Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 11, 2016
Aneta Georgievska-Shine and Larry Silver Rubens, Velázquez, and the King of Spain Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 362 pp.; 48 color ills.; 112 b/w ills. Cloth $149.95 (9781409462330)

The meeting of renowned Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens and Diego Velázquez, the talented painter to King Philip IV, during Rubens’s visit to Spain in 1628–29 has ignited the imagination of art historians. While contemporary sources are frustratingly silent on the encounter, a growing body of scholarship has appraised the impact of the Fleming’s presence on artistic production at the Spanish court, especially on pictures by Velázquez. In Rubens, Velázquez, and the King of Spain, Aneta Georgievska-Shine and Larry Silver examine both artists’ painted works for the Torre de la Parada, a royal hunting lodge situated outside of Madrid. Seven years after Rubens’s return from Madrid to Antwerp, the artist and his workshop were charged with producing a large selection of paintings to decorate the lodge. Velázquez, who supervised the installation of these pictures, later supplied eleven of his own works. With the understudied Torre as its centerpiece, the book offers persuasive interpretations of imagery created by Rubens and Velázquez for the intimate royal setting. By bringing connections between their individual contributions to the forefront, Georgievska-Shine and Silver commendably broaden our understanding of exchanges between these two leading seventeenth-century painters.

The Torre de la Parada, along with a number of its paintings, was destroyed during an eighteenth-century fire, making any assessment of its pictorial cycle a challenge. Building on previous studies, particularly Svetlana Alpers’s work on the lodge and Julius Held’s consideration of Rubens’s oil sketches, Georgievska-Shine and Silver direct their attention to Rubens’s mythological imagery, eliciting the various ways in which it emphasizes the human qualities and shortcomings of gods and heroes. Titian’s mythological paintings are understood as an important model. Based primarily on episodes described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Rubens’s sixty-three scenes repeatedly underscore their protagonists’ less valiant undertakings rather than privilege their successive triumphs. In doing so, Georgievska-Shine and Silver explain, the narrative and single-figure paintings often operate as negative exempla, prompting reflections on moral conduct in their courtly viewers. By adopting a mock-heroic tone, Rubens’s approach also parallels Ovid’s own rhetorical strategy, which, they point out, would have been tacitly understood by individuals at the Spanish court versed in the serio-ludic enterprise.

Rubens ran a large and successful studio in Antwerp, and it was customary for artists in his employ to have a hand in executing paintings accredited to the master. For the Torre de la Parada commission, Rubens signed fourteen finished paintings; for the most part, though, his studio assistants and contemporaries in Antwerp were tasked with rendering the large-scale pictures, which exhibit the unusual practice (in a commission to Rubens) of bearing the signature of the artist who painted it. Georgievska-Shine and Silver’s arguments rely on an understanding of Rubens as an erudite painter whose artistic inventiveness reveals his familiarity with Ovid and the classics. Consequently, their study focuses on the artist’s large-scale pictures and accomplished oil sketches, which served as models for paintings to be executed by others. Little attention is given to Rubens’s Flemish associates, leaving one to wonder whether other contributors to the Torre’s pictorial cycle might be worthy of consideration in light of the framework of artistic exchange proposed by the authors.

The book is comprised of ten chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. The first six chapters are dedicated to Rubens’s mythological scenes. Each concentrates on representations for the Torre de la Parada that resonate thematically with one another, including lustful escapade, heroic challenge, artistic triumph, and beastly behavior. Readers are presented with a rich analysis of visual and literary material that demonstrates the extent to which the vulnerabilities of gods and heroes are put on display. Rubens’s selection of rare episodes in the narratives of his protagonists and astute use of composition are stressed by way of juxtaposition with other early modern treatments of myth. The scarcity of existing documentation for the Torre commission makes it feasible that Rubens, with his reputed fluency in classical myth, was largely left to devise the cycle without significant input from his royal patron or other Spanish officials. By discussing scenes with thematic and visual relations together in their text, Georgievska-Shine and Silver make a case for how Philip IV and visitors to the Torre were encouraged to form connections between paintings, despite our lack of certainty about how the works originally hung. The authors are aware of the multifarious ways a picture can signify, and judiciously present a web of associations that permits a work to reverberate in divergent ways.

The discussion of the Torre de la Parada amid intellectual currents in Spain—especially Neostoic, as well as skeptic, perspectives—is particularly noteworthy. While Rubens’s Neostoic affinities are well acknowledged, Spanish sources such as Diego de Saavedra Fajardo and Baltasar Gracián are introduced to corroborate viewers’ discernment of the painted ensemble’s subtleties. Rubens’s emphasis on the follies of classical figures is suggestive of the aging artist’s wearied rejection of or, at the very least, ambivalence toward absolutism extolled in mythological cycles painted earlier in his career. By “dethroning the gods” (16), Georgievska-Shine and Silver indicate, the Torre pictures urge a powerful king in war-ravaged Europe to practice prudence in princely matters, a cornerstone of Neostoic thought.

Velázquez’s contributions to the Torre de la Parada are highlighted in three chapters, followed by a final chapter on hunting scenes by different artists. The Spaniard’s paintings acquire new meaning within the scaffolding of Georgievska-Shine and Silver’s analysis. Velázquez’s pictures, which were mostly painted between 1638 and 1640, include portrayals of the ancient authors Aesop and Menippus, the classical god Mars, jesters and dwarfs at the Spanish court, and royals at the hunt. As a group, the authors contend, the pictures elicit the diverse ways Velázquez entered into dialogue with Rubens, whose works he had intimate knowledge of as overseer of their installation. For instance, Velázquez’s unconventional Aesop and Menippus (both ca. 1638) respond to Rubens’s paintings of classical thinkers Democritus and Heraclitus, advocating in seriousness and in jest the need for alternative philosophical voices in the face of contemporary adversities.

Velázquez’s engagement with Rubens’s imagery at the Torre de la Parada is the focal point for a larger argument pursued in the book about a conversation with the Fleming’s works that continued throughout the artist’s life. In the conclusion, the authors turn briefly to Velázquez’s pinnacle paintings, Las Hilanderas (ca. 1657) and Las Meninas (1656), which function in this context as testament to his fruitful return to Rubens’s Torre works at the end of his career. In both paintings, Velázquez includes mythological scenes of artistic triumph and consequence to stage his pictorial achievements in relation to those of his illustrious predecessor Rubens (as well as Titian). Georgievska-Shine and Silver suggestively link the various perspectives in Las Meninas to the necessity for careful observation and judgment, extending cogent arguments about Neostoic and skeptic interests in Velázquez’s earlier pictures for the Torre (in response to Rubens) to his monumental late work. One hopes they will have more to say about these associations in a future study.

Also offered by way of conclusion is the notion that interactions between Velázquez and Rubens were not limited to the former’s engagements with the latter’s works. Georgievska-Shine and Silver posit that Velázquez’s early forays in mythological painting around 1630, which notably follow Rubens’s sojourn at the Spanish court, played a role in creating an audience of viewers for representations of classical myth that humanize the gods. Implied here is that Velázquez’s mythological paintings equipped court viewers with the visual literacy required to adeptly interpret Rubens’s later scenes at the Torre. This intriguing facet of the painters’ relations lends force to the authors’ argument about a two-way exchange, and one is left wishing it had been granted more consideration.

Georgievska-Shine and Silver provide a compelling framework for interpreting the artistic contributions of Rubens and Velázquez to the Torre de la Parada. Sited as a locus of exchange between two eminent painters, the hunting lodge takes on renewed significance in their study, rewarding readers with an enriched understanding of its pictorial ensemble, and—significantly—of the conversation with Rubens that was to resound in Velázquez’s works. This elegant analysis is further proof that we gain deeper knowledge of artistic production in seventeenth-century Spain by situating it in dialogue with a wider European context.

Krystel Chehab
Sessional Lecturer, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, University of British Columbia

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