The Union of Earth and Water | Peter Paul Rubens | Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
Past exhibition

Rubens and His Age. Treasures from the Hermitage Museum

10.02.2002 - 02.16.2003

The State Hermitage holds one of the finest collections of Flemish Baroque art anywhere in the world and has done much significant work on the presentation of Rubens and his contemporaries. This exhibition provides a unique opportunity to enjoy one of the most important selections of 17th century Flemish paintings and drawings from an extraordinary museum. Ranked today as one of Europe's greatest painters, Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was a great artist and humanist and the foremost figure in the Flemish art world of the 17th century. Rubens' remarkable versatility as an artist will be fully underscored by Rubens and His Age. Treasures from the Hermitage Museum.

The exhibition provides hunting, historical and biblical scenes, still-life pieces, portraits of historical personalities painted by Rubens and his disciples as well as jewelry, cameos, armor, ivory engravings, bronze sculptures, crystal ware, enamels, and tapestry.

Rubens and his Age: Treasures from the Hermitage Museum provides audiences with the rare opportunity to experience a primary strength of the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg: Flemish paintings, drawings, and decorative arts of the 17th century. Including masterworks by nearly 60 artists and craftsmen assembled from eight departments of the museum, this exhibition of richly decorated objects-paintings, drawings, goldsmith work, jewelry, tapestries, arms and armor, ivory carvings, glass, enamels, and scientific instruments-reflects the sophisticated collecting practices of 17th-century Flanders and brings to life this remarkable era in the history of art and culture.

Pride of place is given to Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) whose enormous talent, versatility, and corollary accomplishments made him one of the most important artists of the 17th century. Rubens's engagement with all manner of artistic pursuits-painting, drawing, printmaking, book illustration, tapestry design, sculpture, and architecture-earned him considerable wealth, property, rank, and international acclaim, not only in the arts but also as an active participant in the world of politics and diplomacy. This exhibition explores Rubens's artistic influence in 17th-century Flanders and beyond. Organized by theme-allegory and mythology, religion, portraiture, genre, and landscape-Rubens and his Age also features the work of his pupils, Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) and Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), as well as their contemporaries Adriaen Brouwer (1605/06–1638) and David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690).

Founded in 1764, the State Hermitage Museum currently houses more than three million works of art, many of which were collected by Russian Empress Catherine the Great (1729–1796). Catherine's advisors scoured Europe in search of the most prestigious art collections, which with untold riches she was often able to purchase en masse. Her residence, the immense Winter Palace, now forms the core of the Hermitage Museum, one of the finest picture galleries in the world. Her sensational acquisitions were intended to demonstrate Russia's wealth and prosperity, and succeeded in reinforcing the established opinion abroad of Catherine as "the Minerva of the North."

The first authentic works by Rubens arrived at the Hermitage, and indeed in Russia, with Catherine's acquisition of the collection of Count Carl Cobenzl (1712–1770), plenipotentiary minister to Empress Marie-Thèrése in the Southern Netherlands. Taking advantage of the privileges of his position, Cobenzl acquired Rubens's classical-period, allegorical rendition of Christian Charity (1612) from the Bishop of Bruges; Catherine purchased it from Cobenzl's collection in 1786. Without doubt the most significant addition to the Hermitage collection of Flemish paintings during the 18th century was that of Rubens's magnificent The Union of Earth and Water (ca. 1618). Purchased by Catherine's son Paul I, this canvas celebrates the renewed prosperity of Antwerp (Rubens's native city) with the reopening of the Scheldt River to Flemish commerce after having been closed by the Dutch in an effort to control trade.

Due to its placement on the Scheldt River, Antwerp was an invaluable gateway to Flanders; the southern, Catholic region of the Netherlands (present-day Belgium) that had remained loyal to the Spanish Hapsburg Crown. Through the last decades of the 16th century, the city was plagued by civil war, religious turmoil, foreign rule, and economic stagnation. Antwerp slowly began to recover when Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566–1633) and her husband Albert (1559–1621) were appointed archduchess and archduke of the Southern Netherlands at the beginning of the 17th century. The archducal couple initiated, in the interests of the Spanish Crown, a Catholic renewal on a massive scale and Antwerp again became the most dynamic art center in northern Europe. Hundreds of artists, including Rubens who was appointed court painter, produced works that were prized across the continent. Additionally, the city exported a great variety of luxury goods: silk, carpets, furniture, musical instruments, glass, and cut diamonds. This vast outpouring of artistic production brought Antwerp new wealth and prestige.

Baroque art had its origins in the Catholic church, which exercised religious propaganda through overt displays of artistic virtuosity. Upon his return from Italy in 1608, Rubens introduced Baroque art to the Southern Netherlands in a blend of Flemish realism and Italian Grand Manner that radically altered traditional composition. Rubens had an encyclopedic knowledge of religious symbolism and classical mythology. After studying masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance and then-recently unearthed sculptures of classical antiquity, Rubens asserted that corporeal depiction should most closely resemble human anatomy. Thus, he developed his signature portrayal of painting fleshy, robust nudes. His greatest innovation, however, was the expression of vitality achieved by introducing a dynamic line through his compositional groupings, resulting in figures that appear to move and twist. His religious paintings, secular portraits, and landscapes all bore witness to his highly developed ability to exploit the colors of the Venetian master, Titian, whose paintings he had seen during his diplomatic envoys to Madrid and London.

Rubens's enormous productivity would not have been possible without an organized studio with well-trained pupils and apprentices. His two most talented assistants Jacob Jordaens and Anthony van Dyck seem, in their earliest works, to have been more influenced by the theatricality of their master's earliest paintings than by the classicism that characterized Rubens's later work. Jordaens, over numerous religious and mythological compositions, evolved toward a style more dependent on Rubens, combining the master's motifs with Jordaens's own brand of popular realism. The exhibition features two superb examples of Jordaens's work: as a history painter in Cleopatra's Banquet (1653) and as a portraitist in Portrait of an Old Man (ca. 1637). Van Dyck, from his earliest period, was more attracted by the dynamism of Rubens's work. After discovering Rubens's Genoese portraits, van Dyck developed the luxurious Baroque ceremonial portrait that would prevail in Europe until the 18th century. In many respects he surpassed his teacher as a court portrait painter especially with his appointment to the court of England's Charles I, during which time he painted Ladies-in-Waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria (Anne Killigrew with an Unidentified Lady) (ca. 1638).

Alongside paintings by Rubens, Jordaens, and van Dyck, this exhibition presents works by other significant contemporaries. Brouwer, a superb master of genre scenes, acquired a taste for the grotesque treatment of character types from predecessors Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Although filled with distorted figures, The Village Charlatan (Operation for Stone in the Head) (1620s) reveals Brouwer's engagement with the sublime as seen in the landscape and subtle, luminous coloring. David Teniers, an outstanding Flemish master, produced a wide variety of works, including landscapes, religious paintings, genre scenes, animal paintings, and portraiture. Teniers was highly skilled at intimate and individual as well as formal and group portraits. One of these group portraits, Portrait of the Members of the Oude Voetboog Guild in Antwerp (1643), is considered among his masterpieces. An important feature of this work is its urban setting. The dominance of architectural forms sets this painting apart from similar group portraits by earlier Dutch artists, such as Frans Hals and Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, in whose works figures were given clear priority over any such specificity of setting. Teniers seems to have been determined to evoke a forceful impression of Antwerp's power and prestige. This effect, asserted by works throughout the exhibition, confirms the cultural legacy of Rubens and his age.


Peter Paul Rubens
The Union of Earth and Water, ca. 1618
Oil on canvas
222.5 x 180.5 cm
Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg