Tag Archives: Rubens Het Steen National Gallery

Het Steen, Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London

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

We expect life behind the picture plane to conform to our expectations of life in front of it. But, after a good long look it is far odder than you might think.

I have been asked how it is possible to stare at the same work of art for such long, long periods – never less than an hour at a time in front of Het Steen, usually longer. Patience of course but more, like meditation, it is a matter of clearing the mind of those expectations/ prejudices/ outstanding thoughts that we bring with us, to find out what is really going on in this parallel world. Today these issues sprang up, leaping about in front of my field of vision, I don’t think I really got rid of them:

  1. It is very misty and wet outside, is that why the distant horizon in this painted world seems clearer today?
  2. How long would it take to walk from the tree trunk in the foreground to Malines and the Cathedral of St Rombout (the tower on the horizon). Difficult to tell how far it is away on foot, 5 miles, 10 miles, closer to 10 maybe? Average walking time is what: 3 miles? Ground is very flat and clear, so perhaps three hours, heavy dew on the ground, but not too waterlogged, under 3 hours then.
  3. The view we can see is not that from the large windows of the house. This painting and ‘The Landscape with a Rainbow’

    Peter Paul Rubens: ‘Landscape with a Rainbow’, 1636. Oil on Panel. The Wallace Collection, London

    were to be shown in a room on either side of those windows. Although the painted view is a sort of composite, I wonder which room it was painted in. Traditionally, studios are north facing to stop shadows and direct sunlight. Het Steen Manor faces south (we are looking east to the rising sun) it can’t have been made in a fancy room can it? Could Rubens keep a fancy room clean whilst oil painting? Leonardo famously said that a painter could work surrounded by beauty and listening to a fine musician. Leonardo was a careful, almost fastidious man, mostly dressed in lilac according to his inventories. Rubens was a painter of some bravura, and therefore a bit messier? Would he have painted at the back of the house, is this likely? Covered as I am in the white oil paint left behind by a student panicking about a deadline, I have strong feelings about this point.

  4. Going back to the walk idea, there are no fences behind this particular picture plane, no closed off areas. Some grown out hedges, several lines of trees suggest a slight fence hedge behind the milkmaid for example. But none of the post-enclosure English hedgerows and field boundaries, none of ‘this land is mine-ness’, that characterise the English countryside.
  5. One thinks of John Clare, the poet of the English countryside unhinged by the effects of The Enclosure Acts. That period of 18th and 19th century English history when landowners put boundaries across common land; expelling those who once used the land to work and walk. Clare was a great walker, for example in 1841 he walked 80 miles after escaping from his asylum, returning home to look for his first love, Mary Joyce (long dead); he lived on grass and air. As he wrote about her:

“And we will walk the meadow love

And we will walk the grove

And by the winding river love

We’ll walk and talk of love

And by the white thorn bushes love

Just budding into green

Where the shaded fountain rushes love

We’ll steal a kiss unseen”

(For the text of Clare’s diary from his walk see, the John Clare WebLog is very good on his walking as well

 All this sense of rural freedom goes, as you can read in his : ‘Remembrances’

“…Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain

It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill

And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is

running still

It runs a naked brook cold and chill”


“These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall

Is laid upon them and destroyed them all

Each little tyrant with his little sign

Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine

But paths to freedom and to childhood dear

A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’”

Enclosure in a Gainsborough landscape?

I have always assumed the neat fields behind Gainsborough’s: ‘Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews’ 1750,

Thomas Gainsborough: ‘Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews’, 1750, oil on canvas, 76 x 119 cm. National Gallery, London

are a reference to the economic benefits of the ‘rude philistine’s thrall’, it is certainly set at the beginning of the Enclosure Acts, Clare’s poetry towards the end. Look at the sharp meanness of those two faces and, despite the gun and dog, both look uncomfortable in the countryside that they so clearly own; she won’t have walked far in those shoes. As Clare put it some ninety years later:

“Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds

Of field and meadow large as garden grounds

In little parcels little minds to please

With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease”

To the Painting in Front of Me

So, trying to watch the world of seventeenth century Flanders, these are some of the ideas from the twenty-first century I brought with me. I think walking kept bobbing up like a dog wanting me to throw the ball, partly because I was thinking of a response made to an earlier post by Ann Marquez from Desert Muse publications and her description that “growing up in the southwest I never imagined limited access to land”.

‘The Path Stopt’

And partly because a few days ago, I tried to take a walk through local woods on a path that, though not a formal right of way, has been a customary path used by many for many, many years. It was fenced off without warning or explanation; heart-breaking.

Walking and Rubens

Rubens’ figures don’t look like they walk much, Paris in the later Judgement  perhaps,

Rubens: ‘The Judgement of Paris’, 1632; Oil on canvas, 139 x 174 cm; National Gallery, London

in the earlier version Paris is too much of a classical hero, despite his very pink bottom.

Peter Paul Rubens: ‘The Judgement of Paris’, 1597-9. Oil on Panel. The National Gallery, London

Moses and Eleazer in ‘The Brazen Serpent 1635 – 40’ look like they have covered a few miles.

 Mainly, Rubensian walkers are stock working figures, milkmaids and shepherds, many carts in his rural scenes, as in Het Steen. As Rebecca Solnitt points out in her book about the history of walking: ‘Wanderlust’, nobody walked for pleasure before the Wordsworths.  

Looking slowly at paintings is a process of clearing questions and relaxing and just looking, it takes about twenty minutes usually. Time to really start looking, or to walk away until the next time?

Het Steen, National Gallery, London, Friday Afternoon

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

The young woman in front of the later ‘Judgement of Paris’ is haranguing a large group of fellow Chinese. She has talked for 10 – 15 minutes without drawing breath, a small boy has his hand up; he is ignored. She is wearing cream trousers and a cream jacket zipped right up the neck, she does not look relaxed.

A complete contrast to a colleague I saw this morning, taking a large group of Year Eight students through a range of paintings about rooms and interiors: Dutch and Swedish ending with Rachel Whiteread. It was all about interaction, questioning, and the students lively responses.

How Do We See Art?

Returning to the central theme of all these posts: how do we see art, what do we get from looking at it? The students in front of the slide show had been led by careful pointed questions, what can we see? What might be the relevance of? What does that make you think about? The importance of composition/ light/ context/ new ideas about interiors. But I wondered, were they just showing their skills at a particular game: answering questions (very high) or were they actually engaging with images. Was this the equivalent of twenty questions,  just running around a museum pressing buttons. Their teacher by the way was wearing dressed down art teacher clothing; checked shirt and jeans.

Pictorial Space

I think these posts have established by now, that composition of pictorial space has a great deal to do with how a painting is approached; physically and mentally. But, schooled in iconographic analysis or not, you also bring assumptions about behaviour and meaning on the far side of the picture plane. For example, I remember a small boy’s response to Picasso’s ‘Woman Weeping’

Picasso: 'Woman Weeping', 1937, 60 x 49 cm, oil on canvas. Tate Gallery

‘I know she’s really upset’

‘Why do you know that Darren, is it to do with the shapes clashing together in the painting?’

‘No, it’s because she’s eating pizza, my mum always gives me pizza when I’m upset’

So, what do we bring to Het Steen? A general assumption about the reassuring properties of paintings about nature? A deep calm, from the gently lifting ground plane, the soft, close tonal range, the warmth of colours in the foreground, the bucolic carter and companion, the wealthy but not obtrusive house? Soft shapes rising sun: optimistic; reassuring; comforting. These are the sorts of terms that come to mind. It might be autumn, i.e. towards the end of a cycle, but time moves very slowly here.

Rubens: 'The Judgement of Paris', 1632; Oil on canvas, 139 x 174 cm; National Gallery, London

Large numbers of Spaniards, smelling rather strongly of soap, not unpleasant but certainly insistent, are collapsed around the bench. It is a comfortable place to rest, they are exhausted, time this side of the picture plane is catching up with them. At the other end of the bench, a man is slowly making an extremely painstaking tonal drawing of the later Judgement; hours of evident labour. He is drawing from left to right and the proportions are gently getting away from him; the figures are beginning to elongate and lose their Rubensian plumpness as the drawing becomes widescreen.

The Spanish, distressed brown leather, sports gear and strange white tubular headgear rather like socks, do not look at the paintings. Later a middle aged English couple, beige trousers, grey anoraks, argue in a low monotone, carefully looking at an image, true; but it is a tube map. Most of the visitors, few are actually viewers, seem to regard being here as a form of labour, measured in miles walked, the occasional interesting painting is a bonus.

The ‘Art Study’ Problem

Perhaps this is behaviour learnt early. By and large students coming into an art room see making art as a subdivision of leisure activities; ‘Art’ is not real work etc. Whereas looking at art made by others is always more of a chore, any art teacher who has tackled the ‘art study’ will confirm this. I have written many books for teachers trying to overcome this reluctance, but never quite worked out why it is there; surely pictorial space is fascinating, isn’t it?

But What Shall I Wear?

Maybe it is to do with clothing, to make art in an art room you put on an overall, a paint spattered ‘cloak of creativity’ as it were. To study the art work made by others you are still in the clothes you wear for other activities, learning Maths for schoolchildren, travelling seems to be the main theme here in the National Gallery. I don’t mean that you should stand in front of Het Steen wearing seventeenth century muddy peasant linen bowing to the Lord of the Manor, but the awkward mismatch between formality and casual tourism is noticeable. At the Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern, that I saw earlier (highly recommended by the way, very well put together indeed) there was none of that awkwardness; art and viewers seemed to be well matched. So perhaps it does help to dress accordingly, I’m off to order my rough smock now.

On the Platform

Waiting at the station, I talked to a man about cataract operations for Labradors, £3000 per eye apparently. It would be cheaper to send the dog to India he thought, but wasn’t sure about quarantine.

The bus to the station had to drive through thick fog, bright but visually impenetrable. Trees are just changes of tone in a wall of grey/ white, like the steam on glasses in a hot bathroom as you clean your teeth before departure.

Art about not seeing

It is rare to find art work that presents a restricted vision. Or, restricted vision as a deliberate theme. You could say that the late work of Monet and Degas, as they struggled with eyesight problems, are the results of restricted vision itself, but I’m not sure Claude or Edgar would thank you for it; not really what they were intending to do. Duchamp’s last work (Étants Donnés) perhaps, where we can only see through the holes in an old door. In most art your eye is directed around pictorial space, yet you are simultaneously aware of the whole work. Think of artist play with mirrors:

Velasquez: 'The Rokeby Venus',1647, oil on canvas, 122 x 177 cm. National Gallery, London

Velasquez’ ‘Rokeby Venus’, what we see in the mirror, (her face), is not what we (the male viewer) want to see, her naked front, although we know that the mirror is in fact pointed at that very form.

“Charlie ruined his IPad yesterday, he rebooted from a PC and it like, wiped all the applications, there is nothing to see, just the empty screen.”

“Why’d he do that then?”

“Don’t know, because he’s a boy? It was great”

What about ‘The Day of the Triffids’, those unable to see on the night of a meteor shower are saved from blindness. They survive deadly killer plants, ending up in the Isle of Wight of all places; is this a metaphor for enhanced perception? Perhaps not. Or the standard ‘blind so that he might really see’ trope (Homer, Gloucester in Lear, Milton etc.) I suppose it’s not surprising that an art work, an object to be seen, is made with visual clarity, and doesn’t concern itself with not being able to see. But art about how we perceive the world and how we see ourselves, there’s lots of that.

“Look, he sent me a text, says he wants a picture of me, not a dirty picture or nothing, just a nice one he can put it in bed at night and see me when he gets up in the morning”


“Yeah, right”

The schoolchildren are opposite, two women in front are discussing their day, they have documents on the table, ‘Rebranding  HLC/ALCs: a New Look’, quiet speech in determined tones, lots more jargon.

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

In front of Het Steen

Behind me a large French youth is lying full length on the bench, earphones on and singing. Next to him, two equally disengaged young men, equally French; all are wearing sportsgear for the non sportif. They comment loudly on the girls that pass. They have yet to turn round and see the Judgements of Paris. I suspect their reaction would be similar to the primary school boys who have just passed, their hands over their mouths, pointing and giggling.

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

The Trees

The small group of six trees in the foreground island, are reminiscent of a group of people, standing tall. The oak on the left proud and straight, the birches in the centre: lounging, and the birch on the right swaying gently.

I am surrounded by people standing – to look at the art – apart from the lolling French behind. Many viewers take the attitudes of the outer left and right trees. It is only the young in groups who lounge and lean. Do we take the attitude of that we look at? More noticeable when looking at standing figures perhaps, adopting the pose of the Arnolfinis; that sort of thing.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'Landscape with St George and the Dragon', 1630, oil on canvas. The Royal Collection

Pathetic Fallacy

The blasted tree in the ‘Landscape with St George’ now in Tate Britain reflects this sort of ‘pathetic fallacy’ approach, as incidentally do the trees in the later ‘Judgement of Paris’.

Rubens: 'The Judgement of Paris', 1632; Oil on canvas, 139 x 174 cm; National Gallery, London

Those to the left, with the clouds generated by the Goddess of Discord are dark and distorted and forked, echoing the shapes of the Goddess. The tree around which Hermes and Paris and their bovine dog are wrapped, is clean limbed and brightly lit.

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

The scale of the trees in Het Steen really does not fit the figures. Judging from their foliage and form these are mature trees. Yet, stood beside them, the carter or his passenger would reach about half way up the trunk; implausible.

The Tree Question

Is it possible to be a self-conscious painted tree, a form that draws attention to itself?  A question that is not quite as footling as it sounds. Such a question assumes that painted forms in their painted world have mass and agency within that illusory space. A world in which the usual laws of physics, those from our side of the picture plane, still operate.

Perhaps other human traits also apply, the jeunesse dorée behind me clearly believe they are objects of interest. They have positioned themselves and behave to draw attention; admiring attention they assume. I do not share their opinion, but I am in the minority. Their belief, to watch the huge numbers of European and British young moving through the gallery, is shared.

 I wonder if the similarity I see between the composition of the trees and their anthropomorphic nature, comes from proximity. Apart from upright humans standing in front of them, they are flanked by triads of painted standing, naked women. Three goddesses confident in their nudity, conscious of being seen by Paris and Hermes, but not perhaps by us the viewers, or by aggressive young Frenchmen or giggling London primary schoolchildren. Is it possible to ask the question: are the trees in Het Steen aware that they are being watched, without putting my hand over my mouth and giggling?

The Tree Question: Context

The tree question presumes that we read a single standing form as part of a history of single standing forms. Rubens was a classicist, he would have known both something about Greek and Roman statuary and Vitruvius’ descriptions of the classical column as different forms of human figure.

The Classical Orders: Greek and Roman

Here, in these trees we have everything from Doric (the sturdy ‘male’ Oak) through Ionic (the curving birch as a young slender and female) through to Corinthian (The swaying birch on the right as the fuller female figure). John Summerson’s ‘The Classical Language of Architecture’, (Thames and Hudson) is very useful on all this by the way. Rubens would also have been aware of the general belief that Classical stone architecture was derived from wooden building techniques; we are looking at the painting of a building after all.

The Tree Question: Nonsense

But, of course this is all fanciful. The building is Flemish vernacular, look at the stepped gables,

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

the only classical references are textual; to Virgil and Horace. The trees are, as I have established earlier, just stock trees from the painters studio repertoire, no reference to anthropomorphism here at all.

More French youth have appeared, an army of them, enough to stock a re-enactment of Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Storming the Barricades’ though without the bare breasted Liberty, much to the disappointment of those on the bench behind. Like Delacroix’s painting the young folk around me are also stock characters, gum chewing, unshaven, louche and aggressive, time to go.

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

It is half term; the National Gallery is full of enthusiastic parents with reluctant children, occasionally vice versa. I have just come from the Courtauld Gallery, partly to see the Ben Nicholson/ Piet Mondrian exhibition, also to visit old favourites: Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergeres’; Rubens ‘Deposition’ etc.

In front of Rubens landscape: Het Steen, it occurs to me that you could make a strong case to say that Mondrian, even late Mondrian, is also about landscape, certainly about ‘Nature’. As Mondrian wrote:

“It took me a long time to discover that particularities of form and natural colour evoke subjective states of feeling which obscure pure reality. The appearance of natural forms changes, but reality remains. To create pure reality plastically, it is necessary to reduce natural forms to constant elements of form, and natural colour to primary colour. The aim is not to create other particular forms and colours, with all their limitations, but to work toward abolishing them in the interest of a larger unity.”

Much of De Stijl’s philosophy came from splendidly esoteric stuff, like this from Dr. Schoenmaeker:

‘The two fundamental, complete contraries which shape our earth and all that is of the earth, are: the horizontal line of power, that is the course of the earth around the sun and the vertical, profoundly spatial movement of rays that originates in the centre of the sun.’

(‘Principles of Plastic Mathematics’, 1916)

Or from Theosophy, another search for deeper realities largely inspired by the engagingly dubious Madame Blavatsky. Before discovering the lucrative forces of the mind, she is supposed to have been a trick rider in a circus, a piano teacher, and manager of an artificial flower factory. An exposed ex-Spiritualist, apparently descended from Russian nobility, she mixed Western and Eastern mysticism by claiming direct contact with the Goddess Isis. Her writings and teachings were hugely successful and influential, although largely plagiarised. Mondrian later played down the importance of such fakery, but at the time it provided a philosophical underpinning to early De Stijl.

Moving from Cezanne’s ‘Monte Sainte Victoire’ of 1887,

Paul Cezanne: 'Monte Sainte Victoire', 1887

to Mondrian’s pre-American abstractions, e.g. ‘Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue’, 1935

Piet Mondrian: 'Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue’, 1935

and then back to my bench in front of a Flemish autumn landscape, it seems logical to ask if there any obvious similarities, apart from the fundamental theme: man and nature. I would suggest that that ‘Monte Sainte Victoire’ is closer to Mondrian, or the other way round, than it is to Het Steen. The clue to that closeness, to developing Modernism as a whole I suppose, is in their relationship to the picture plane.

Rubens, like all artists before…before when? Manet and the theatrical flatness of ‘Dejeuner sur l’Herbe’, or more likely, Cezanne’s posthumous retrospective at the Salon d’Automne, Paris in 1907. This was where artists like Picasso and Braque picked up the threads that would lead to a pictorial form (Cubism) that was entirely about relationship to the picture plane.

Incidentally, after seeing the ‘Picasso and Modern British Art’ show at Tate Britain, one would have to agree with Wyndham Lewis that Picasso was entirely studio bound. I still think Lewis was little more than an illustrator, a maker of posters to illustrate the importance of Wyndham Lewis in fact, but in that observation he points his finger exactly at Picasso’s limits.

“So, what are we meant to be looking at Mum?”

I think, we need to think about what we want to see next. Right, are we ready? Shall we move on?”

Back to Cezanne and Rubens. Both paintings involve receding planes, framing trees, natural forms at specific angles under light. The earlier artist as you might expect, apparently ignores the picture plane; like all those brought up on the mathematical construction of pictorial space.

Leon Battista Alberti: ‘De Pictura and Elementa’ 1518, from 1435

This world is designed to physically position the viewer, the agency (as it were) happens on both side of the vertical non existency. Whereas Cezanne’s pictorial space is composed of horizontals and verticals that work in exact parallels with the picture plane. That parallel format means that nothing is projected beyond it, the space stops dead at the plane. We can view it from any position, but that is all we are doing: viewing.

“The new vision… …does not proceed from a fixed point. Its viewpoint is everywhere, and not limited to any one position. Nor is it bound by space or time”

Piet Mondrian.

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

In Het Steen, the verticals (the trees, the house) and horizontals (lines of the ditches, shadows) operate in relation to the space and the presumed viewer enclosed within that space. They curve according to the depicted topography, the painted world, it seems, precedes our viewing of it. Whereas in ‘Monte Sainte Victoire’ the artist is imposing a method of viewing upon the subject, and that method becomes the subject.

Paul Cezanne: 'Monte Sainte Victoire', 1887. 67 x 92 cm, oil on canvas. Detail

Look at Cezanne’s famous ‘passage’, the repeated, parallel, hatched brushstrokes, strokes that refer us to process, to flatness, to the art work. In Het Steen, brushstrokes (where they are visible) are mimetic, they curve around forms; the curve varying according to what is seen, not how it is seen. Rubens does use parallel brushstrokes, for example blue transparent lines in the willows in the mid-ground, but then, that is how willows grow. Look at the sky above the mountain, Cezanne’s ‘passage’ tells us about the visual tension between two painted horizons/ edges (of the tree and the mountain) and their relationship to the top and sides of the painted canvas. We might also think that this relates to climactic conditions, heat haze for example, but after carefully looking I would suggest structure of the painting comes first.

“O que bello!

“Mamma, Andiamo?”


“Mamma, Andiamo!”

“Uno, Duo, Tre, Hup”

Rubens methods are of course, equally stylised, the intention of his stylisation is to make an apparently neutral world, a world in which each painted space operates to rules we can easily understand. Whereas Cezanne is measuring the distance from each part of the view to…? I used to think it was from each part of the view to the artist’s eye, but after a while in front of this particular Monte Sainte Victoire, I rather think it is from the view to the picture plane.

Next to me, a young Asian boy of impressive width is playing a game on his phone. The game appears to involve building towers, or perhaps cranes. He builds them in a series of different settings, buildings grow as he taps the screen, swiping from right to left with his little finger. Every now and then he does something to collapse the whole scene and start a new one. Sometimes it is at sea, sometimes on land, sometimes mountains.

He changes to a cyclist pouring down narrow bridges across torrential rivers and mountain chasms. The bridges run directly into the picture plane exactly in the centre of the phone screen. The bridges have breaks in them and with his little finger he must make the cyclist jump, or plunge into the abyss. It is all very exciting and he has not looked up once.

I look upward and notice that we are surrounded by small beings with names like Giles and Charlotte and Harriet. Giles is, oddly, given that is about 1 degree outside and drizzling, wearing a light straw hat, large bushes of blond hair push out beneath it, enough I think rather grumpily to spare for those of us of a slightly older vintage; time to go.

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

“Shrines to me embody the essence of what I do. I put significant artefacts in a special place for us to contemplate upon…As humans I think how we look at art has developed from the way we look upon gods, altars and relics in shrines and sacred spaces”

Grayson Perry wall text from ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ British Museum.

 My memory of Catholic worshippers in front of shrines, is that they (usually women) either make a quick bob, cross themselves and move on or, they kneel for a long time in silent contemplation, sometimes accompanied by quiet recitation. The characteristics of Room 29 of the National Gallery, London, in front of the Rubens ensemble (the two Judgements of Paris and Het Steen) are movement and discussion. Everyone is transit, pairs and groups stop, point and discuss key features. I suppose it depends on what our relationship with the gods might be – amused tolerance, or wariness perhaps

Cavafy wrote about that relationship:

One of Their Gods

When one of them moved through the marketplace of Selefkia 

 just as it was getting dark— 

moved like a young man, tall, extremely handsome, 

with the joy of being immortal in his eyes, 

with his black and perfumed hair— 

the people going by would gaze at him, 

 and one would ask the other if he knew him, 

 if he was a Greek from Syria, or a stranger. 

But some who looked more carefully 

 would understand and step aside; 

and as he disappeared under the arcades, 

 among the shadows and the evening lights, 

going toward the quarter that lives 

only at night, with orgies and debauchery, 

with every kind of intoxication and desire, 

they would wonder which of Them it could be, 

and for what suspicious pleasure 

he had come down into the streets of Selefkia 

from the August Celestial Mansions.

C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press 1992)

 Or, do we in the North still feel Judaeo Christian awe, respect and fear? Is perhaps this constant movement a form of penance, moving between the Stations of the Cross?

The Gallery is unusually quiet this afternoon, the visitors mostly elderly. Sometimes when I am here in front of this Rubens collection, it is the landscape that draws attention, today it is the two sets of nudes.

 “I’ve got to have a sit down; it tires you out all this lot”

I suppose that, as an individual devotee in front of an icon, it’s visual representation is not important. St Cecilia is St Cecilia or St Luke is St Luke is St Luke. You need to check that you are standing in front of the right one, you make your obeisance and the job is done. Equivalently, you walk the rooms of the National Gallery, glance at the labels to check, genuflect and walk on.

 The elderly couple on the bench next to me have been here for some time. He is asleep and she has been reading the index of a large London A to Z, with apparent interest, since she sat down. Every now and then, she will turn to a different section of the maps as though to check what she has read. She is wearing a bright red fleece with ‘Nike, Just Do It’ written on it. The winged, wreathed, youthful Greek goddess of victory spurs on this tired figure, draped in contemporary leisure wear, to greater feats of cartographic research as her companion, firmly in the drowsy hall of Somnus (from Ovid), slips further under the influence of Morpheus .

 Cavafy wrote ‘One of Their Gods’ in 1917, thinking about that and the Greek Pantheon around me, leads to other responses to classicism. In ‘Quattro Centro’ way back in the 1930’s, Adrian Stokes (the art critic and painter) inspired by travels through Italy, made a distinction between carving and modelling. Art that has been ‘carved’ appears to work into the medium, (any medium, not just stone) to find new forms and imagery. As opposed to art that has been ‘modelled’, ie adding and moulding together that which is already known. Het Steen is clearly ‘modelled’; you can see how Rubens has worked his vast knowledge of pictorial space, of the hairy roundness of large vegetal forms, of the role, direction and intensity of light sources across a grand plane. A modelled space, his shaping hands have smoothed plastic forms with great sophistication and vigour.

 Two identically tall, enormously rounded, wonderfully crumpled viewers appear in front of the later ‘Judgement’. The lighting is such, that the painting and wall are lit up like a theatre set, these two are in silhouette and seem to outdo Rubens’ nudes with the plump pear shapes of their lower halves. But, it is the exact line across the top of these viewers heads and the almost exactly similar shapes of those heads that is most striking.

Hypnos has released his hold on my companion, he wakes up

“Come along then dear, we can’t sit here all day enjoying ourselves”

 People stand for a regulation amount of time in front of each painting, then briskly move on to the next. It reminds me of that early Twentieth Century diet fad called Fletcherism, (after Horace Fletcher, splendidly nicknamed ‘The Great Masticator’) when eaters had to chew each mouthful of food 32 times before swallowing; looking at paintings and 32 chews seem to share the same level of enjoyment.

 Or, perhaps we should view Perrys’ description of significant artefacts from a more utilitarian, economic, even traditionally Marxist standpoint. I suspect that Perry, like me, believes that the primary significance of these objects should come from their manufacture by artists. Their value comes from the shaping eye and hand (carving or modelling) of the maker and a complex relationship with context. I suspect that for the majority of viewers in museum, the significance of these works, their value, is primarily monetary. In essence when visiting a museum we are worshipping objects that matter because they are worth something, quite a lot of financial something. We are genuflecting in front of capital, validated by culture no doubt, but ultimately this constant foot traffic moves between the Stations of Croesus, genuflecting in front of shrines to celebrity cults and the goddess Verisimilitude.

 Two young boys with padded jackets shrugged down over their shoulders have started to recreate the dance from Thriller, worshipping a different sort of cultural icon, one of Them from the August Celestial Mansions; time to go.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'Landscape with St George and the Dragon', 1630, oil on canvas. The Royal Collection

On first sight, I thought that the two blasted oaks in the newly exhibited Rubens: ‘Landscape with St George’ at Tate Britain were closely related to the foreground clump in Het Steen. On sitting in front of the latter, I think probably not.

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

From a generic stock of trees perhaps, but not the same. In Het Steen the trees are sturdy/ healthy, whereas, deliberately/ iconographically in the St George they are all peeling bark and thinness. That Flemish bent silver birch – with a bend to the right – seems surprisingly unconvincing today, particularly when compared to the carefully painted fruiting tree with the weeping tendency in the centre.

Stock Figures

Unlike St George and the Princess, these stock figures (the carter and passenger and the hunter) look suitably lumpen and graceless. Even more so in comparison to the apotheosis of St James 1st, in Rubens’ Banqueting House ceiling in Whitehall. Gestures and poses derived from Michelangelo and others would clearly have no place in such a personal landscape.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'The Apotheosis of James 1st'. The Banqueting Hall, Whitehall

Thinking further about stock figures: in Trafalgar Square in a parallel line to the front of the National Gallery, as I came in there was, counting from the left:

An amplified violinist playing either ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’ or possibly ‘Don’t Fence Me in’, not easy to tell

An entirely silver man

A Charlie Chaplin

A man dressed in Union Jacks held on by rubber bands and sellotape, his thematic purpose was unclear

An entirely gold man

A Shrek, or rather a fat man in ordinary clothes with a beer can in one hand wearing a green rubber Shrek mask

Two young men playing noodling jazz on a double bass and a saxophone, no tune was obvious here.

All the dressed figures stood on wheeled tool boxes. These metallic men seem to have their iconography relatively fixed: the all over spray; a non-descript hat; the plain slightly industrial clothing; often with mock rubber bare feet; always a very large nose. They seem to have no relation to, for example, the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, what is their ultimate derivation I wonder? When I first saw them, many years ago in front of the Pompidou centre, these figures where completely static, living statues. Now, they make sweeping arms movements to beckon in children to stand next to them and be photographed. They have moved, as it were, from skills based activity to a form of celebrity; proximity rather than admiration is the current role of the viewer, although no one wants to stand next to the increasingly belligerent Shrek.

Het Steen

In front of the painting I keep coming back to a different version of that question: there must be more to our interest/ enjoyment in the painted representation of depth than admiration of skill, of a magic trick. It is always enjoyable to find a specific skill, but once you have seen it a few times the trick becomes less entrancing; not so here, painted depth always seems to excite. It must be more than just the daydreaming of an internal spectator, walking the illusory fields that holds the eye? More than the urban enjoyment of a lost rural scene? More than the joy of looking at something celebrated by others?

An animal or bird is always aware of what is above its horizon, that’s why dogs can react so strongly to hot air balloons, and a few dirigibles floating in this Flemish dawn would not look out of place. Something floating just on your skyline is threatening, think of small birds looking out for birds of prey. Do we delight in representations of a clear horizon because of some sort of atavistic pleasure: our way is clear, we dominate the land in the same way that we dominate the pictorial space?

“Daddy, can I do some drawing and draw the Mona Lisa?

When you get home you can

I don’t want to go home”

Or am I just overcomplicating something very simple? The reactions of my fellow viewers seem straightforward: the colours harmonise in a pleasant manner, the view looks nice and we like a view for the same reason we like the painting of a view: ‘it takes us out of ourselves’.

Two very young Spanish boys are running around the bench and choosing which section to jump on, chasing each other round a safe landscape I suppose; time to go.


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

Four girls are sitting on the bench in front of Het Steen (part of a school group, Year 11 at a guess). One is sketching in an A6 book with a big red ribbon on it. They debate whether it is really annoying, or not, that different galleries have different policies for taking photographs. They fall to looking at Google Maps on their phones.

“No, look, we are here right”

“No but like, what’s that bit there?”

In ‘The Art of Describing’, Svetlana Alpers describes Northern landscape paintings as a mapping of terrain rather than the (Italian) representation of an idealised scene. She usually holds Rubens up as an example of Italianate influence and in Het Steen the foreground, with its stock figures and grand, illuminated house fits this description well. In the mid/ background though, the raised mound on the horizon acts more as destination than vanishing point. In that sense, you feel you could walk or ride in your cart along one of a series of well-established routes to the central church tower that just pierces the sky (the Cathedral of St Rombout in the town of Malines). Like the Google Map directions, you half expect a hovering blue arrow to point to an area of trees and then, disconcertingly, relocate the whole image through 90 degrees when you tilt the phone too much.

“I actually like the curves in it; I could really imagine rolling down that hill”

“It reminds me of that time we had to go on a cross country run and we got lost and had to ring up your mum”

“Shall we go now?”

“I can’t, my legs are stuck to the seat”

Alpers further characterises the fundamental differences between ‘Italian’ and ‘Northern’ pictorial space. As we know, Italian art after Alberti/ Brunelleschi  works with a mathematically defined, illusory box existing behind a transparent picture plane. It is the relationship of forms to the vanishing point and to the static, monocular viewer whose visual cone that plane bisects, which brings all this art into play. The fundamental intention is to create a unified, harmonious space between the viewer’s eye and the centrally defined infinity.

Whereas, she says, in Northern art forms are arranged in aggregation, the eye rests in a series of discrete movements around the pictorial space, movement defined by each composition, not by mathematical convention. We see each aggregation sequentially, not in one whole look. Italian represents something already known, usually known in words, Northern art is the act of describing existing objects and places through making images.

The Turner Prize at the Baltic

I have recently been to Newcastle to see the Turner Prize exhibition at the Baltic. Karla Black was the outstanding artist for me, although it was clear that the insider, with his modish re-working of early Modernism would win. This theme was all over The Venice Biennale this year; a clever bit of positioning by Martin Boyce. I had been looking forward to seeing George Shaw’s work, to seeing his paintings as real objects, rather than digital images or print.  I was surprised to find them disappointing, perhaps a comparison with Het Steen will begin to describe why.

Shaw does not, strictly speaking, make landscape paintings of a Coventry housing estate. He makes paintings of his photographs of a Coventry housing estate. That distinction is important. Look at his images and you see a visually sophisticated eye at work; an eye that is clearly well trained in photographic technique: framing; cropping balancing, depth of field; viewpoint. So that when he comes to make; ‘Resurface’ for example, a lot of the decisions have already been made. There is a formal cohesion to them, a unity that denies the tentative snapshot nature of the subject.

George Shaw: ‘The Resurface’, 2010, enamel on board

If we take one key image to stand in for the whole of his display: ‘Resurface’. Like all the others, it tends to symmetricality, look at the orthogonal created by the ‘On/ No’ device on the tarmac. This is not the sudden, deliberately non picturesque, glance of Pissarro for example. It is not, despite the advance publicity, the aggregated contents of a described landscape. If you base your pictorial space so firmly on Albertian principles, your audience will make certain assumptions; we are all familiar with these traditions, there are no real surprises anymore.

The Bin Enclosure and Art

Arranging bin sheds/ garages in this way cannot be called transgressive; we are not being challenged by the composition, rather, we are being reassured. ‘Resurface’ is a great topic, what should the housing association that owns this area of Tile Hill North do with these old sheds? Knock them down and build something useful? Wicker bin enclosures seem very a la mode these days, and the bin enclosure is a real problem for contemporary social housing design. George Shaw shows an institution not getting to grips with issues; slap on new coat of paint, put new tarmac down and ignore it.

Shaw’s paintings speak to something very appealing to the large crowds visiting the Baltic. These images seem to place themselves on a continuum that runs from the Haywain at one end, to ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ at the other. We can recognise ourselves and our lives in these small familiar scenes, as far as this audience is concerned there is a substantial, and affirmative process at work. The Lords of High Culture have recognised us and thought us worthy; “God has seen everything that he had made and behold, it was very good”. But note that the hymn (Words: Cecil Alexander: ‘Hymns for Little Children’ 1848. Melody: 17th Century English folk tune arranged by Martin Shaw, 1915)  continues:

‘The rich man in his castle, 

The poor man at his gate, 

 He made them, high or lowly, 

And ordered their estate.’

Look at ‘Resurface’ and the receding planes, directly parallel to the picture plane: the sheds/ a fence at the left on a scrubby grass verge/ leafless trees/ a house and in the far background more trees. These trees indicate Tile Hill Wood, one of the last remnants of the Forest of Arden, a nature reserve since the 1930’s, now rather overgrown with holly. The setting for Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, pastoral romance and courtly love, all ending happily amongst the rich and powerful: Orlando carves poems to Rosalind on trees, Coventry youth paint their names on brick walls. Apart from the neatness of the interconnections that you would expect from a successful contemporary fine artist, there is an underlying nostalgia: warm and softening. We feel comforted, we accept our lot and go home thinking of British sitcoms.

The Raleigh Chopper Mk 1

In this cosy glow, we wonder whether the internal spectator for this work could perhaps be the proverbial man out walking his dog, a man who had once who been a 1970’s youth on a Raleigh Chopper bike (first released in the UK in Christmas 1969, made in Nottingham) when these sheds were in their prime. Tile Hill North was a post war estate, a new utopian future, open plan with views and walks to the surrounding woods. Employment from the new Massey Ferguson factory turning out tractors: new forms of housing and new forms of agriculture and new ways of treating nature for new futures. What we see now is entropy and ennui, decay has been unsuccessfully resurfaced, the structures themselves have not been re-worked, just given new double yellow lines to keep them in their place.

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

Back to Het Steen

By and large Het Steen is descriptive, a specific place at a specific time of day and year: although it is redolent of ownership. We can see that through viewpoint, a raised position familiar from Patinir and earlier Flemish landscape painting. In this later work we are either an all-seeing God, or possibly a presumed absolute Stuart monarch, or perhaps we are seeing the landscape from the square crenelated tower you can just see to the right of the house: a reworking of the exact topography to emphasise the notion of ownership. Such a reworking displays the extent, the scale of the land that comes with the manor of Het Steen.

Shaw also re-presents and describes a particular landscape with a strong underlying narrative, why was seeing Shaw’s actual paintings unfulfilling? After all, in reproduction his works look very fine indeed. But the real things seem diminished, they were either too small, lacking the power that scale should bring in this context. Or, they were too large and could perhaps been bright jewels; elegant and perfect. Each approach in direct and telling visual contrast to the actuality. In fact the paintings lie very flat to the wall, dull of surface and demanding very little for the eye.

‘Resurface’ and the painted surface

It is the painting as object that matters in this context, and the surface quality in particular. In Het Steen we see a grand statement, as an object it is a glorious thing, of a piece with what it represents. The paint surface is layered and, despite the best efforts of the National Gallery lighting scheme, lively, vital, light catching on the foreground trees and the vertical fold of the hunters sleeve for example.

In common with the lack of clarity between their pictorial space and their subject, Shaw’s paintings have a muddy, unclear set of tonal values, based in ‘Resurface’ on a sharp Viridian green. Every single mention of George Shaw must, by legal decree I assume, talk at length about the medium he uses. Again a brilliant USP: Humbrol enamel. The reader immediately thinks of craft practice; obsessive hobbyists in adolescent bedrooms; that soft nostalgia again. Enamel lacks the apparent depth of oil paint, there are no evident layers of varnish in Resurface and the shine sits on top of the surface. Oil paint appears to contain tangible highlights as well as reflect light through different textures; those layers of glaze/ varnish and consistency present forms of depth to the viewer. Enamel can’t really contain texture, it just provides a uniform shine, again thematically suitable, but as interesting as looking for a long time at the surface of an Airfix model or perhaps the gleam on a slightly muddy Mark 2 Raleigh Chopper. It is interesting how much the digital version provides the depth that is missing in the object.

The four GCSE artists have gone, I now realise that during the twenty minutes, at least, I heard them on the bench, not one of the girls said ‘Oh My God’, or it’s diminutive ‘OMG’. These things ought to be noted.

Beside me in bulky tweed called, I think, a covert coat, and balancing a rather fine Brown Derby hat on his knee, a man keeps consulting first one mobile phone from the left pocket, then the right. After a while he calls from one of them.

“Hello, Hello, I’m trying to get hold of Gerrard…I came in just after one to meet him…it’s now after 3…it’s all very interesting, but I don’t know what happened to our rendezvous”

I leave him surrounded by huge numbers of French children with clipboards. Our tweed clad gent is talking about ordering a meal from M and S, he places his hat on his head to protect him from youthful Gallic indifference.

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

Alberti defined seeing a painting as looking through a window but, you can look out of or into a window. Looking at pictorial space is a reciprocal process. Norman Bryson (‘Vision and Painting’, page 96) points out that the viewer’s space, on this side of the picture plane, has differed over time. The dramatic liturgical theatre of Byzantine Christendom; you approached the image in a full architectural setting with aural context. You moved from devotional icon to icon in a set pattern, at a particular time of the year, according to prescribed physical ritual accompanied by prescribed sounds and of course smells, incense etc. The contested piazza of the Renaissance self; always measuring, always calculating proportion, always negotiating a better deal with God. The pure white cube of the fiercely convinced, Protestant communicant. The contingent world of the modern being, a fluid range of virtual selves, constantly subject to a vast choice of undifferentiated stimuli.

Perhaps I was aware of this as I took my usual place in the National Gallery, on the bench before Het Steen on a Friday evening. Perhaps it was because, on leaving the Leonardo exhibition, I had seen Professor Martin Kemp (the international authority on da Vinci) in the Gents, prepping himself for his evening talk. He was dressed in a blinding white, collarless linen frock coat, buttoned to the neck. The neckline was giving him problems and took time to adjust – much fiddling and staring into the mirror. I last saw him, in the flesh, at a talk some 8-10 years ago. He seems curiously ageless, although his hair, then a dazzling black, now has shades of deeper red; we know he’s worth it. Outside, he is greeted by attendant young women in flowing dark tailoring, they whisk him away to bathe his brow in perfumed oils; aah the life of the eminent art historian.

Perhaps it was because the Leonardo show was so crowded (only a three hour queue to buy a day ticket, time quickly lost in explaining the processes of Christianity to a puzzled Malaysian Economics student struggling with terminology in the exhibition hand-out). An exhibition crowded with a certain class of person, fragrant is the term I think, modulated voices and modulated décolletage on show as well; parties to go to I suppose.

Perhaps this was why I was more than usually aware of others as I sat in front of Rubens’ joyful autumn.

A Study of Hand Gestures in Front Of Het Steen

Older hands are often clasped behind the back, male tending to one hand holding the clenched other. Female hands seem to be relatively open. Younger hands tend to hold digital devices in front or to the side, or carry bags, handbags or labelled shopping bags.

A couple walk past, constantly changing their hand grasp with each other, sometimes fully entwined fingers, sometimes laid palm in palm, sometimes holding little fingers as though they are about to pull a wishbone. They read the label, ignore the painting.


“It’s very nice, this landscape, quite a size, but just a bit big for our lounge”

Two women, middle aged, one in a pale pink cardigan, the other all in black. They are clearly absorbed by the painting and keep making paired movements, each pushes her hands together from a height about nose level and moves them down to about the waist, mostly whilst pointing to the carter and the house.

Three very small Japanese women/ girls (difficult to tell) make small dabbing movements as they point upwards to the painted sky; dab, then circular movement, dab, then circular movement. They stop, hold up their phones, standing like the three graces (two facing the work, one away from it) they each consult their mobiles, this uplights their faces with a delicate blue glow. Whatever they find, it returns them to the painted sky, more very careful anti clockwise gestures, this time with thumb and forefinger; precise and in a single plane.

The digital light from the three graces glowed briefly across the silver birches in the paintings foreground. The painted highlight on those top branches is frontally lit, as though a film crew had rigged up towers and put full spots –no coloured gels – onto the upper parts, prior to some swooping camera shots across the plain. But the sun, pale straw yellow, but yellow nonetheless, comes from the right hand horizon behind the trees. That the sun is low is clear from the sight and intensity of the shadows cast by trees in the midground; surely the trees should be in silhouette and dark at the top?

Young couple in matching anoraks stand with an arm around each other’s back. With her other hand, she takes out her chewing gum, examines it, rolls it between her fingers and pops it back in her mouth.

White haired, large middle aged man to equivalent companion, pointing with fleece clad arm whilst sat on the bench.

“Frank, what’s that building”

Frank gets up, looks at the label, waves his arm slowly in front of the painting in a horizontal manner

“It’s Birmingham”

A very large class of students appears, to draw the right hand Judgement of Paris, all hats and boots and tights. They carry A3 black sketchbooks, Seawhite’s finest held in front of them like protective shields, or perhaps devices to declare their allegiance. Time to go.

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

Is this a moral landscape? I have been reading ‘Gainsborough’s Vision’ by Amal Asfour and Paul Williamson (Liverpool University Press, 1999) in which the authors describe the role of the emblem in Gainsborough’s landscapes. Emblems were moral tales told through images, always accompanied by a descriptive text. An important Dutch form, travelling to Gainsborough through the Calvinist/ nonconformist tradition. A key early source was Otto van Veen: ‘Amorum Emblemata’ (1608) and the ‘Amoris Divini Emblemata’ (1615)

Otto van Veen: 'Amoris Finis Est' Amorum Emblemata 1608

“Van Veen is faithful to what can be termed a northern style of imagery – a detailed and naturalistic rendition of landscape settings. He presents a moral dilemma in a more or less realistic, rather than as an idealistic, single quality”  

(Gainsborough’s Vision page 82)

Rubens was apprenticed to Van Veen, and would have absorbed the tradition. Despite the different scale, materials and function, in Het Steen we have some of the possible elements of an emblem: the cart; the hunter; the house and the elegant bystanders. But:

1/ we don’t have any improving text

2/ Calvinist/ Christian images of agriculture tend to refer to husbanding the land as post Fall/ post Edenic toil:

‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Often shown through the image of a thistle:

‘Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field’

There are no thistles, some brambles of a fairly beneficent kind, they act as a cover to the hunter, but no obvious thistles. More importantly there is no ploughing, no evidence of turning the cursed ground, not a ploughed field in sight; it is pasture as far as the eye can see. The only work seems to be the bucolic acts of milking/ hunting and riding a cart. There are no crops, apart from milk and the wild fruit on the tree.

The hunter: in 17th century emblems, the hunter tends to be a reference to Cupid, eg Philip Ayres: Emblemata Amatoria, and ‘The Hunter Caught by his Own Game’, Actaeon changed into a Stag, that sort of thing.

Philip Ayres: 'The Hunter Caught by his own Game', Emblemata Amatoria, 1683

Frankly, most of the emblems tend to refer to getting love/ sex wrong, the same use that Gainsborough makes of them as well. Nor is Rubens’ man a metaphorical hunter searching for some other form of meaning. The deer on the cart would lead us to think about stag hunting, the pursuit of the aristocracy. Apparently Rubens did not hunt himself, and problems with arthritis and gout during the five or so years that lived at Het Steen would have limited his mobility.

Can we construct a moral tale out of these elements? Not, I would suggest without some heavy guidance from the composition and the authorial voice, Rubens was after all on the wrong side of the Catholic/ Calvinist divide. Despite early work with van Veen, the Counter Reformation/ Classical tradition is likely to be his source; Virgil’s Georgics, not Genesis. You can, as Asfour and Williamson do, plausibly connect Gainsborough landscapes to morally improving tales, can’t quite make that connection here.

Thomas Gainsborough: 'Landscape with a Woodcutter Courting a Milkmaid', 1755 (Tavistock Estates)

Next to me on the bench, a father and his daughter, she is 6 or 7 maybe, are going through a worksheet on the painting. They carefully read the question together, she skips to the image and points out the number of birds, people, where the sun rises or whatever. She is entirely dressed in shades of pink, with a diamante necklace and those trainers that light up when you walk. They stay looking at the painting, counting off the questions for a very long time, completely absorbed. Longer even than the Chinese tour groups in front of the right hand ‘Judgement of Paris’; today they are mostly dressed in lightweight tweed.

We could advance the theory that, at the end of his life, Rubens is celebrating God’s creativity with his own. But there is no obvious evidence of Christian agency here, no attributes or idealism of the humanist inspired Roman Catholic for example. No old bearded man in a bed sheet appears to bless us all, no youthful Apollonian sun-god races across the sky either. This, then, is all materialism: I own; I observe; I deserve, because I am worth it (which of course Rubens was).

A kinesthetic learner, the term we have been taught to use, is being urged by his mother to complete the Het Steen worksheet. The small boy, Dutch at a guess, is whirling his arms around his head, sucking the toggles of his fleece, jumping from foot to foot, trying to pull his mother’s pony tail, pointing at the ducks in the sky and shouting; all at once. To my right, the whining conversation between the two guards has become much louder. The man on the bench behind me is starting to snore and another, very large Chinese tour group is bearing down on the naked threesome to judge them for themselves; time to go.

Leonardo da Vinci: ‘Mona Lisa’, 1503 -19

I once heard Martin Kemp, the great Leonardo specialist, talk about the geology in background of the Mona Lisa. Apart from surprise at the blackness of the distinguished professors hair, I remember him saying that the artist had been hired to survey the land between Florence and Pisa, to give Florentines a navigable waterway to the sea bypassing their rivals. That survey work, and Leonardo’s analysis of the role of water in changing topography, allowed him to think of time in different ways, to move away from the prescriptive Christian chronology; geological time for example. His proposed route was to go through Prato and Pistoia, although the land behind Leonardo’s portrait of Lisa Gherardini is not an exact portrait of the lakes above the great valley of the Arno, it bears similarities. It allows Leonardo to use the landscape to meditate on the role of time, as well as present the site for a pre combustion engine form of transport, that is now incidentally the route for the A11 from Florence to Pisa.

What transport routes are we looking at in Het Steen?

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

What geology? What time span? Apart from the obvious track leading the horses and cart out to our left, what other forms are here and what do they tell us about Rubens’ thinking? There are tracks in the centre midground, serpentine, leading toward the horizon, lighter in colour than the green and possibly slightly frosted grass that surrounds them. Several tracks seem to come together here, to lead in to the space towards Malines (the town on the horizon). They are not large roads, nor direct.

This is presumably an alluvial plain, laid down over millennia by slow moving rivers, they are not the fast moving lakes of built up water, about to burst their banks and cause tumultuous change as represented by Leonardo. Het Steen is placed in a land where not much changes, not of course true, this was a sector of Europe that had been constantly fought over, the Northern Netherlands were at war with Spain right up until 1648, and we are in the middle of the Thirty Years War. Land reclamation to the north and west was at its peak, new canals being dug constantly, agricultural practices were changing fast to keep pace with growing urbanisation.

Viewing it now, this great flat plain stretching to a low horizon, looks just made for a 21st century motorway system: 6 lanes; gantries; illuminated signs throughout the night; those huge, double European lorries. In fact it has the A1/E19 running from Brussels to Antwerp, which apparently has one of the widest central reservations in Europe (40 metres wide over 31 km since you ask)

The hunter in the foreground, the stock figure, he is trying to move to his right, to go around the tree trunk, through the thickest part of the brambles to shoot the oversized ducks behind. Surely, his quickest path would be to his left? Or so our elevated viewpoint would seem to indicate. It would be easier to shoot the ducks from the left hand side of the trunk, he could just hit them with his great long barrel in fact.

“It must be fairly late”

“In the day?”

“No, in the History of Art, you look at that Renaissance painting over there and the trees aren’t half as green”


“What’s the best way to get to our hotel anyway?”

The brown foreground of the painting ends at a very strong horizontal line, tilted down slightly to the left. One’s eye first notices it at the right where it is marked by a drainage ditch, the field boundary for the cow field with the milkmaid, although there are more cows in the field beyond as well. The pure sunshine continues across the midground, a line of sunlight ends just in front of the house. This lets Rubens spotlight the house, placing it on a boundary edge, the left corner of sunlight exactly touches the left hand end of the mansion.

The later Judgement of Paris to my right is a constant draw for Chinese visitors, in huge numbers. They stand today in Burberry scarves, usually their leader has one of those microphone affairs, they never stay long, they have an itinerary to follow.

I’m intrigued to know where the rustic wooden bridge would lead anyone to. If it is for the milkmaid approaching the cows in the next field but one, then two questions occur:

  1. Would the bridge bear her weight and that of the milk she will carry? Presumably in another of the brass jugs like that on the cart, and the same balanced on the head of the girl in Landscape with a Rainbow, the companion piece to this (see previous post). If you look closely at the smudges of paint, the milmaid would appear to have something on her back with a highlight, a jug strapped there? The bridge is flimsy with only one handrail, in a list of ‘Bridges in Art’ (Hiroshige, copied by van Gogh; Monet; Sisley; Constable; Turner; Stella; there is of course a bridge in Mona Lisa, on the right, just where her clothing swirls across her bare shoulder; that poem by McGonagall, the Tay Bridge Disaster etc. Any more? I refuse to sing Bridge over Troubled Water in the National Gallery) in that list, this little wooden span is not the most convincing.
  2. The milkmaid would have to cross another bridgeless ditch to get from her cows to this one, is that right? Then she would have a long walk round the wrong way to the house. That route would take her to the front and the drawbridge as well. Would servants go in that way? Was the drawbridge the only way over the moat around Het Steen? Perhaps there was a loading place for milk and the cart, by the tall foreground trees? Evidence of growing rural industry?

The last time I was here, someone was drawing the earlier Judgement of Paris in pencil. Today, an elderly man, quite scruffy in a grubby brown jacket, trainers, battered grey rucksack old jeans is drawing Minerva from the same painting. She is the figure with her back to us, with armour at her feet. It is a copy with a high degree of accuracy, and he is making it on an Ipad. Minerva, in the digital drawing, is completely isolated on a pale blue grey background. The digital drawing has a definite sense of texture from the ‘tooth’ of a virtual surface, Ingres paper is the name of the physical paper with equivalent qualities.

I see all this as I leave, finding my own path past the Turners and Constables, all that power and paint as thick as the painted skeins of cloth on Lisa Gheradini; seized moments of meteorological time.