The Mosaic of History: Rubens and the Italians

14 Jul 2014

A "museum," from the Greek mouseion, is literally a seat or home of the Muses. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Detroit Institute of the Arts--no doubt many have heard of the threats to the museum's collections because of the city's financial woes (the art is safe, for now). The building, an elegant structure by the great transplanted French architect Paul Cret, proclaims above the (old) entrance, "Dedicated by the People of Detroit to the Knowledge and Enjoyment of the Arts." Clearly, by Cret's day one didn't go to a mouseion to commune with the Muses--it was now about connoisseurship, and pleasure. The idea that past artists could inspire modern ones had faded, but its evaporation wasn't sudden or unforeseen. Even though Degas claimed that "The masters must be copied over and over again, and it is only after proving yourself a good copyist that you should reasonably be permitted to draw a radish from nature", his reverence for the past and belief that this kind of practice was a drawing basics essential (his exquisite copy of Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents can be seen at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena) was like that of an apprentice chef: one copied to learn competency. But copying isn't emulation, and it's not where the Muses reside. The idea that the past could provide not only technique--as those copyists one happily finds again today at the Met or the National Gallery attest--but ideas and inspiration, was alive and essential back in Rubens' day. For him it was the Italians who were the muses, and Detroit is fortunate in having a number of spectacular Italian Baroque paintings and some by Rubens. 

Detail from Raphael's cartoon of the Sacrifice at Lystra, Victoria and Albert Museum, drawing.

Detail from Raphael's cartoon of the Sacrifice at Lystra,
Victoria and Albert Museum, drawing.

The Flemish master's David and Abigail was a model for a tapestry. Partly for that reason the painter drew directly on Raphael's design for a Vatican tapestry, the Sacrifice at Lystra; today Raphael's cartoons are in London's V&A, and versions of the tapestries in various places. Rubens could have seen the cartoons (or copies of them) either in Brussels, or Genoa, or in England after they were acquired by his patron Charles I; and the tapestries in versions in Rome, Mantua, or Spain. Rubens used the figure holding the sacrificial bull from the tapestry to frame his scene, in his case holding a bushel of bread and backed by a donkey. The borrowing (or stealing) wasn't a secret--the composition was well known among connoisseurs. It both knowingly referenced a revered model and it enriched the meaning: Abigail appeases David with food she "sacrifices." Rubens flips the orientation of the figure from the cartoon, but matched the reversed orientation of the tapestry--did he mean the figure in his tapestry, then, to be reversed from the source tapestry, therefore matching the cartoon?

Detail from Rubens' David and Abigail, Detroit Institute of the Arts, drawing.

Detail from Rubens' David and Abigail,
Detroit Institute of the Arts, drawing.

Why is this essential and not esoteric? Because artists were once interested in more than realistic representation. They were storytellers, and connoisseurs of others' storytelling. They invented more than they depicted. Paradoxically, the figure I'm discussing is the most "realistic" in the David and Abigail painting, and he's the one borrowed from another painter's work. Yes, it's derivative, but so what? All art is derivative. The question is, what are you deriving from, and why? Rubens, for his part, knew exactly what he was doing. When you go to the museum, consider how the artists are talking to each other, and perhaps you'll hear the Muses as well.


Forthcoming posts:

-Found in translation I: Rusconi, Poussin

-The future of Emulation, Tintoretto's Philosophers


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