Eighteenth Approach to Het Steen 1636

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

Is this a moral landscape? I have been reading ‘Gainsborough’s Vision’ by Amal Asfour and Paul Williamson (Liverpool University Press, 1999) in which the authors describe the role of the emblem in Gainsborough’s landscapes. Emblems were moral tales told through images, always accompanied by a descriptive text. An important Dutch form, travelling to Gainsborough through the Calvinist/ nonconformist tradition. A key early source was Otto van Veen: ‘Amorum Emblemata’ (1608) and the ‘Amoris Divini Emblemata’ (1615)

Otto van Veen: 'Amoris Finis Est' Amorum Emblemata 1608

“Van Veen is faithful to what can be termed a northern style of imagery – a detailed and naturalistic rendition of landscape settings. He presents a moral dilemma in a more or less realistic, rather than as an idealistic, single quality”  

(Gainsborough’s Vision page 82)

Rubens was apprenticed to Van Veen, and would have absorbed the tradition. Despite the different scale, materials and function, in Het Steen we have some of the possible elements of an emblem: the cart; the hunter; the house and the elegant bystanders. But:

1/ we don’t have any improving text

2/ Calvinist/ Christian images of agriculture tend to refer to husbanding the land as post Fall/ post Edenic toil:

‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Often shown through the image of a thistle:

‘Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field’

There are no thistles, some brambles of a fairly beneficent kind, they act as a cover to the hunter, but no obvious thistles. More importantly there is no ploughing, no evidence of turning the cursed ground, not a ploughed field in sight; it is pasture as far as the eye can see. The only work seems to be the bucolic acts of milking/ hunting and riding a cart. There are no crops, apart from milk and the wild fruit on the tree.

The hunter: in 17th century emblems, the hunter tends to be a reference to Cupid, eg Philip Ayres: Emblemata Amatoria, and ‘The Hunter Caught by his Own Game’, Actaeon changed into a Stag, that sort of thing.

Philip Ayres: 'The Hunter Caught by his own Game', Emblemata Amatoria, 1683

Frankly, most of the emblems tend to refer to getting love/ sex wrong, the same use that Gainsborough makes of them as well. Nor is Rubens’ man a metaphorical hunter searching for some other form of meaning. The deer on the cart would lead us to think about stag hunting, the pursuit of the aristocracy. Apparently Rubens did not hunt himself, and problems with arthritis and gout during the five or so years that lived at Het Steen would have limited his mobility.

Can we construct a moral tale out of these elements? Not, I would suggest without some heavy guidance from the composition and the authorial voice, Rubens was after all on the wrong side of the Catholic/ Calvinist divide. Despite early work with van Veen, the Counter Reformation/ Classical tradition is likely to be his source; Virgil’s Georgics, not Genesis. You can, as Asfour and Williamson do, plausibly connect Gainsborough landscapes to morally improving tales, can’t quite make that connection here.

Thomas Gainsborough: 'Landscape with a Woodcutter Courting a Milkmaid', 1755 (Tavistock Estates)

Next to me on the bench, a father and his daughter, she is 6 or 7 maybe, are going through a worksheet on the painting. They carefully read the question together, she skips to the image and points out the number of birds, people, where the sun rises or whatever. She is entirely dressed in shades of pink, with a diamante necklace and those trainers that light up when you walk. They stay looking at the painting, counting off the questions for a very long time, completely absorbed. Longer even than the Chinese tour groups in front of the right hand ‘Judgement of Paris’; today they are mostly dressed in lightweight tweed.

We could advance the theory that, at the end of his life, Rubens is celebrating God’s creativity with his own. But there is no obvious evidence of Christian agency here, no attributes or idealism of the humanist inspired Roman Catholic for example. No old bearded man in a bed sheet appears to bless us all, no youthful Apollonian sun-god races across the sky either. This, then, is all materialism: I own; I observe; I deserve, because I am worth it (which of course Rubens was).

A kinesthetic learner, the term we have been taught to use, is being urged by his mother to complete the Het Steen worksheet. The small boy, Dutch at a guess, is whirling his arms around his head, sucking the toggles of his fleece, jumping from foot to foot, trying to pull his mother’s pony tail, pointing at the ducks in the sky and shouting; all at once. To my right, the whining conversation between the two guards has become much louder. The man on the bench behind me is starting to snore and another, very large Chinese tour group is bearing down on the naked threesome to judge them for themselves; time to go.

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