Peter Paul Rubens prints on exhibit at Ringling Museum

Rubens, a master of paint, found mastery in the print — interpretations aside.
Published March 10 2012

SARASOTA — Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) achieved fame and fortune in his time. An accomplished Baroque painter, he was also a scholar and diplomat who worked on behalf of his Catholic sovereigns in the Spanish Netherlands (of which his home, Antwerp in today's Belgium, was part) and was knighted for his efforts by the kings of Spain and England.

Unlike those of many artists, his reputation hasn't dimmed over the centuries. "Peter Paul Rubens: Impressions of a Master" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota provides many examples of his enduring genius.

This is an exhibition of prints with a few paintings scattered through as exclamation points. Of course, the really big exclamation points are the five enormous Rubens paintings, considered the prizes of the Ringling's permanent collection, all under the rubric Triumph of the Eucharist, which hang in the gallery John Ringling designed for them.

About half of the 100 prints in this special exhibition are on loan from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp and the remainder come from the Ringling's permanent collection, as do all the paintings.

The Antwerp museum owns the world's largest group of prints "after Rubens." The "after" part is important. It means that the artist didn't engrave the plates; others did but most of the time under his supervision.

Beginning in the 15th century with the German artist Albrecht Durer, the emergence of prints as a popular medium wasn't by chance. Museums didn't exist. Paintings and sculptures commissioned by wealthy nobles and merchants weren't on view publicly. The Catholic Church was an important patron but few people had the resources to see art in faraway churches and cathedrals. Prints, though, produced in editions that could number several hundred, were affordable and easily disseminated.

Printmakers copied famous paintings with abandon, sometimes also abandoning fidelity to the original and quality in the technique. Rubens was appalled at the many "interpretations" of his work and irked that he gained nothing financially, so he hit upon a savvy arrangement that resembles what we today call the copyright. In 1619 he obtained permission from his sovereigns, Albert and Isabella, to include on authorized editions an inscription that they were legitimate works under the artist's direction. Any print without that would be considered an illegal fake.

Two prints early in the show bring to bear the frustration Rubens understandably felt. An unauthorized print based on Rubens' painting of Samson and Delilah is dreadful, especially the background that has little detail except a crudely worked shelf of bottles. By comparison, Cornelis Galle's reworking of Judith Beheading Holofernes, under Rubens' direction, is rich in details. We see the bulging veins in the general's outstretched arms as her muscles tense as she holds his head under her calm gaze and under her knife. The elaborately rumpled sheets suggest violence and chaos. (Judith Beheading Holofernes was painted in 1609 but there is no record of it after 1610; it's known only through this print.)

Galle and subsequent Rubens engravers were masters of their craft, in which an image is carved into a metal sheet and those incisions are inked and become the print. The practice of outsourcing wasn't unusual; engraving was difficult and time-consuming and Rubens perhaps didn't have the patience for it. He would edit preliminary prints and send them back for revisions to the copper plates. One of the prints in this show actually has his modification drawings on it.

You can see Rubens' demand for perfection from his engravers in Lucas Vorsterman's sanctioned print, The Flight of Lot and His Family from Sodom (1620), which is exhibited next to the original Rubens painting. Every element is beautifully translated from paint on canvas to ink on paper. And that's no small thing: conveying complex facial expressions, the luster of the daughter's silk dress and the gossamer lightness of the angel's cape as it blows in the wind is difficult enough in the fluid medium of paint. Achieving those subtle effects using only black lines or tiny dots is remarkable. Having both painting and print together also can raise questions because compositionally, they are mirror images. That's because the plates are carved like the originals but when they're printed, they create the image in reverse.

There are four woodcut prints among all the engravings that are striking in their anomaly. Technically, a woodcut is the opposite of engraving. The image is made by carving away from the block of wood so that what's left is a relief. That raised portion is inked and printed. Woodcuts weren't popular with artists in Rubens' era because they seemed less refined. He chose to collaborate with printmaker Christoffel Jegher on a series of them, probably himself drawing the images directly onto the wood that Jegher carved. Though they don't have the nuances of engraving, the four in this show come about as close as any could.

And even though the prints lack Rubens' ravishing use of color, they serve their Baroque master well. As a Catholic during the Counter-Reformation when Protestantism was on the rise, Rubens often chose religious subjects, employing a highly dramatic moment in a biblical story to illustrate faith and sacrifice. The starkness of black and white would have heightened the drama.

But, as with the works of all great artists, these prints resist strict categorization. Landscapes, which he did for his own pleasure, could hold their own against the pastorals of his Dutch-Protestant peers to the north whose subjects were mostly secular.

Rubens wasn't an old man when he died but he appeared to be a happy one. He deserved his success.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.