and Allegory in the Art of Rubens” (Cambridge University Press).

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Even people who’ve never opened an art history book are likely to have glimpsed prints of the lush, vividly detailed and often provocative paintings of 17th-century Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. Or, at the very least, they may be familiar with the term inspired by the full-figured nudes that frequently populate his canvases: “Rubenesque.”

“As we know so well in our time, Rubenesque describes an ample female body,” said Lisa Rosenthal, a professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of the recently published book “Gender, Politics and Allegory in the Art of Rubens” (Cambridge University Press).

“Rubens is the great painter of the body – or as I like to phrase it, ‘the bodily body,’ ” she said.

And while it’s impossible to ignore the glowing flesh of the elaborately rendered figures that frequently populate his canvases, Rosenthal said it’s the iconography – or symbolism inscribed in just about every visual element present – that has been a dominant interest among art historians.

“There’s a huge body of scholarship on Rubens because he’s such a central canonical figure in the history of Western art,” she said. “And most of that scholarship has been devoted to a fairly traditional kind of iconographic method.” In a Rubens portrait, for example, even the family dog or a seemingly randomly inserted parrot or coat of arms has an allegorical purpose.

“Because Rubens’ images draw so richly on this whole store of personifications and meanings that were available to Renaissance culture, it’s been a gold mine for later art historians to go back and name and identify motifs,” Rosenthal said. “However, there’s a tendency to name what it (the iconography) refers to, and leave it at that,” Rosenthal said.

“But Rubens won’t let us leave it at that because he creates such vivid, complex and psychologically subtle relationships within his figures. There’s also a tremendous amount of wit and humor.”

One such example, she said, is his image of “Hercules Mocked by Omphale,” which hangs in the Musée du Louvre in Paris. “It depicts a very comic image of Hercules, the original figure of strength and male virtue, being forced to do women’s work – he is spinning thread – while his beloved Omphale tweaks his ear. It’s a very funny painting that raises really interesting questions about how gender roles were thought about, and laughed about, in this period.”

Rosenthal added that another “huge aspect” of previous scholarship on Rubens has been the focus on his sources, and the provenance of paintings attributed to him and to other artists working in his studio.

“Because he ran a huge and very prolific studio,” she said, “there’s been a great deal of interest in determining the hand of Rubens. What did he do? Which was student work, and which was collaboration?”

Incredibly, amid all the research, the U. of I. art historian noted, “the concerns that I address in this book are just beginning to be raised in the scholarship on Rubens.”

Rosenthal believes the book – which is organized loosely around case studies of specific well known and lesser known paintings and also examines the artist’s political and social influences – will be of interest not only to art historians, but also to a broader interdisciplinary audience. Among them, she said, are “people interested in the history and representation of the family, the meanings of gender in early modern (16th- to 18th-century) Europe, and people interested in the intersection between gender and politics in European culture.”

Her goal in writing the book was to draw attention to new ways of perceiving Rubens’ work.

“As a 21st-century art historian, my aim is to use newer, more recent critical methods that help us think about how these pictures were able to speak to their audiences.

“What’s very interesting to me are the mechanisms through which these pictures produce meaning. And in my view, all of these complex and rich meanings of gender and family are key elements in how the pictures comment on war, peace and the goals of statehood.”

Of particular interest to Rosenthal are the ways in which Rubens appears to have expanded on the allegorical language of the period – often inventing his own vocabulary and using gender-based motifs to communicate political messages and themes.

For instance, she said, when looking at his painting “Minerva Protects Pax From Mars” in London’s National Gallery, “if we say the (central) figure represents Peace, what does it mean that she’s a mother, situated in a family and given some particular kind of visual force?”

Likewise, Rosenthal believes the painting has political capital as well. Minerva, representing Wisdom, “is actively pushing Mars (the God of War) away in order to defend Peace. So what he shows us is the active, energetic exercise of wisdom that will make possible the conditions of peace. She’s having to thrust him (Mars, i.e., war) away.

“These were real issues,” Rosenthal said. “Europe was in what seemed to be an intractable state of war” at the time Rubens was painting his masterworks.

“That’s the other thing that is so moving about these images,” she said. “They’re not only intellectual exercises, they’re not only for enjoyment and décor and the forms of status that oil paintings brought to their patrons. Among actively engaged people, these paintings were an important form of thinking about really present, pressing political issues.

“For that reason, as well as for the visual pleasures the paintings offer,” Rosenthal said, “they merit a fresh view and our own engaged thinking.”