January 18, 2018

The Rubens are Spectacular in Houston



Given 100 people picked at random, I would venture to guess that you’d be lucky to find one who could identify a painting by Peter Paul Rubens. But I would also venture to guess that a good number of those would indeed recognize the name of Rubens as an important artist. We on the Gulf Coast now have an opportunity to brush up on our Baroque because the Rubens are spectacular at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek by Peter Paul Rubens, Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek by Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (June 28, 1577 – May 30, 1640) was a Flemish painter known for his extravagant Baroque style. Most of his body of work was religious subjects but he was also acclaimed for historical scenes, portraits, and landscapes.

Baroque is a period of artistic style known for exaggerated motion and details to produce drama, exuberance, and grandeur. It can refer to art, sculpture, architecture, furniture, literature, and music.  Included with the photos is Rubens’ The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, an example on display of high Baroque style.


Spectacular Rubens at Museum of Fine Arts Houston; the tapestry version of The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek hangs right.

In the 1620s Rubens completed one of his greatest feats—the design of the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestries. There were considered the most elaborate and expensive tapestries made in Europe that century. The tapestries are enormous! They fill vast walls in the cavernous Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed Carolyn Weiss Law Building and form the foundation of the MFAH’s exhibit Spectacular Rubens.

The tapestries were commissioned by Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia (daughter of Habsburg monarchs Philip II & Isabel of Valois), governor-general of the Netherlands as a gift to her favorite convent. The exhibit reunites the oil sketches with the tapestries, such as the painting The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek.

But one of the more amazing paintings displayed happens to be an early portrait of the Infanta herself by Alonso Sánchez Coello. Meant to be a public portrait, she is portrayed in full court regalia from her mother’s jewels to declaration of her loyalty to her father by holding his cameo at center of the composition. She is very young and gently but commandingly rests her hand on the head of a favorite court midget, Magdalana Ruiz; Ruiz has her hands full managing a pair of monkeys.  The subject looks wealthy and that is the way it was intended.  The painting is absolutely mesmerizing in its complex detail and beauty. The rendering of her gown is a fantasy in itself.

Isabel Clara Eugenia

Portrait of Isabel Clara Eugenia and Magdalena Ruiz, 1586, by Alonso Sánchez Coello [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Quite the opposite from the lush and formal painting of the Infanta, another favorite painting of the exhibit is a brutal and heart-wrenching portrayal of The Entombment. The scene depicts the moment after crucifixion when Jesus is placed in the tomb. Probably created as an altarpiece, it is a grisly scene depicting blood from the laceration in Christ’s side, blood filling his mouth, and the green-tinged skin of death. I stood enthralled before the dramatic and haunting painting which is loaded with emotion and symbolism.

As an important painter Rubens had access to courts across the continent, which interestingly gave entry to a diplomatic career. And in the late 1620s he moved between Spain and England hoping to bring peace to Europe. Despite being a craftsman he was often received as a gentleman then raised to nobility by Philip IV of Spain and knighted by Charles I of England.

But of all of his accomplishments, and because of his penchant for painting plus-sized women, he gave rise to the terms Rubenesque or Rubensian for full-figured gals!

Don’t forget to click on the images to see full stunning detail of the artworks…