Thirteenth Approach to Het Steen 1636

Het Steen 30th June, 2011

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. Oil on oak.131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London

In London for the Public Sector Pension strike: “No Ifs, No Buts, No Public Sector Cuts…Tory, Tory, Tory, Scum, Scum, SCUM etc”. Much of the National Gallery is closed, but Room 29 is open and Het Steen is still is on show.
The lighting on the painting this afternoon is dire, really clunking gear changes between settings. Perhaps this is in keeping with the lack of subtlety in the press about the activities outside. In what way for example, should I be grateful for a £2-300 a month rise in pension contributions after many years of no pay rise in the middle of rampant inflation and at the very least several more years of service? How is expecting the conditions I signed up for, greedy? I am ranting, but it did take me back, to the seventies of course and in my case, back further to CND “Hey, Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
The rapid changes in light make the depth of the ditches in Het Steen seem greater than I remember, particularly in the deep ditch/ stream that acts as a Ha-Ha and separates the foreground from the pasture and runs to the right of Het Steen. The artificial light snaps on, it evens out the surface, it is a warm yellow tone stressing the autumnal theme (015 Deep Straw coloured gel if memory serves). The focus is now even from bottom left and the cart to top right and the sun, the carter etc. is immediately obvious. When the lighting abruptly cuts out, with no obvious cause from the ambient light in the room, then the natural and painted sunlight really draws the eye into the beautiful vista, away from the darker left foreground. Under natural light, only slowly do we become aware of the carter and the bottom third of the painting. Surely this is what Rubens intended? Lit by natural light, or by the sort of candle light we can see through the windows, the gradation of tone in a naturally lit painting would have been more dramatic. Notice that this type of illumination of course lights up his house most of all.
There is constant movement in front of the work; perhaps reflecting the passionate movement on the march? Maybe not. No drums, chanting and whistles here, but large Italian families with small, heavily ringletted and bored principessas refusing to leave the bench on which they have dramatically collapsed and on which I am sitting, writing. I fight my way through the flow to look closely at the paint surface. It is surprising how little tangible information you can get from close study of this Rubens anyway. The warm brown glaze, probably some sort of umber with, to my eyes at least, a yellow in it as well (lead tin yellow?) covers the thick underpainting of the foreground. Is this brown the same mix he used for the initial imprimatur, that first layer that covers over the initial priming of the board, the first tone that sets all the colour balances for the subsequent painting? That final glazing obscures detail and some of the very careful drawing with a fine sable brush, even the first charcoal chalk drawing, around for example the foliage on the fallen trunk. Close up, I wanted to find out about the bright light/ reflection we can see through the trunks of the thorn bushes, running along our side of the stream. They stand just to the right of the last silver birch of the central roundabout. From the bench this reflection could be a bridge, echoing the bridge between the huge game birds/ partridges and the milkmaids and the cows. Getting up to it, flinching away from the marching Europeans, it is impossible to tell if this is a bridge, therefore it probably isn’t. But it is a part of a clear line of light that runs from the figures/ door of the house right across the land to the sun.
If it is a reflection on the water, that would make sense. There is a lot of it about. Couple all this standing water with the fallen tree we could, with a certain hesitation, forward the notion that we are looking at the evidence of past, relatively recent, storms. Is it possible to add this apercu to the tentative assertion made earlier (see previous posts) that this is a painting in which Rubens shows off his material success to a certain viewer. Through the elevated viewpoint and (I am trying to assert now) through content Rubens tells us something about how he got here. Pushing this theme to its limits, if the carter is a self-portrait, of sorts, and the woman behind him is Hélène Fourment, his second wife. Then can we assume that the couple with the wet nurse to the left of the surprisingly rustic entrance gate, are Rubens and wife again?  This time they are in more elegant clothes, not easy to tell, but it is a possibility; just.
Rubens’ Netherlandish upbringing was complex, his lawyer father, a Calvinist and therefore heretical to the ruling Spanish Catholics, was also an adulterer with his employer; Anne of Saxony wife of William of Orange. Jan Rubens (father of Peter Paul) was apparently only released after pleading by his wife. How does this help us unpack this painting made towards the end of Rubens’ life?
    • Firstly, from his father and schooling he received a stronger academic education than most contemporary artists; his similarly schooled brother was a classical scholar for instance. I.e. he could think in layers of subtle meaning, unlike the lighting designer of the National Gallery I might add.
    • Secondly, such early complexity must make some demands on anyone who has grown through it. This is undoubtedly a painting that emphasises harmony. There is a basic three dimensional grid here, the uprights of the trees, particularly the birches in the central roundabout, act as the vertical to the horizontals of the receding landscape. A grid form creates a calm and ordered pictorial space. But note that the ground of that pictorial space is not quite a straight forward Renaissance pavement stretching smoothly away to infinity. The transversals clearly swoop in a curving form, i.e. the streams/ ditches, curve around us the elevated viewer.
    • Thirdly this is a painting that represents the painter in two possible disguises (carter and figures by the house).
    • Fourthly this is a painting that does not represent the rewards from his labours plum centre of the pictorial space, but shows them off nonetheless. I am wary of some of the awful over-reading that it is possible to make, especially when it comes to dodgy psychology, but this is a personal painting, made for the artist, to decorate his new studio, or home.That crashing change of museum lighting brings this homemade theme right to our attention. In the raking light that keeps switching on and off, the edges of the random boards that make up this surface keep catching the eye; up to 21 the Christopher Brown book informs me (‘Making and Meaning: Rubens’s Landscapes’ National Gallery Company Ltd. 1996 ISBN-10: 1857091558 ISBN-13: 978-1857091557 )
    • In other words, Rubens started somewhere in the centre of the image and just added extra boards as he kept working on the idea. It was not a set composition; it arrived under his brush as he teased out the image, to use an old art teachers term. Degas does much the same thing with his drawing of a bather on show in Room 49 (After the Bath, Woman drying herself about 1890-5) adding more bits of paper until he got down what mattered to him. Under those circumstances I would suggest that what comes out will owe a great deal to personal circumstances.
I would say all this to the small grumpy Italian personage next to me, but I think she has had enough art for the day. I presume that is what she is telling her father, my Italian is not quite up to translating the hard time she is giving him; I recognise the tone though.
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