What is the sigificance of Peter Paul Ruben's painting, the Four Continents? What does it represent?
One should not feel strange to be bemused at why this painting would be called The Four Continents. It features four lush, voluptuous naked women, one black, three white, each close to or draped around a virile, naked, bearded white male. Silk draperies conveniently, if scantily, cover some body parts. The four men and women are paired off, each in some sort of contact or embrace with one (or more) of the opposite sex. The look is Greco-Roman. At the bottom of the frame three cherubs play, frolicking with a crocodile and a tiger, which show teeth and seem ominously ready to devour the meaty but innocent-looking morsels (cherubs).
The painting, at first glance, looks as if it is depicting a bacchanal or orgy from Greece or Rome, with the somewhat unsettling images at the bottom of the babes cavorting with ravenous-looking predators.
The four women represent the four (or five) known continents: North/South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. White women represent the other three continents, though one might expect America to be Native American and Asia, Asian. A black woman is Africa. The four men each represent a river associated with their continent: America with the Rio de Plata, Africa with the Nile, Europe with the Danube, and Asia with the Ganges.
The sensuality and sexuality of the painting suggests that Rubens saw these continents as rich, lush, fertile grounds fertilized by rivers, represented by the males, "mating" with the rich "soil" represented by the women so as to bring forth "fruit." It is common for women to be associated with fertility, nature, and the earth, while men are associated with civilization and domination of nature and the earth. By associating these male figures with rivers that were centers of civilization, Rubens symbolizes not only the fertilizing qualities of these (male) waters that, especially in the Nile, would overflow their banks and irrigate the crops, but the idea of the rivers/males as representations of civilization. But we also see the threat that wild animals from at least some of these continents pose: the continents are lush and sexual but dangerous too.
Peter Paul Ruben's painting The Four Continents, circa 1615, represents four continents (Asia, Africa, America, and Europe), each symbolized by a woman with men who represent their major rivers (the Ganges, the Danube, the Nile, and Rio de la Plata). The painting is an allegorical representation of the continents that Europeans were aware of during the Age of Discovery. During this time, the continents were often personified in art, sometimes as men but more often as women. Europe is personified by the woman on the left of the painting who sits with the Danube above the other continents, while Asia, sitting with the Ganges, is on the right. The woman personifying America is is the back with the Rio de la Plata, while Africa is depicted as a black woman with the Nile. The elevation of the woman who represents Europe above the other women symbolizes the way in which Europeans regarded themselves as superior to the people of the other three continents at the time of the painting.
Ruben's painting "The Four Continents" was created in 1615 in Belgium. This date is significant, considering the subject matter. The painting is allegorical, which means that the things shown are supposed to represent ideas.
In the case of "The Four Continents," the women represent Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia. They are separated by water (as represented by the "river Gods" of the Nile, Danube, Ganges, and Rio de la Plata.) Australia wasn't represented as it had only been recently "discovered" by Europeans and they probably didn't know what it was yet, if news had even gotten back to Europe at all by the time the painting was created.
From what I understand, the four women (portraying the four continents) are supposed to represent the spread of Catholicism to the four corners of the world.