Sixth Approach to Rubens ‘Het Steen’, 1636
Het Steen visit no 6
Het Steen visit no 6
The first time in the National Gallery with my new middle distance glasses, the Dutch landscape is in almost hallucinatory detail when seen from the leather bench in front of it, although now I can’t see what I’m writing.
For the first time I notice that the lights are on in the windows of Het Steen itself. Points of yellow light downstairs left, clearly lit with at least half a dozen strong highlights and smaller points of light in the centre windows above the door and the first floor front above the highly lit ground floor. Smoke is rising from chimneys on the left of the house, ie those areas that have light in the windows. Bright lights, beeswax candles, whale oil or what I wonder? That brightness from this distance in those warmed rooms could only be the best and strongest form of lighting, another demonstration of success?
There is no real piano nobile here, we are not looking at post Albertian classicism, look at the gables. The ground floor seems to have the higher windows and contains more internal light; why? How dark would it be inside the building in the morning when sunlight should be flooding in from the East. I still think we are looking at a morning scene: the directions, the milking (although thinking of other sub rural fictions, I have heard evening milking on the Archers I’m sure). The cart off to market and the white on the green on the fields in the mid ground that looks very like the visual effects of early morning dew. Do birds, the ducks centre in the sky, come in to roost/ land in the morning. And what about the three people, well dressed outside the house. A fourth woman appears to be kneeling down, perhaps collecting water? The woman above her is sitting with something in her lap. Are they watching the sun rise, or set, waiting for Peter Paul to finish his brightly lit breakfast, or for the next cart to market?
Looking at this little group prompts one of the questions raised by traversing the landscape as a dog walker; either as the grand owner of show dogs or the romantic questing huntsman. Why are we looking at this view, why not a straightforward portrait of the house set firmly into the centre of the view, or a view from that ground floor lighted window?
We are being presented with the a panorama of the land, our eye slowly drawn to the tower on the horizon. So we must assume that the best spot for that panorama is from where we see it here. What sort of landscape, how should we understand it, from what informing ground are we being expected to stand? Think back to the questions about the uncleared landscape, the route the cart is taking out of the pictorial space, stage right. It’s route is marked by a fallen tree trunk, a long time fallen trunk with a prominent bracket fungus indicating that it has fallen from the upended tree. The trunk has not been cleared away, we are in the picturesque, the land of the hunter of attractive perceptions. To further this hunting theme, there is the dead deer on the cart, shot we assume by the hunter, and a man fishing from the moat on the bridge into Het Steen and the standing man in the small waiting group is leaning on something that looks very like a gun.
Yes of course the huntsman does have a dog; I don’t see how I could have missed it. A large brown and white hound, pointer type, its nose low, on the far side of the hunter from us, the mans gun is in his right hand, held steady with his left hand. The hunter is crouched forward, weight over his bent left leg, right leg stretched out behind him, the dogs legs are bent, it is waiting poised to rush out and collect dead ducks I presume. I have to say that Rubens’ dogs are not very convincing. Look for example at the ‘Landscape with a Shepherd and his Flock, 1638. It is in the same room and features landscape from around Het Steen. The Shepherd’s dog looks like an inflated sheep. Or Cephalus’ hounds in a sketch from 1636, they are more elegant, as you would expect, your average God would have a better sort of sort of working dog. Cepahalus’ hound was in fact Laelaps, a present from the goddess Eon to his wife Procris in a rather complicated attempt to get her to be unfaithful. Nonetheless the animal in the sketch is a simplified and anthropomorphic affair, not looking capable of chasing the monstrous fox that ruined Thebes as the original had.
All this wandering (or wondering?) around the room brings me to thinking about what it is really like to look at art in these circumstances. There are many layers of thought going on here, the top layer being constant irritation and surprise at ones fellow gallery goers. Next to me a very fat young man dressed inevitably, in sporting clothes, is playing a game on his phone; he has not looked up once. To the right of Het Steen a young girl, Year 10 at a guess, is copying the outsize flowers, a heavy line drawing in her A3 sketchbook, no tonality from an entirely modulated painting. She stand very close to the right hand side of the work, then comes to sit on the bench to make written notes when her legs give up; art is very hard on the feet. I notice that she has dotted every letter I with a little heart.
Large groups are constantly shepherded in front of the two versions of the Judgement of Paris that flank either side of Het Steen, the younger version on the left, the older on the right. Up to now I have ignored this arrangement, but it occurs to me that the themes behind the Judgement, and I notice the clearly Flemish landscape behind the later version, might have something to guide us into further knowledge of Het Steen itself. A large Spanish group with headphones appear, time to go I think, but not before I ask the question: who is the witness within the later Judgement? An elderly Spaniard in Picos de Europa dot com cycling gear has sat next to me as I stare at this painted dog, tight lycra should be banned on all but the most lythe, he is certifiably not, Juno looks like a size zero next to him. And to notice that the vast and again unconvincing dog beneath Paris is part of a by play with Juno’s peacock.