Tag Archives: Thomas Gainsborough

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?

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.