Fifteenth Approach to Het Steen, 1636: Part Two

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. Oil on oak.131 x National Gallery, London

Thinking further about those clouds and the trees in the foreground, their derivation and their future effect (although this was less in the Netherlands, the major influence would be on artists like Constable,Het Steen was owned by Sir George Beaumont, Constable’s patron). I have been reading the catalogue for a National Gallery Exhibition on ‘Dutch Landscape, the Early Years, Haarlem and Amsterdam 1590-1650’ published in 1986, National Gallery Publications, London. A show which centred on the development of work directly from nature; a process that characterises Dutch landscape drawings, prints and paintings in the seventeenth century.

Rubens was though, a Flemish artist, Italianate, learned, and devoted to istoria. The growing 16th century Dutch landscape tradition, developing around Haarlem, based itself on nature/ observation, the ‘extensive landscape’ a correlation between marine and landscape painting particular to the newly reclaimed Dutch landscape. These artists, inspired by the marine painters like the splendidly named Vroom, closely observed wind, cloud types and the effects of light. Unlike the Flemish:

“These [Rubens’] clouds are an arbitrary backdrop and are scarcely recognisable in meteorological terms” J E Thomas, Geographical Magazine 51.7 April 1979, quoted in ‘Dutch Landscape’ page 79.

“the marine painters observations of the sky ensured that in Dutch Landscapes and marine paintings sunlight always falls from the same direction [as the wind], Rubens’ ‘artistic licence’ in showing shadows falling from opposite directions in the same landscape would have been unthinkable for a contemporary Dutch artist’

In fact the light and shadows fall in Steen is reasonably consistent from top right to bottom left. There is no strong wind but a gentle East to West breeze, following the line of the clouds would seem believable. The painting that Russell is referring to in this second reference is the ‘Return from the Harvest’ in the Galleria Pitti, in which the shadows cast the peasants in the foreground run at right angles to the source of light.

By the way, can I recommend the Hay in Art Website which does exactly what it says, in great detail; indispensable.

This double light is not down to incompetence, or lack of knowledge, it is the traditional role of the artist to transcend the natural.

“It is by this that Rubens proves himself great and shows to the world that he, with a free spirit stands above Nature and treats her to his higher purposes” Goethe, conversation with Eckermann, in discussion over Return from the Harvest where Goethe uses the double light as an illustration of Rubens’ greatness, rather than Russell’s approach which tries to indicate Rubens’ indifference at best.

To point out where Rubens/ Flemish landscape and the emerging Dutch tradition meet, it would be worth mentioning Carel van Mander. van Mander’s treatise on painting, (Het Schilderboeck) published in the Netherlands in 1606, and went into great detail about art, artists and translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Chapter 8 was exclusively on landscape, parts of it seem relevant to Het Steen, for example:

“4: note, first of all, how over there the bride of old Tithonus rises from her saffron bed to announce the approach of the torch of day, and see how the four piebald horses soaked with water, rise panting from the shallows of the Ocean. See how the little purple clouds become tinged with pinkish red and how beautifully Eurus’ bright home is adorned ready receive Phoebus…see there in front of us, hunters are walking with their dogs through the green dewy fields: see how that trodden dew turns a lighter tone of green, showing their footprints, and so giving their route home. (Let the landscape recede smoothly into the distance, or let it gradually merge into the sky)”

From ‘Dutch Landscape, the Early Years, Haarlem and Amsterdam 1590-1650’ published in 1986, National Gallery Publications, London page 36.

There is a distinct similarity between these stock figures from classical myth and the role of the genre figures that people Steen’s foreground, certainly the horse/ cart drawing of the sun across the sky motif. A coincidence? A wry reworking of classical themes? Probably, these references were, after all, part of the trade of any literate 17th century artist across Europe. Had Rubens read van Mander? What is more relevant perhaps, is that these references had nothing to do with the new Dutch landscape style that was appearing, on his doorstep as it where, some 100 miles away from Het Steen.

It would be tempting to say that old man was learning new radicalism, by working directly from nature for example. Certainly this is a recognisable landscape, but, all the marks of composition, of his higher purpose, of studio bound painting, are here. Het Steen is framed, by the group of trees that also frame the house. The hunter, fallen tree arrangement makes the traditional the diagonal, foreground repoussoir element, characteristic of Flemish landscape painting.

“First of all it is important to show clear contrast in the foreground, as it pushes the other planes into the background. Ensure something large is painted in the foreground as was done by Bruegel and other great artists who are acclaimed for their contribution to landscape painting. Since they often place enormous tree-trunks in the foreground let us enthusiastically strive to follow their example.”

van Mander quoted in From ‘Dutch Landscape, the Early Years, Haarlem and Amsterdam 1590-1650’ published in 1986, National Gallery Publications, London page 38.

The Steen pictorial space is divided up into the traditional brown foreground, green mid and blue background. Yes, there is evidence of farming, of quotidian purpose that you can see in drawings especially by artists like Coninxloo. Rubens’ painting contains the field boundaries, the milkmaid etc. But, the centrality of the hunter makes it clear; this is a landscape for recreation. And, lastly there is the high view, the recognizable method for constructing the Antwerp landscape style that you can trace back to Patinir and the early sixteenth century.

So, back to the trees.

Van Mander wrote that the changes in the representation of trees in art in the Netherlands, was down to Coninxloo, because of him Netherlandish trees in art became leafier. Coninxloo  was an artist who specialised in dense forest landscapes, a subject and style that according to Christopher Brown in the Dutch Landscape Introduction, (‘Dutch Landscape, the Early Years, Haarlem and Amsterdam 1590-1650’ published in 1986, National Gallery Publications, London page 17) you can trace back to Pieter Bruegel the elder, and his son Jan Brueghel the Elder. Pieter had in his turn taken his inspiration from woodcuts after Titian, Campagnola and Muziano, i.e. from art, from higher purpose, not from life. 

Rubens’ little group of tall foreground trees, growing at angles, overlapping one another, with recognisably different foliage, and the foreground tree stump; this compositional form is pure Flemish landscape tradition. A tradition that Rubens had already conquered on his return to Antwerp from Italy, in his groups of landscape painted 1614-25. Paintings that seem to celebrate lushness, fertility and his identification with his native country. A return to prosperity after war. In the horribly complex history of the Netherlands, this was a period of powerful Counter Reformation, lots of work for a Catholic history painter newly returned from Italy, e.g. the Raising of the Cross for Antwerp Cathedral, 1610-11.

The landscape painting that makes all this clear is ‘Milkmaids with Cattle in a Landscape: ‘The Farm at Lacken’, 1618, oil on Panel, The Royal Collection.

Rubens: 'Milkmaids with Cattle in a Landscape: 'The Farm at Laeken', 1618. Oil on Panel, The Royal Collection, London

 Notice that there is some formal similarity between the arrangement of the right hand branches on the birch in the clump above the figure with the cornucopia of fruit and veg on her head and the right hand birch in the Steen foreground. To further emphasise our theme about the derivation of, and intentions behind these compositions, Christopher Brown in ‘Making and Meaning: Rubens Landscapes’, points out that this composition loosely owes something to a Titian woodcut (Landscape with a Milkmaid 1525).

Boldrini (after Titian) Landscape with a Milkmaid 1525. woodcut, British Museum

And, he goes deeper to show that the church, just visible top right, was a key centre of Marian worship and nationalist associations. In other words there are strong connections between this painting of prosperity and peace, the power of the Catholic Church and the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, Rubens was their court artist. Do we find our trees in Het Steen pointing us in any of these directions? No, the context is different. There is of course the same brass jug, here for containing milk, in ‘the Watering Place’ of 1620 for, presumably, water and in ‘Landscape with a Rainbow’ (generally assumed to be the companion piece to Het Steen) where it is also on a head, either water or milk. A Rubensian shape for indicating plenty/ fecundity/ prosperity, i.e. peace?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: