"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
December 07, 2015
Flooding the World with Rubens (Rubens 7)
by Lawrence Jeppson

After the Protestants were driven out of Antwerp, it became a Catholic center and various orders — Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites — came flocking back. Churches swept bare by the iconoclasts cried for new adornment. Paintings, moreover, were an indispensable tool to educate the faithful. Painters and sculptors, good and bad, reaped rich harvest.

Rubens’s success was instantaneous. Even though he was frequently abroad on diplomatic espionage, his studio became the city's artistic focus. He could not cope singlehandedly with the numerous commissions and demands on his talent. Everybody wanted a piece of Rubens, and he had to multiply himself.

Intellectually Rubens could hold his own with the finest minds in Europe; creatively he flowed as the mighty and incessant Scheldt. He knew what he wanted, sketched rapidly, kept subordinates hopping, and used every awake second intensively. He got up at 4:00 a.m. for mass, ate breakfast, and went to his studio, where he stayed until 5:00 p.m.

For 25 years he illustrated books for his close friend Balthazar Moretus, head of the finest printing house in Flanders, Flantin-Moretus Press. Moretus would give Rubens each assignment six months in advance, and whenever Rubens found an odd moment wherever he was, he would sketch out his ideas. By deadline the job was finished, no matter how caught up in other matters Rubens had been.

But there a limit to how much one person could sketch and paint in a day. The Rubens studio had to become the Rubens workshop. Art historian Edward Dillon went so far as to say (1909) that Rubens created “what is perhaps the most extensive manufactory of pictures the world has ever seen.”

Rubens found, enlarged, and remodeled a great Italianate mansion south of the Place de Meir, and there Rubens surrounded himself with a swarm of students and assistants. His students were learners, and they had much to learn, for merely his structural methods required several pages of detailed instructions in the notes kept by his friend Doctor Theodore Turquet de Mayerne.

They helped prepare canvas, ground pigments, mixed chemicals, cleaned up the workshop, may even have helped make frames. With their own paintings they imitated what they saw and took instruction when not serving the master in some way.

Within three years of opening his studio, Rubens complained that the crush to study under him was so great that be had already turned away more than 100 applicants.

One mother brought a son whom Rubens did not want under any circumstance.

“You won’t be wasting your time with him. On the contrary, be will help you. He can do so many things in your place. For instance he can paint your grounds.”

“Great Scot, madame,” Rubens said sarcastically. “He would render me a real service. That's one thing I don't know how to do yet.”

There is no way of ascertaining how many students and assistants Rubens had at any one time. There were many. Archduchess Isabella gave Rubens an exemption with the Guild of St. Luke.

Normally we might expect that a painter would have to pay the Guild its regular fees for each apprentice enlisted, and probably he would also pay the yearly dues of masters in his employ. By being excused from these excises Rubens saved a great deal of money but also deprived the archives of interesting records.

Rubens’s assistants were young masters in the Guild who wanted the experience of working with him. The most famous of these was Van Dyck, 22 years younger than Rubens, who became a master at 12.

Collaborative work was acknowledged. Rubens painted most of Prometheus Bound, but Snyders was called upon to paint the eagle pecking out the hero's innards. Rubens and Breugel produced a dozen paintings together. Breugel was responsible for the landscapes in pictures such as Adam and Eve in Paradise.

Rubens, with Snyders, Promeseus Bound

Sometimes Rubens’s assistants painted part of a picture, which Rubens finished — and the part they painted might be a little or a lot, depending upon the picture and the backlog of pressing work.

Rubens loved grandiose formats but hated smaller paintings. He was the creator of the Baroque style — vivid, dramatic expression, violent action, movement, emotion, strong contrasts of shadow with rich, energy-infusing colors. “He was tossing out colossal makebelieves which are magnified symphonies of movement and color, and portraits which are majestic transcriptions of the flesh.” (Bryson Burroughs)

Characteristically he would sketch his compositions in chalk with a rapid, sure hand. He would indicate colors. In the classic sense of the word he was a cartoonist. His painters would come along and paint in the areas laid out ... doing so in the manner and fashion of Rubens. He would check the work, make suggestions, occasionally retouch a little, occasionally re­work the whole surface.

Sometimes the studio painters made new replicas of work already done. There was always a good market for these.

If a painting were particularly well executed by a shop painter, Rubens might sign it himself, even though he had never otherwise touched the canvas. It is doubtful that anything ever left the studio officially without Rubens’s imprimatur.

The problem of true or tainted Rubens does not stop at Peter Paul’s studio door. As his fame spread — and not even his workshop could meet demand — imitators, copiers, and forgers gushed out on every side. There were crowds of buyers who were perfectly content to pay less than going rates to have something just like Rubens.

No doubt some bootlegging came from painters within Rubens's own team — the apprentice or young master who, the day's work done, would trundle off to his own tiny studio to turn out clandestine Rubens.

Rubens was hardly the first to introduce workshop painting to art, but because of the contribution of his personal fame and public clamor for his art, painters trained personally in his style, free-wheeling dealers of Antwerp merchants, and Van Schoonbake’s Friday Market gave the commerce in art fakes the most vigorous impetus it had over known.

As many as 3500 paintings are attributed to Rubens, entirely or in part, says French authority Guy Isnard. For a man who was so grossly occupied in other pursuits, that mountain of baroque canvases seems impossible. For a painter of the time, 400 works would have been a splendid production.

We recognise in the arts that some people are prodigious while others are able to finish only small output. From the searching minds of Will Durant and his wife has come an acclaimed and creative interpretation of civilization that runs into millions of words; the solid reputation of novelist Richard Hughes rests upon three short novels published decades apart.

Hayden composed 104 symphonies, Beethoven only nine. By painters Da Vinci, Jan Vermeer, Caravaggio, Bonington, and Seurat only a few pictures exist. Titian lived to 93 but produced only 140; Raphael died at 36 but left 200; Giorgione died at 33 and no more than 12 attributions are certain.

But 3500 pictures! If indeed there were only 3500 purported Rubens in the world, the collector's task might be easier. As we have seen, these 3500 were augmented by thousands of fakes, the majority of which, fortunately, have disappeared from commerce and perhaps from the face of the earth.

Ordinarily just a few debatable pictures from Rubens’s workshop would be enough to keep scholars in quandaries over true and fake for generations to come. One American art historian, however, would have us believe that virtually all 3500 works attributed to Rubens by everyone else are forgeries!

The American historian was an expatriate researcher named Charles Rogers Bordley. Writing from Paris he sought to prove that the output attributed to Rubens really came from Rubens's Chief of Atelier Frans Snyders. You know the story: Bacon wrote Shakespeare.

According to Bordley, Snyders produced masterpieces which served to promote the fame of some of his contemporaries, above all that of the shrewdest businessman in the whole history of art, Rubens.

Bordley makes the question of frauds, fakes, and counterfeits impossibly more complex. Although he spent nearly 30 years developing his thesis — during which time he must have been doing something else — it is not much accepted. He published his claims first in Art Digest in 1943 and since has gained remarkably few adherents.

Bordley contends that after Snyders was named Principal Painter to the Court he was bound to serve the court exclusively. Velasquez received a similar honor in Spain and wasted much of his life performing menial artistic errands. Rubens refused the honoring encumbrance.

In 1609-10, Rubens supposedly proposed that he could dispose of Snyder’s bootleg work if it appeared to come from Rubens: Snyders would paint; Rubens would sell.

A crafty master of exploitation, Rubens never let anyone think other than it was his stuff. Fortunately for Rubens, Bordley’s thesis can be shot full of holes — and has been many times.

In contrast, just one relatively recent (1967) citation, from C. W. Wedgewood, The World of Rubens: “During Rubens’s most productive years the majority of his paintings were in every sense his own work.”

Yes, Miss Wedgewood, but you innocently beg the question: which were his paintings?

Danish physician, Otto Sperling, who visited Rubens in 1621, was the first to declare that Rubens was merely a factory. When Sperling entered the Antwerp studio Rubens was listening to someone read Tacitus, dictating a letter, and painting. In today’s terms, listening to Tacitus while working is no different than working with the radio on.

What miffed Sperling was that Rubens continued to do all these things while engaging in conversation. Sperling’s bellyaching gave cause to art historians like Bordley who would maintain — too strongly — that Rubens painted very little by his own hand.

Admittedly it is a well attested fact that on occasion if an assistant painted a Rubens-like painting that the master completely approved, the master would sign his own name to it: Peter Paul Rubens. Yet this act was considered the supreme compliment, not forgery.

Today our philosophy of art has changed. Collectors prefer a painting done entirely by Rubens's hand rather than one cartooned by him and partially painted by another.

In 1618, Rubens proposed to give Sir Dudley Carleton, British ambassador to Holland, paintings in exchange for Carleton's col­lection of antiquities, most of which were fragments of statues from the late part of the Greco-Roman period.

He wrote Carleton, “I have the good fortune to actually have in my home some pieces of the first order... I am prepared to give you paintings by my own hand marked on the attached list valued altogether at 6,000 florins — the usual cash price — in exchange.”

Scholars know Rubens took occasional liberties with the truth in describing the amount of his participation; even so the list is especially interesting because it demonstrates how his studio worked.

500 florins: Prometheus Bound to Mount Caucasus, at whose liver an eagle pecks with his beak. Painted by me, except for the eagle, which is by Snyders. (6' x 8')

600 florins: Daniel with the Lions. These are painted from life. Painted entirely by me. (6' x 12')

600 florins: Leopards Painted from Life, with satyrs and nymphs. Painted by myself, except for a fine landscape, which was done an expert specialist. (9' x 10')

500 florins: Leda with Swan and Cupid. Painted by me. (7' x 10")

500 florins: The Crucifixion, life size. It is perhaps the best thing I have done. (12' x 6') Probably a studio copy despite what Rubens says.

1200 florins: The Last Judgment. Begun by one of my pupils, from a much larger painting that I did for His Serene Highness the Prince of Neuberg. (The latter paid me 3500 florins cash for it.) The painting is not finished but I am determined to go over it again entirely myself, so that it might pass as an original. (13' x 91)

500 florins: St. Peter Removing the Stater from the Fish in Order to Pay the Tax. Surrounding fishermen painted from life. By my hand. (7' x 8')

600 florins: The Hunt, begun by one of my pupils. It represents horsemen and lions and is painted from a canvas I did for His Serene Highness the Duke of Bavaria. I shall go over it completely myself. (8' x 11')

500 florins each: Christ and the Twelve Apostles. Panels painted by my pupils from originals owned by the Duke of Lerma. I shall go over them completely. (4 x 3')

600 florins: A Painting Representing Achilles Dressed as a Woman. Painted by my best pupil. I have gone over it completely. It is a very pleasant picture in which are seen many beautiful women. (9' x 10')

300 florins: St. Sebastian Nude. By my own hand. (7' x 4")

300 florins: Suzanna. Painted by one of my pupils and gone over completely by me. (7' x 5')

Carleton took 1000 florins in paintings and the balance in cash and tapestries. Three months after the exchange, Sir Dudley offered them to the King of Denmark’s dealer and described them all as coming from the very hand of the master, which of course they did from point of commercial origin but did not quite from point of artistic origin.

Rubens did well on the transaction, too, since the 140 marbles formed the bulk of the collection he sold to Buckingham for 100,000 florins.

A century ago the Swiss scholar J. Burckhardt divided Rubens’s paintings into six categories which have since become the standard classification not only for Rubens but for all workshop painters:

  1. Pictures painted entirely by the hand of Rubens.

  2. Pictures which Rubens sketched for his assistants, supervised, and subsequently touched up.

  3. Works in which a formal division of labor was prescribed, such as a Rubens-Breugel collaboration.

  4. Workshop pictures painted in the style and spirit of the mast but by his assistants and with little participation by Rubens.

  5. School copies without any Rubens participation.

  6. Copies done by other schools and workshops, sometimes to order.

This system is the epitome of Germanic clarity. Admittedly, art historians and aestheticians may argue about the placement of particular pictures, but the categories are clear and sensible. The French, on the other hand, in their headlong plunge into nuanceful pigeonholing (no nation ever took more delight in shuffling the various classifications of sins and punishments) have a more demanding system for the judgment of copies. It was set down by a gentleman of the great Gallic name of Dézallier d’Argenville.

  1. Servile copies, containing mistakes, bad taste, and overall lack of vitality.

  2. Facile copies which are not faithful and carry within themselves the evidence of falsity but are done by someone of talent, like some of Rubens’s copies.

  3. Faithful copies done by a facile and even hand distinguishable from the true original only by a person of remarkable eye, again like some of Rubens’s copies.

  4. School copies done under the eye of the master and retouched in essential places by the master, these retouched places shining throng wherever added to the picture.

  5. Completely retouched copies, which then for all practical purpose become original.

  6. Replica copies in which the artist himself paints a copy of his own original work.

Besides these there is another category, which Dézallier d’Argenville readily admits: copies of copies.

Consider the number of collaborators and/or immediate imitators of Rubens, besides Snyders, Van Dyck, and Breugel. There were Jan Fyt (like Snyders a specialist in painting animals); Paul de Vos (like Snyders an expert in rendering hunting scenes); Lucas van Linden (famous for foliage); Gaspare de Crayer; Lucas Van Udden; Theodore Van Thulden; Erasmus Quellin; Abraham Diepenbeeck; Jean Wildens; Simon de Vos; Paul de Vos; Conelius de Vos; Juste d’Egmont; Martin Pepyn; Joachim Von Sandrart;Peter Strudel; Jacques Moermans; Guillaume Fanncels; Francois Mouters; Déodat del Monte; Sachtleven; J. Boeckhorst; Theodore Boeyermann; Gonzales Coques; J. Cossiers; Luc Franchoys; Jacques Fougières; J. Van der Hoeck; P van ... the list goes on and on.

Further complication: many of these man collaborated with each other, and a substantial number of them had assistants and students of their own — all painting à la Rubens.

It is fascinating to note how Rubens’ double gift of art and diplomacy served to spread his fame and standing and thus to skyrocket the international demand for his work, at the same time providing ammunition for the Bordleys who would have the world believe Rubens had no time for painting and was forced to resort to rampant forgery.

Probably it would be impossible for a forger today to paint a fake Rubens and successfully sell it as the real thing if the prospective purchaser were to stand the expense of expert evaluation, including the latest in measurement of pigment age through radioactive analysis.

The problem for today's collector lies squarely with all these old contemporary, or nearly contemporary copies and counterfeits. Here the collector must rely upon expert connoisseurship, which sometimes is but a mandarin exercise.

Bookmark and Share    
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.

Copyright © Hatrack River Enterprise Inc. All Rights Reserved. Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com