Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Scribner on Rubens
Following a post I did back in September (Schama on Turner), I thought I'd write briefly about another lecture I went to this evening with my co-workers JAM and JM. Art historian Charles Scribner III gave an engaging and highly entertaining talk at The Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled "Rubens Meets Miami Vice: The Art of the Heist." The picture you see here is an oil painting from the mid-1630s by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) entitled Venus and Adonis that is part of the Met's collection. It epitomizes Rubens' late style with its exuberant coloration and sensual, fleshy zest for life. Scribner is an art historian who has written on Baroque artists such as Rubens and Gianlorenzo Bernini, but if you think you recognize his name for something else, it is worth noting that he is a member of the famous book publishing company Charles Scribner's Sons. His doctoral dissertation from Princeton University was on Rubens' Eucharist tapestries, and, as a Rubens scholar, he was called upon in May 1991 to help Miami customs agents determine whether a painting smuggled into the U.S. and being offered for sale was actually a work previously stolen from the Museo de Belas Artes da Coruña in Spain. The picture turned out to be a small work entitled Aurora (Dawn) from later in Rubens' life. With Scribner's help (he assured them it was a Rubens), the customs agents were able to arrest and prosecute the smugglers, although the main perpetrator who had stolen the painting and its companion from the museum in 1985 is still at large. Scribner gave a brief introduction to Rubens' life and work, helping the audience appreciate his importance both as an artist and diplomat in 17th-century European politics (he is apparently the only artist ever to be knighted by two monarchs). But rather than approach this like a traditional lecture, Scribner spoke freely about how the paintings had been stolen, how one of them first turned up in Stockholm, and how the suspect managed to elude the Swedish law despite being prosecuted. But without a doubt the highlight of the evening had to be when he showed an excerpt from a television program that had aired recounting the events of the Miami sting operation. The funniest part of it had to be that despite the dangerous situation he was in (the smugglers had weapons on them), and direct orders from the customs agents to keep his contact with the smugglers to a minimum, the inner scholar in him couldn't help but get excited that he was holding in his hands a Rubens painting, and he wound up giving the smugglers and customs agents an art history lesson! That is the test of a die-hard art historian. All in all, his talk made for an entertaining evening at the museum.