The author of numerous books on Dutch art, Christopher White has drawn together here his many years of experience as an art historian and much of the work done by other students of Rubens’ life, art, and epoch. The result is a large, beautiful, and informative book of five chapters that is the most significant and thorough ever to appear on Rubens, even though at least a few reproductions of the artist’s earliest sketches are needed here. (Evidently such sketches exist since White speaks of them as “a little thick and rigid” while still having Rubens’ “unmistakable personality about them”; what the artistic features of this “personality” are the biographer does not say.) Such sketches were done when Rubens was an apprentice in Antwerp for Tobias Verhaecht, Adam van Noort, and Otto van Veen. From Verhaecht the young artist is supposed to have learned the basic method of composing and executing landscape. From van Noort he learned portrait painting. Finally, from van Veen he probably learned much about antique and Renaissance art, since the master had studied in Rome for five years before returning to Antwerp.
While much of the biographical text of this study is drawn from White’s earlier Rubens and His World (1968), the present volume goes beyond the previous study. Here there is interwoven a thoroughly illustrated, analytical discussion of the numerous artistic influences which Rubens, always quite pragmatically, “absorbed into his own personal language.” In fact, White maintains, Rubens had an unusual talent for employing—and often subtly rendering as his own—the art of others, whether this art was in the form of sculptures, etchings, drawings, or paintings by other artists, from ancients to masters of the High Renaissance to his seventeenth century contemporaries. Adam and Eve in Paradise (completed before 1600) is the earliest surviving painting by Rubens that shows unmistakably his talent for copying—and yet individualizing as his own—the work of an earlier master, in this case Raphael, whose work he would draw from throughout his professional life.
Rubens used Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving Adam and Eve, itself a copy of work by Raphael, and made it his own, as White notes, by means of small though significant details. For example, he portrays Adam with a beard and makes his face more readable than in the original; he has Adam’s left hand pointing up at the serpent (entwined about a tree against which Eve leans) rather than, as in the original, holding two apples out toward Eve. He also has the couple standing in a primordial landscape rather than, as in the original, on a hill above a small village of cottages. One significant difference which White fails to mention is that Rubens’ Adam seems to be warning Eve with his index finger, whereas the painting that served as Rubens’ inspiration portrays Adam as a sort of Pan-like tempter, leaning tensely forward toward Eve as he himself offers her the forbidden fruit.
Like Adam and Eve in Paradise, Rubens’ first Judgment of Paris—also derived from an engraving done by Raimondi of another work by Raphael—may have been painted in Flanders before he traveled to Italy in 1600 to study the great art of the past. In discussing this painting, White leaves unexplained a seeming contradiction: He claims that Rubens was well versed in classical literature (and there is proof that he was later in his life, to be sure) and therefore probably knew about the consequences of Paris’ giving the golden apple to Venus; yet the young painter’s rendition of his subject is essentially pastoral and in no way intimates the war of which Paris was to be the primary cause. (In contrast, Raphael’s work foreshadows war by means of warriors on horses charging across the sky directly above Paris and Venus.)
This issue is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it serves as an illustration of White’s tendency throughout his study to attribute what Rubens had accomplished by the end of his life to each stage of his development, without concentrating upon—and thus noting for the reader—what Rubens apparently knew or did not know at any given stage of his artistic development. Second, Rubens would paint another Judgment of Paris nearly forty years after his first one, but in the later one he would not only include obvious symbols of war but would also abandon Raphael’s model—wherein Paris is shown, having made his choice, handing the apple to Venus—and show Paris intensely pondering his three possible choices. In other words, by 1638 Rubens was clearly expressing in his painting his knowledge of classical literature, attempting to tell a story based on that knowledge, instead of—as he did initially—simply copying a work by a master he admired.
With regards to the eight years Rubens lived in Italy (from the age of twenty-three to thirty-one), the second chapter of White’s study is especially engaging and informative; he illustrates Rubens’ disciplined efforts to learn his art from the work of such masters as Titian, Andrea Mantegna, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, as well as to develop a very large collection of copies he could later use as inspiration or prototypes for his own art.
White acknowledges that a sizable proportion of Rubens’ surviving work consists of such copies, but he...