Fifteenth Approach to Het Steen: Part One

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

Perhaps, because autumn is really starting to get going outside, the autumnal colours of the foreground seem particularly strong. The browns, in fact a translucent wash (looking a bit like a Sienna, though probably an umber with a touch of yellow) over thicker white underpaint with sludgier greens and umbers mixed on to the underpainting. This site, along with the National Gallery site itself, is helpful

Painting materials of Peter Paul Rubens: http://www.lalaragimov.com/research

Norman Bryson in ‘Vision and Painting’ (Macmillan, London 1983) talks at some length about the triangulation between the artist’s viewpoint, the viewers’ and the vanishing point. Stressing the importance of what happens, or is presumed to happen, this side of the picture plane. It is difficult to be both the artist and the artist as viewer but, we know that this painting was made for his own pleasure, possibly to display his own success to the powerful, but for Rubens’ pleasure nonetheless. I.e. an autumn scene for a man in his own September days, fact closer to November as he died four years later. Is it therefore too fanciful to make associations between the rumpled, creased, worn ground plane as it moves from the cart at bottom left to the rising sun top right and skin. Steen is after all, flanked in the National Gallery by two versions of the Judgement of Paris, young female skin by the yard.

Next to me on the bench in front of these three paintings a youngish art student in a flowery red summer dress is making a tonal study of the earlier Judgement (on the left from 1597-9)

Peter Paul Rubens: 'The Judgement of Paris', 1597-9. Oil on Panel. The National Gallery, London

The central nude (Athena) appears in the drawn copy to have clear bikini marks, whereas Rubens’ goddesses of course are immortal and have no marks of the sun at all. While for example, the clearly human Adam in the van Eyck brothers Ghent altarpiece has worked in the fields and his burnt head and arms are testament to his lowliness.

The van Eycks: 'The Ghent Altarpiece, detail'. 1432 tempera and oil on panel

Sun tan as a desirable attribute doesn’t start till the early Twentieth Century.

So, skin, the action on Steen takes place on a surface light by raking light, the more one looks at it, again perhaps the triangulation of viewer’s viewpoint, the more this looks the skin of an old man, no longer taut, odd risings of hair in the folds.

That grouping of oak and silver birch in the foreground, they really do look like the subsequent tree paintings of artists like Ruisdael, Hobbema and Constable, a line you can trace back to Pieter Bruegel the Elder and back further to woodcuts from Titian. The tops of the trees, billowing forms are tinged with pink as are the grey clouds in the top left and fronted with thick creamy white. A similar palette to that around Discord in the storm clouds in the other Judgement of Paris to our right, the later one: 1632-5.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'The Judgement of Paris', 1632-5. Oil on Panel. National Gallery, London

Huge billowing shapes, dramatic lighting, powerful form, this upper right section of Steen is slightly different to the climactic conditions and tree-scape across the autumnal, linear composition below. Rubens is gussying up the scene a bit, he can’t help it, all those years of grand istorias for the powerful; it has become a habit. The isolated intense focus on others areas, the abrupt changes in scale, show an artist working on bits that interest him, no need to harmonise the composition.

Today seems to be young and old day in the National Gallery, huge fleets of little children, all pigtails and holding hands are ushered through with much shushing and repeated directions. Amongst the excited little beings are the old, with sticks and grey jackets and  audio guides and armfuls of gallery pamphlets; fretful that they are in front of the wrong painting as they press buttons 9, 4 and 3. I am suddenly surrounded by an unnumbered horde of small, very small children all with their ‘Kerbcraft Walking Bus’ fluorescent tabards, their joy is overwhelming, their need to sit on the bench equally so; time to go. 

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