Rubens and his Legacy – The Royal Academy

Peter Morrell goes to see a new exhibition exploring the enormous influence that Rubens had on artists from Van Gogh to Cezanne

Peter Paul Rubens Pan and Syrinx, 1617 Oil on panel, 40 x 61 cm
Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel
Photo: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister/Ute Brunzel

Unlike many painters Rubens was a multi-talented individual who, as well as painting, was an ambassador, diplomat and author. This exhibition at the Royal Academy examines the great influence that he has exerted on many artists right up to modern times.

The exhibition is divided into a number of different themes, Poetry, Elegance, Power, Compassion, Violence and Lust. Within each section are paintings by Rubens and by other artists who have emulated his style. This juxtaposition allows us to compare the similarities between the works.

Rubens was fascinated by nature and, although an urban dweller in Antwerp, owned farms and an estate in Flanders. He painted highly evocative landscapes and this style was emulated by a string of artists down the ages from Constable to Turner.

He was also a great portrayer of elegance, painting highly flattering portraits of rich banker’s wives in the city state of Genoa in Italy. His most famous pupil Anthony van Dyke carried on this work in Genoa, becoming a highly sought after painter in the Palazzi of the Via Garibaldi. We also see the influence of Rubens’ sensitivity showing through in portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough.

As a diplomat and peacemaker Rubens understood people’s desire to display their power in a very public way. He became Europe’s leading decorative painter, with the rich vying for his services. After painting a series, ‘the most illustrious life and heroic deeds’ of Marie de Medicis, the Queen of France he was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall. This theme of decorative propaganda was continued by many later artists.

In Flanders he was also a highly regarded religious painter, producing numerous altar pieces. He had a great influence on Spanish painters and you will find his style in churches throughout the old Spanish colonies of Asia and the Americas.

My most impactful encounter with Rubens was a couple of years ago, I had gone to see the Thomson Collection in the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. After a couple of hours gazing at the natural landscapes of the Group of Seven, I came across Massacre of the Innocents, babies being smashed against pillars and women being stabbed to death, it was almost pornographic in its violence. Probably the most dramatic painting in the exhibition is Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt, a tangle of flesh ripping teeth, terrified horses and the lethal lances of the hunters. This dramatism can be seeing in works by painters like Delacroix.

The final section is devoted to lust in all its forms. Young, voluptuous naked women being pursued for their charms by muscular scheming men are a recurrent theme and have been re-visited by many artists through the ages. But in the section and indeed in the entire exhibition was my favourite painting. Anthony van Dyke’s Drunken Silenus supported by Satyrs is a large canvas of an old, naked, pot-bellied, red-faced man surrounded by devil faced man/animal hybrids. It’s composition is excellent and its playful subject would bring a smile to anyone’s face.

For many going to this exhibition it will be a precursor to visiting the Rubens’ House in Antwerp where a major collection is going on show later in the year. Called Rubens in Private it will be showing paintings of the artist and his family, whom he loved and cherished. For more on this click here…

I can thoroughly recommend Rubens and his Legacy, it’s clever curation really does tell the story of the influence that one of the world’s greatest painters has had on artists down the centuries

For more information about opening times and admission prices go to