Het Steen, Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London
Peter Paul Rubens: ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning’, 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London
We expect life behind the picture plane to conform to our expectations of life in front of it. But, after a good long look it is far odder than you might think.
I have been asked how it is possible to stare at the same work of art for such long, long periods – never less than an hour at a time in front of Het Steen, usually longer. Patience of course but more, like meditation, it is a matter of clearing the mind of those expectations/ prejudices/ outstanding thoughts that we bring with us, to find out what is really going on in this parallel world. Today these issues sprang up, leaping about in front of my field of vision, I don’t think I really got rid of them:
It is very misty and wet outside, is that why the distant horizon in this painted world seems clearer today?
How long would it take to walk from the tree trunk in the foreground to Malines and the Cathedral of St Rombout (the tower on the horizon). Difficult to tell how far it is away on foot, 5 miles, 10 miles, closer to 10 maybe? Average walking time is what: 3 miles? Ground is very flat and clear, so perhaps three hours, heavy dew on the ground, but not too waterlogged, under 3 hours then.
The view we can see is not that from the large windows of the house. This painting and ‘The Landscape with a Rainbow’
Peter Paul Rubens: ‘Landscape with a Rainbow’, 1636. Oil on Panel. The Wallace Collection, London
were to be shown in a room on either side of those windows. Although the painted view is a sort of composite, I wonder which room it was painted in. Traditionally, studios are north facing to stop shadows and direct sunlight. Het Steen Manor faces south (we are looking east to the rising sun) it can’t have been made in a fancy room can it? Could Rubens keep a fancy room clean whilst oil painting? Leonardo famously said that a painter could work surrounded by beauty and listening to a fine musician. Leonardo was a careful, almost fastidious man, mostly dressed in lilac according to his inventories. Rubens was a painter of some bravura, and therefore a bit messier? Would he have painted at the back of the house, is this likely? Covered as I am in the white oil paint left behind by a student panicking about a deadline, I have strong feelings about this point.
Going back to the walk idea, there are no fences behind this particular picture plane, no closed off areas. Some grown out hedges, several lines of trees suggest a slight fence hedge behind the milkmaid for example. But none of the post-enclosure English hedgerows and field boundaries, none of ‘this land is mine-ness’, that characterise the English countryside.
One thinks of John Clare, the poet of the English countryside unhinged by the effects of The Enclosure Acts. That period of 18th and 19th century English history when landowners put boundaries across common land; expelling those who once used the land to work and walk. Clare was a great walker, for example in 1841 he walked 80 miles after escaping from his asylum, returning home to look for his first love, Mary Joyce (long dead); he lived on grass and air. As he wrote about her:
“And we will walk the meadow love
And we will walk the grove
And by the winding river love
We’ll walk and talk of love
And by the white thorn bushes love
Just budding into green
Where the shaded fountain rushes love
We’ll steal a kiss unseen”
(For the text of Clare’s diary from his walk see http://dawnpiper.wordpress.com/john-clares-walk-1841/, the John Clare WebLog is very good on his walking as well http://johnclare.blogspot.co.uk/)
All this sense of rural freedom goes, as you can read in his : ‘Remembrances’
“…Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is
It runs a naked brook cold and chill”
“These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’”
Enclosure in a Gainsborough landscape?
I have always assumed the neat fields behind Gainsborough’s: ‘Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews’ 1750,
Thomas Gainsborough: ‘Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews’, 1750, oil on canvas, 76 x 119 cm. National Gallery, London
are a reference to the economic benefits of the ‘rude philistine’s thrall’, it is certainly set at the beginning of the Enclosure Acts, Clare’s poetry towards the end. Look at the sharp meanness of those two faces and, despite the gun and dog, both look uncomfortable in the countryside that they so clearly own; she won’t have walked far in those shoes. As Clare put it some ninety years later:
“Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease”
To the Painting in Front of Me
So, trying to watch the world of seventeenth century Flanders, these are some of the ideas from the twenty-first century I brought with me. I think walking kept bobbing up like a dog wanting me to throw the ball, partly because I was thinking of a response made to an earlier post by Ann Marquez from Desert Muse publications and her description that “growing up in the southwest I never imagined limited access to land”.
‘The Path Stopt’
And partly because a few days ago, I tried to take a walk through local woods on a path that, though not a formal right of way, has been a customary path used by many for many, many years. It was fenced off without warning or explanation; heart-breaking.
Walking and Rubens
Rubens’ figures don’t look like they walk much, Paris in the later Judgement perhaps,
Rubens: ‘The Judgement of Paris’, 1632; Oil on canvas, 139 x 174 cm; National Gallery, London
in the earlier version Paris is too much of a classical hero, despite his very pink bottom.
Peter Paul Rubens: ‘The Judgement of Paris’, 1597-9. Oil on Panel. The National Gallery, London
Moses and Eleazer in ‘The Brazen Serpent 1635 – 40’ look like they have covered a few miles.
Mainly, Rubensian walkers are stock working figures, milkmaids and shepherds, many carts in his rural scenes, as in Het Steen. As Rebecca Solnitt points out in her book about the history of walking: ‘Wanderlust’, nobody walked for pleasure before the Wordsworths.
Looking slowly at paintings is a process of clearing questions and relaxing and just looking, it takes about twenty minutes usually. Time to really start looking, or to walk away until the next time?