Peter Paul Rubens

The real meaning of Rubens’ women

A new analysis suggests the artist was sending mixed messages in his work

Standard accounts of Rubens’ life differentiate his public career as a painter and diplomat from the decade of his retirement when his work focused on his private life, largely featuring his second wife, Hélène Fourment and their young family.

The originality of Lisa Rosenthal’s Gender, Politics and Allegory in the Art of Rubens lies in the author’s ability to bridge this shift in his œuvre by discerning links between the artist’s public and private imagery. For example, she points to the political metaphor as well as the private aspect of the family in the pictures painted for Charles I in London, including the Banqueting Hall ceiling and Minerva Protects Pax from Mars, in which a lactating mother surrounded by children embodies the benefits of peace, threatened by the god of war.

The apparent centrality of female bodies in Rubens’ art may have obscured their significance, even to Rubens experts. Women appear as representations of classical deities (for instance, Venus), as personifications of ideas (such as Victory), as depictions of the Virgin or in representations of Hélène, “young, beautiful, desirable and fruitful”. The associations of these female subjects is generally positive, and Dr Rosenthal notes the connection between the persuasiveness of the artist’s political and religious subjects and the sensual power of his painting, which often exceeds the dry programmes he was commissioned to illustrate.

Unusually well-born and educated for an artist of his era, Rubens was well equipped to handle complex allegories, historical and mythological subjects. In this writer’s view, however, even supposedly unambiguous imagery shows tensions between the intended meanings and deeper problems in the social construction of gender. The author’s most interesting decision is to focus on male identity, involving the subject, the viewer and the artist himself.

Stereotypically “macho” images of masculinity proliferate in Rubens’ art, the most characteristic being the military hero depicted in full Roman armour. A revealing analysis of The Hero Crowned by Victory points out the erotic proximity of the nude blonde Victory, pressing her exposed flesh against the hero’s breastplate to crown him with laurel leaves. He averts his gaze, having supposedly abjured temptation represented by the dejected Luxury (Victory’s twin), but the body language of both females undermines this message. Such issues of interpretation may originate in the artist’s stated aim of rendering figures from ancient sculpture as living flesh—the abstract concepts becoming disconcertingly real.

In the last chapter, Rubens’ self-portraits are shown to suggest confidence in a masterful paternal image. But his male subjects, himself included, often seem simultaneously attracted to and repelled by females, being typically located outside the family or a circle of female figures.

Dr Rosenthal supports her arguments with references to sources ranging from Machiavelli to Justus Lipsius, as well as utilising feminist and psychoanalytical approaches. The documentation of Rubens’ inner uncertainties allows for the emergence of a more vulnerable and appealing view of this Olympian artist.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 172 September 2006