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Unique survey of early paintings by Peter Paul Rubens premieres in San Francisco
Installation of Early Rubens at the Legion of Honor. Photo by Gary Sexton Photography. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- In 1608, after a period of intense artistic study in Italy, Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) returned to his hometown of Antwerp. He found a city eager to renew its visual culture and ready to support him, a bold artist who worked at a rapid pace and dramatic scale that could satisfy the demand for religious images while also supplying private collectors with works of ancient history and mythology. Early Rubens is the first exhibition dedicated to the pivotal years between 1609 and 1621 when the Northern Baroque master established his career. In approximately 30 paintings and 20 works on paper, the exhibition traces Rubens’s early development as a master painter with a unique gift for depicting seductive and shocking narratives. Rubens was not only a sought-after artist, but also a diplomat, shrewd business man, and a friend to scholars and monarchs. Early Rubens explore the artist’s meteoric rise to the first rank of European painters through a series of social and artistic choices that laid the groundwork for his international fame.

“Peter Paul Rubens was both a prodigious and influential artist and one of the most extraordinary figures of the 17th century,” says Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “We are delighted to present this examination of Rubens’s early work at the Legion of Honor in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario. Inspired by continual scholarship and study of our collections of work by Flemish masters, the exhibition will contextualize Rubens’s importance and legacy for our audiences.”

Approximately 50 works from private and public collections in Europe and North America — including the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp; the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; the Princely Collections of Liechtenstein; the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; the British Museum, London; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York have been brought together for the exhibition. Many are exhibited in North America or on the US West Coast for the first time. The exhibition is arranged thematically, thereby revealing Rubens’s mastery of a broad range of visual styles and subject matter, both historical and mythological.

“What distinguished Rubens and made his pictures so thrilling for his early viewers, was his ability to re-interpret important models he encountered both on the Italian peninsula and in the Low Countries through his own developing sense for vibrant, naturalistic color and his virtuoso brushwork,” says Kirk Nickel, assistant curator of European painting at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “His inclination to work quickly and at a large scale was essential for Rubens’s success in repopulating the city's churches with religious images, even while he painted startling episodes of ancient valor, obscure Greco-Roman mythologies, and unsettling moments of biblical history for private collectors.”

Early Rubens is anchored in The Tribute Money (ca. 1610 –1615), a treasured Flemish Baroque masterpiece from the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the recently rediscovered The Massacre of the Innocents (ca. 1611–1612), a centerpiece of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s collection.

"Early Rubens is a story of a painter and his city, of how Rubens’s return to his chosen home at a particular moment in history sparked in Antwerp an artistic, intellectual and commercial revitalization,” says Sasha Suda, curator of European art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. “The Massacre of the Innocents not only highlights Rubens’s achievement as a painter, it provides powerful insight into the mindset of the citizens of Antwerp in 1610. I am excited for our visitors to see it in a new way, and to understand the incredibly important place it holds in Rubens’s development.”

Early Rubens is organized by Kirk Nickel, assistant curator of European paintings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Sasha Suda, curator of European art and R. Fraser Elliott Chair of Prints and Drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. The exhibition is on view at the Legion of Honor from April 6 through September 8, 2019, and then at the Art Gallery of Ontario from October 12, 2019, through January 5, 2020.

After an eight-year sojourn in Italy, Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608 to attend to his dying mother. Italy had been transformative for Rubens, both in terms of his artistic skills and his professional ambitions. A group of works from Rubens’s Italian years, including altarpiece commissions and smaller cabinet pictures, open the exhibition, setting the context for the artist’s later artistic developments.

Rubens’s experience in Italy informed the social and intellectual circles that he sought to join in Antwerp. A selection of portraits —some commissioned, others intimate portrayals of close friends and family members—show how Rubens sought to establish himself as a “gentleman painter” and how he acquired increased social and professional footing through his relationships with Antwerp’s mix of humanists, merchants, and religious thinkers. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s portraits (ca. 1611) of silk merchant Rogier Clarisse and his wife, Sara Breyel, reflect his widening network of relationships that also touched the humanist Jan Woverius and the leadership of Antwerp’s religious communities.

As a bastion of Catholic faith in the face of Dutch Protestantism, Antwerp was eager for a visual language to match its strident support of Rome’s Counter-Reformation priorities. Rubens’s talent for capturing emotion and complex psychology in the movements of the human body was essential to his success as a painter of Christian history. The jewel-toned Annunciation from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, alongside Christ on the Straw (the Michielsen Triptych) from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp introduce a gallery featuring scenes from the life of Jesus. These images not only stunned Antwerp at the time of their unveiling; but also set a new template for religious images in Europe and far beyond.

Rubens’s talent for portraying gripping human drama was not limited to devotional imagery, it was also integral to his success as a painter of scenes for domestic spaces and galleries. His patrons were well informed about antique art and literature, as well as recent artistic developments in Italy, and they were delighted by Rubens’s skill at incorporating these sources into his own works. The psychological drama in paintings such as The Tribute Money and The Massacre of the Innocents exemplifies his aptitude for distilling a narrative to its moment of highest dramatic tension.

During the 1610s, Rubens began to consider how best to publish his pictorial inventions though reproductive engravings and he cultivated relationships with the engravers he felt could best translate his compositions to print. With major examples, such as The Raising of the Cross and The Battle of the Amazons from the Rijksmuseum, the exhibition presents the varied array of printmaking projects in which Rubens collaborated.

As large-scale paintings by Rubens began to enter the collections of aristocrats and royal advisors during the 1610s, his international reputation soared. By the 1620s, Rubens was a favorite of monarchs in France, England, and Spain, and capable of conducting international diplomacy alongside his artistic activities at foreign courts. The exhibition culminates with a selection of Rubens’s large gallery pictures, scaled to compete with tapestry or fresco painting. Mural-size works such as the National Gallery of Art’s Daniel in the Lions’ Den (1614/1616) are joined by other life-size scenes, allowing visitors to the exhibition to appreciate the scope of Rubens’s ambition while also understanding the role his workshop played in his international success.

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