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Rubens' Girls
During the early part of the previous century, artist-illustrators sometimes came to be known for a particular "look." Charles Dana Gibson may have started it all with his "Gibson Girls" though he was by no means alone. About the same time, his rival, Howard Chandler Christy, had his "Christy Girls"; and even Norman Rockwell had his own "look," though it was by no means limited to beautiful young girls. I forget the artist, but you may recall as well the highly refined, cameo-like "look" of the Charles Revlon's "Revlon Girls" from the 1950s and 60s. I cut my artist's eye teeth drawing them. Eventually, as photography began to replace high-fashion illustration, the "look" of Richard Avedon was quite popular. And there have been many more since then. We might come to think of the phenomenon of "trademark girls" as something solely brought on by the advent of chic fashion magazines and the high quality colour printing technology which made them possible. But we'd be wrong. Actually, it goes back at least another three to five hundred years before that.

Though no one has ever called them "Leonardo Girls," the great Renaissance painter did, in fact, have a trademark "look" that was quintessentially his own in painting the female face. Some might say that Jan Vermeer did as well. But perhaps the most notable "look" from any such historic painter can be attributed to Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens was born in 1577 in the southern region of the Netherlands known as Flanders (today part of Belgium). Geographically he'd be considered a Flemish artist, though in terms of style, he goes far beyond that. He may have been one of the most fortunate artists in history. He was handsome, healthy, well educated, sensible, good-humoured, wealthy, diplomatic, and one of the most influential painters who ever lived. While still in his early 20s, he was quite successful, building a name for himself as he travelling amongst the noble courts of Italy churning out dozens of highly refined, slick-looking - what we'd call even by today's standards, glamorous - portraits of Europe's most beautiful noblewomen. His stunning painting of Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria from 1606 is especially gorgeous with its glistening eggshell coloured satin, high Elizabethan collar, and "movie star" hairdo and makeup. This was a "Rubens Girl."

In 1609, Rubens returned home to become the court painter to the Infanata (princess) Isabella and Archduke Albert, the joint regents of the Spanish Netherlands in Brussels. There his style mellowed, taking on a much gentler, sweeter appearance. Isabella sent him to Spain where he met Velázquez and was forever influenced by the great baroque portrait master. His later work, by today's standards, might look somewhat like the "before" pictures from a Weight Watchers ad - perhaps not quite "fat" but heavy, voluptuous, motherly, sensuous, female breeding stock. The new "look" of his classical, nude females became one of wholehearted trust, acceptance of differences, and a self-confidence. His 1635 The Judgement of Paris is probably the best example one could cite of his mature work along this line.

Rubens ran a prodigious workshop - some might even call it an art factory - but one which he managed with a kind yet firm hand. It's a mark of his vital influence that the Rubens "look" (either one of them) did not die with him in 1644. Rubens' early "look" can be seen in the work of his greatest pupil, Sir Anthony van Dyck, in that painter's stylishly sophisticated portrait of Marchesa Elena Grimaldi dating from 1623. At the same time, another important student, Jacob Jordaens, can be seen perpetuating Rubens' later, more robust style in his The Four Evangelists dating from around 1625. Here we find a heavy, florid, almost impasto style of brushwork that, especially upon close inspection, seems as robust as van Dyck's is smooth and refined. To us today, it seems remarkable that we might see a single style of an artist live on after his passing. But to see two different stylistic periods preserved in the work of artists of a second generation, is all the more incredible.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
2 January 2002

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