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'Rubens & Women' at Dulwich Picture Gallery review

Image by Anna Mowery

Throughout his nearly fifty year-long career, Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) drew inspiration from many things: mythology, religion, politics, his family, and the patrons who funded his comfortable lifestyle. And yet, more than anything else, we remember Rubens for his iconic depictions of the female nude: the plump, pale, and usually stark naked “Rubenesque” beauty.

Dulwich Picture Gallery recently opened its new exhibit ‘Rubens & Women,’ which challenges “the popular assumption that the artist painted only one type of woman” and seeks to explore the diverse women portrayed in his art as well as the ways that they influenced his career as an artist. The exhibit features over 40 masterpieces, many of which come from international and private collections, making this their first public appearance in the UK. The paintings and sketches on display at Dulwich Gallery not only allow us to compare the various ways that Rubens depicted women in his artwork, but also display the noticeable difference between the art he made for himself and the art he was commissioned to create for wealthy patrons.

The first room (and the one worth spending the most time in) focuses on Rubens’s portraiture. The centrepiece is the massive portrait of Marchesa Maria Serra Pallavicino, who is clothed in a spectacular gown made of shimmery gold fabric that somehow seems to catch the light of the gallery. The intricate, detailed lacework layered into a large ruff around her neck seems to take up about a third of the painting. Only after you have admired her clothes do you acknowledge the woman buried beneath. With a parrot perched above her right shoulder, she is a shimmering depiction of her family’s wealth and luxury. The striking realism of this portrait showcases the incredible skill that astounded Rubens’s contemporaries and earned him his legacy as one of the greatest artists of his time.

The contrast between his personal art and the art he was commissioned to make is one of the most interesting concepts on display in this exhibit, and it is also apparent in his religious and mythological paintings. As an artist active in Reformation-era Europe, it was impossible to avoid religious themes in artwork, and Rubens took up many ambitious religious commissions throughout his career. At the same time, interest in Classical mythology still permeated society, inspiring many of the era’s most dynamic and imaginative pieces of art. These seem to have been formative genres for Rubens, which provided more opportunities to not only develop his ability to convey narratives on a canvas but also to more freely explore the “rubenesque” female form. Rubens studied ancient sculptures to inform his depictions of his “rubenesque” nudes, but carefully ensured that they did not “smell of stone.” The end results are the voluptuous figures distinguished by their warmth and life-likeness. This “new type of vigorous monumental female nude” is what sets Rubens’s women apart from those painted by other artists of his time. Yet, Rubens’s work does not consist solely of these women, and that is the focal point of this exhibit.

Image by Anna Mowery

Looking at all the paintings on display in Dulwich, the idea that Rubens only painted one type of woman feels extremely silly. While the exhibit does include several examples of the iconic, idealistic “rubenesque” nudes, they are contrasted with the opulent portraits that display the wealth and power of his female patrons and the tender portraits of his wives and daughters. This exhibit not only challenges the type of women portrayed in Rubens’s art, but also traces how these women’s influence appears in his artwork. His interest in mythological scenes, for example, were inspired by his “blissful” marriage to his second wife Helena Fourment. These paintings feature symbols of joyful abundance that reflect Rubens’s own personal experiences outside of his art.

Women very obviously influenced Rubens’s art, but they did so quietly. They shaped the broad themes he often depicted in his art, and they occasionally appear as characters in biblical or mythological scenes, making a Rubens exhibition like this one into a bit of an easter egg hunt. However, I was not entirely convinced by the curators’ proposal that the women depicted in Rubens’s art, specifically his mythology paintings, were “agents of their own destiny” who played active roles in the stories depicted on the canvases.

These “active roles,” involved carrying fruit and/or flowers or breastfeeding an infant by squirting milk from her nipple and into his mouth. While these women, many of whom we recognize as powerful goddesses and saints, are front and center in these paintings, they still feel like ornaments meant to decorate the grand staterooms or palaces of Rubens’s patrons. Despite the curators’ efforts, the mere presence of women in Rubens’s art does not necessarily give his work any sort of feminist edge. However, the exhibit does give credit to the women in Rubens’s life and displays how much of an influence they had on Rubens and, consequently, his artwork. And the opportunity to see so many of Rubens’ paintings side-by-side, especially in such an intimate space as this, is not to be missed.

Rubens & Women is on at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 28 January 2024.

Standard admission is £16.50, but there is a 50% discount for people ages 18-30.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn