"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
November 09, 2015
Diplomacy and Bribery with Forgery (Rubens 4)
by Lawrence Jeppson

Peter Paul Ruben's father, Jan, a jurist, man of learning, and city father, was a Protestant sympathizer--in fact a strict Calvinist who fled to Cologne to avoid the axe after the plundering of Antwerp churches in 1566. Jan was a member of the town council which conveniently took no action when the iconoclast "Gueux" stripped the churches bare of accumulated pictures, statues, relics, reliquaries, and silver plate.

When the Duke of Alva--known as the Iron Duke in the low countries--and troops arrived and decapitated the burgomeister, it was time for Father Rubens to flee.

It is ironic that the art-destructive forces abetted by Jan Rubens would leave numerous voids to be filled by his son, who became a profuse creator of religious painting.

Not long after Jan settled with wife, Maria Pypelinex, and children in Cologne he became legal advisor to Anne of Saxony, wife of William the Silent of Orange--until

it was discovered that Jan, his rigorous Calvinism notwithstanding, was bedding with Ugly Anne--and he thereafter bedded with rusty iron fetters in Dillenberg prison. There was some speculation--would the coming infant be considered genuine Rubens or imitation Orange?

Once again Jan seemed destined for the axe, but Maria intervened, pleading with William and his brother, the reigning Count of Nassau, for her husband's life. She wrote her husband, ''How could I have the heart to be angry with you in such peril, when, were it possible, I would give my life to save you." After two years Jan was freed but kept in exile in Siegen. Maria took him back--with sufficient warmth that Peter Paul Rubens was born on June 27, 1577.

As an adult, Peter Paul tried to hide his Seigen birth, but too many archives were left to beckon future scholars.

Three months shy of Peter Paul's tenth birthday his father died, and his mother, never wholeheartedly committed to her husband's Reformed faith and ever resentful of the humiliation she had suffered in the hostile Protestant hands of Orange and Nassau, hurried the family back to Antwerp. There Peter Paul obtained three years of instruction in a school located--like the old wine market--in the cemetery of the Church of Notre Dame before becoming a page in the household of the Countess of Lalaing. Finally his mother was talked into letting him become a painter.

The boy studied under Tobias Verhaecht, a landscapist and in-law relative, Adam Van Noort, and Otto Vaenius der Van Veen, court painter to Archduke Albrecht, ruler with Isabella of Spanish Netherlands. In fact he may have helped Van Veen prepare the decorations for the Day of Joyous Entry for Albrecht and Isabella in 1599. Van Noort was dean of the Guild of St. Luke, and he no doubt initiated the actions which officially recognized young Peter Paul as its newest master painter.

Albrecht and Isabella, 1598

Albrecht and Isabella Day of Joyous Entry, 1599, old engraving

These men-masters all--offered the energetic and accomplished Rubens insufficient challenge. Though Antwerp's harbor was blockaded, men's minds were not. Tales passed by mouth and learning by book. Rubens knew of France and Italy, particularly Italy and its great Renaissance painters. To be a painter, a real painter, one had to know Florence and Venice and Rome. Nearly four generations had passed since the sack of Rome under Bourbon troops, and the city once again was a rich museum of art as well as artifacts.

On May 11, 1600, Rubens set out for Italy. Probably he took the customary route, up the Rhine to Mainz, through Southern Germany to Augsberg and Innsbruck and over the Brenner Pass to Verona and Venice.

In July Northern Italy can be unbearably hot, particularly Mantua, like Antwerp, built on flat land surrounded by swamp. Perhaps it was to find some cooling breezes from the Adriatic that Vincenzo Gonzaga, a Habsburg and Duke of Mantua, went to Venice. The Duke's medieval palace in unromantic Mantua had been decorated by Andrea Mantegna and was graced with paintings by Raphael, Titian, and Antonio Correggio. Its salons echoed with music and theater, particularly chamber pieces by the Duke's musicmaster, Claudio Monteverdi. So it was not the worst place in Italy.

One of Vincenzo's agents reported the presence in the city of a young Flemish artist of unusual brilliance. Vincenzo, like others of wealth, had a mania for collecting painters as well as paintings, and after some negotiation Rubens accepted employment.

Vincenzo already had one Fleming in his retinue, and a month later he stockpiled another, Frans Pourbus the Younger. What Rubens got from the duke amounted to a comfortably though irregularly subsidized eight-year grand tour of Renaissance art.

Married to a Medici, Vincenzo was a patron of both arts and gambling. Although he owned a magnificent collection of original works, he was like any other man of wealth and culture of the times: he longed to compare and enjoy the paintings belonging to other great collections.

It was common practice to hire artists to make copies of famous paintings. Of course if the copying artist had little talent, the copy would lack fidelity and vitality. On the other hand, if a very good painter executed the duplicate, the copy might very well be indistinguishable from the original. In some cases it might even be better.

In Rubens, Vincenzo believed he had found just such a painter, an artist who might be used also to create a few original masterpieces. Rubens did occasionally add to Vincenzo's gallery of the world's most beautiful women.

One of Ruben's first assignment, which would have far-reaching later significance, was to attend the proxy wedding in Florence of Marie de'Medici, the youngest sister of Vincenzo's wife, to Henry IV of France.

From 1600-1608 Rubens went about between Venice, Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Rome, Padua, Verona, Lucea, Parma, Milan, and even Madrid painting dozens and dozens of copies, which were carefully carted back to Mantua or otherwise disposed of.

Simultaneous with Ruben's arrival in Italy, Annibale Carracci and Carravaggio descended upon Rome, and their works began to sprinkle through the churches and palaces of the Eternal City. While in Rome copying them for Vincenzo, Rubens received a commission through connections of his brother Philip to paint an altarpiece for Archduke Albrecht. Thus his painting ties to the Belgian dynasty were established.

In Mantua he painted duplicates of Vincenzo's best, which included replicas. He painted the best whenever he went, but it is well to note that he did not like to copy medieval Italian artists but concentrated on "painters who were closer to his time and feeling."

A copy was successful if it could pass for the original, and many pieces from Ruben's easel could. Not all of his duplicates went to Mantua; no doubt some went to other collections and chapels. Though incessant copying served to improve Ruben's technique, it also served to provide him his basic sustenance.

If Rubens found himself short of time, he sketched what he saw, intending to do a finished rendering later. In Milan he copied parts of The Last Supper, and in Rome he sketched from Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling. He copied Carravaggio, but Carravaggio's style was too slow and labored. Rubens was struggling to develop a technique which would enable him to keep up with the speed of his own ideas. Carracci had a method of sketching rapidly from life using chalk. Rubens took it up.

Keeping a small state like Mantua free required a never-ending energy of diplomacy and war. In the spring of 1603 Vincenzo felt in need of Spanish protection and decided to send another gathering of gifts to the ineffectual Philip III of Spain, who was also sovereign of the Kingdoms of Naples and Milan, and to Philip's powerful and crafty minister, Francisco Gómez de Sandoval, the first Duke of Lerma.

Rubens, Duke of Lerma, 1603, Prado Museum

Ineffectual King Philip turned all authority over to his boyhood buddy, Lerma, who became "the king's shadow" and very rich.

The personable Rubens was pressed into service to accompany Mantua's offerings: six bay mounts from the famous Gonzaga stables, an elegant small carriage loaded with rare and costly perfumes, richly decorated crystal vases, newly developed firearms, tapestries, and a score of pictures--mainly Raphael and Titian--copied from Roman originals by Pietro Facchetti. The paintings were for Lerma, an art fancier.

The Mantua-Madrid was hardly an express. In fact, to foil brigands and political interceptors, the caravan took the most circuitous route possible; yet Rubens was surprised to discover upon traversing Pisa that his name and mission were known.

The mountain roads in Italy and Spain were treacherous, and the sea between Leghorn and Alicante was not always calm. Some reports say the shipment was nearly lost in floods in Florence. Rubens himself reported to Vincenzo that when Spanish customs inspected the shipment at Alacante it was in good condition. Rubens had personally supervised the wrapping of pieces in waxed canvas and subsequent packing in wooden crates reinforced with tin.

During the tortuous, unfamiliar journey from the Spanish coast to Madrid--and then on to Valladolid, where the court had gone--the caravan was hit by three solid weeks of rain in Spain.

Upon arrival at Valladolid the cases had dried out, but the paintings were ruined. Fortunately king and duke were elsewhere in Iberia. Vincenzo's envoy to the Spanish court, the unscrupulous Annibale Iberti, protested that such paintings could not be given to Lerma: they would need immediate restoration. Eberti said, in effect, "You're familiar with Italian painting. You do the work, and I'll give you all the Spanish painters you need to help."

Rubens, only 26, indignantly refused. No help. The Spanish restorers were inept and would never be able to keep their mouths shut. He would work alone and in seclusion. He wrote back to Annibale Chieppo, secretary to the Duke of Mantua:

"Quite apart from the incredible indolence of these Spanish artists (and this is of paramount importance), their style and technique (God forbid that I ever produce work like theirs) . . . the matter would never remain a secret if I accepted their assistance, as they would most certainly never keep their tongues still. My share of the work would be treated with disdain, and they would take the credit unto themselves. All the more so, since the pictures are intended for the Duke of Lerma, they know full well that they are destined to hang in a public gallery. This fact means little enough to me, but because of the freshness of the colors, it will at once become obvious that they were painted here, either by these Spaniards or by my own hands or by our united efforts, thus revealing an attempt to deceive, which would be deserving of little thanks, and a thing I would at no time be prepared to do. (Since I have never allowed a canvas of mine to be taken for the work of another, however gifted he may be.) If I agree to their cooperation, my honor will suffer, and that as a result of something unworthy of my reputation, which stands high even here."

Two of the paintings were ruined beyond restoration. They had been Raphaels---a St. Jean and a Madonna. For them Rubens substituted two original Rubens, a Democritus and a Heraclitus. Rubens made efforts to obscure the fresh restoration paint on the others.

Lerma, the real ruler of Spain, accepted his well-aged gifts effusively. Though he pretended to be connoisseur, he thought the paintings were all originals, not copies, and Rubens made no effort to set the record straight.

Thus Lerma was bribed with forgeries.

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About Lawrence Jeppson

Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.

He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to 1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and Arelis in America.

Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.

He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Legacy Foundation

Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.

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