How Much of Rubens is in a Rubens?The life of art historians and art assessors is not an easy one, what with forgeries, fraud, fakes, and faux abounding like snakes in the Garden of Eden. It doesn't make matters better, either, when famous artists down through history have not been very co-operative. One of the least co-operative, in this area, was the Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens. Born in 1577, this Flemish artist whose dynamic canvases were filled with, voluptuous female nudes and powerful, macho male figures, was also a respected diplomat, a dashing figure in the royal court, and perhaps most of all, a shrewd, efficient businessman.
Therein lies the problem for art historians today. Rubens ran a veritable "school for artists" (some would say an art factory). Whatever the case, he was, to say the least, prolific. In his workshop, he trained engravers to reproduce his paintings. In addition, he made illustrations for title pages, designed tombs, altars, and architectural decorations, wrote voluminously on architecture, and in his spare time, painted Baroque masterpieces. Well, actually, his assistants did most of the painting, with Rubens merely planning the work, supervising them as he deemed necessary, and applying finishing touches, corrections, etc. as the paintings neared completion.
So, how much of Rubens is in a Rubens? Well, quite a lot, really. His assistants were intensely trained to follow the master's style in every respect, from compositional structure to simple brush gesture. The result is that is is almost impossible to tell what parts were painted by Rubens and what a mere apprentice did. Just the idea of such distinctions drives art connoisseurs crazy! But in the final analysis, does it really matter? Today, we give little thought to the fact that massive steel sculptures are merely designed by the artist, while being produced by some nameless steelworker in a foundry or welding shop. Were he alive today, Rubens Inc. would probably be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. I think I'd buy a share or two.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 December 1997