Detail from Rubens’ Tiger, Lion and the Leopard Hunt (1616). Photograph: Musee des Beaux ArtsMichael Prodger
There was, it seems, nothing that Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) couldn’t do: except, that is, find his way into British hearts. In Europe he has always been held in the highest esteem.
The 19th-century French critic and historian Hippolyte Taine said of him that “the whole of human nature is in his grasp, save the loftiest heights.
Hence it is that his creativeness is the vastest we have seen.” Among those contemporaries he influenced profoundly were Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Velázquez, and he not only left his mark on their art but set the standard for what a painter should be: a gentleman as learned as he was talented.
Rubens was not just a prolific painter though; he was also a diplomat, a spy, an antiquarian and a panEuropean figure who moved with ease between the continent’s courts – including that of Charles I.
All this failed to win over the British, though, who are not impressed by the Euro-smoothy type. The real cause of British resistance, however, was the nature of Rubens’ art itself.
As the greatest northern painter of the counter-reformation he has long been seen as the cat’s-paw of the Catholic establishment and a skilled, even shameless, propagandist. He has been accused of presiding over a painting factory that produced too many “studio” works that bear little imprint of the master’s hand.
His sensuous colour was another cause for suspicion and his highly wrought religious compositions, putto piled on putto, smack of meretriciousness – part of a centuries-long ambivalence towards the sensory and theatrical nature of European baroque art.
The British are not the only ones to have had reservations: the “Homer of painting”, as Rubens was often dubbed, was criticised by his contemporary Gian Pietro Bellori – the baroque period’s own Vasari – for his distorted forms and generalised, unindividual faces.
In the 19th century Van Gogh thought him “superficial, hollow, bombastic”. Even his supporters, many of them painters and connoisseurs, have often felt it necessary to leaven their praise with a caveat.
Delacroix believed that Rubens “carries one beyond the limit scarcely attained by the most eminent painters; he dominates one, he overpowers one, with all his liberty and boldness”, but he also likened his crowded pictures to an assembly at which everyone talks at the same time.
And Ruskin, who wrote of Rubens that “his calibre of mind was originally such that I believe the world may see another Titian and another Raffaelle, before it sees another Rubens”, nevertheless identified in him an “unfortunate want of seriousness and incapability of true passion”.