Subject: Rubens - A Master in the Making

Well, this last Tuesday I visited the Rubens exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

You might have guessed from my previous posting that I am quite a fan of Rubens. The exhibition at the National Gallery was not to disappoint. Quite on the contrary, this is one of the most exciting exhibitions of Rubens work I have ever seen.

The exhibit is titled "Rubens - a Master in the Making." Structured chronologically from the late C16/early C17 covering approximately 15 years, the exhibition deals with Rubens work in Antwerp prior to his 8-year stint in Italy, his visit to Spain and return to Antwerp.

Through six rooms in the Sainsbury Wing, the chronologically arrangement shows the evolution and progression of Rubens work as he matured. Preliminary works, sketches and studies displayed alongside exhibits demonstrate the length that Rubens was prepared to go to in order match and exceed that masters of the Renaissance.

I will not dwell on the theme of the exhibition, which is to miss the point perhaps, as the exhibit deals with this much more eloquently than I can hope to achieve. A visit to the gallery or study of Rubens work will certainly be of greater value.

Instead, I will concentrate on individual paintings of note in the exhibition.

St George was the first painting to really enhance my already exuberant passion for the works of Rubens. The work was on loan for the exhibition from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. The very full use of colors and dynamism of the scene on such a grand scale is nothing short of awe- inspiring. This image shows the huge improvement in Rubens mastery of rider and horse. The form of the figures contrast with the more confused figures the much smaller Conversion of St Paul and the clumsier figures in the Council of the Gods (similar scale work) in the previous and first room. The energy depicted by the flowing mane and tail of St Georges horse and plume of the helmet show much greater command of works on this scale. Echoes of the Council of the Gods can be seen, however, with the viewer adopting a lower viewpoint - looking up at St George, almost from the viewpoint of the slain dragon with the lance through it's bleeding mouth. The triumph of St George over the dragon is, for me at least, brought to life in this painting.

The painting of Samson and Delilah in the sixth and final room was nothing if not a masterpiece. The scene depicts the moment at which Samson asleep, head slumped in the lap of his lover, has his hair cut by another. An elderly lady holds a candle, illuminating the treacherous Delilah and oblivious Samson. The lighting, strongly from the left, reflects the lighting that would have been cast on the painting from the window which it originally hung adjacent too. On the far right of the scene, armed men await in the shadows of the adjacent room eagerly awaiting the opportunity to arrest a Samson drained of his strength. The period of calm creates a tension, a sense of anticipation, about the impending eruption of violence. The muscular figure of Samson seems to add to this sense of tension and the tragedy of Delilahs duplicity. Here, the figures clearly show the lessons in anatomical construction that Rubens learnt in Rome.

In my previous email, I mentioned the Descent from the Cross and the Assumption of the Virgin altarpieces that were currently installed in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Oil sketch's of the altarpieces are also on display in this exhibition. Personally, these exhibits were highly interesting - having been so enthralled with and impressed by the originals. In my mind, the difference in scale from the initial studies and oil sketches is nothing short of astonishing.

I congratulate the National Gallery on this Special Exhibition. It is to be commended to the world.

More information on the exhibition can be found on the National Gallery website at:

Mark in Zurich