Thursday, July 11, 2013

MWA XVI: Rubens's Wife

Following up on the last MWA in honor of Rembrandt, it seems only fitting to turn to his famous Baroque contemporary from Flanders, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). This large painting, Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment (1614-1673), and Their Son Frans (1633-1678), is approximately 6 1/2 ft. x 5 ft., and was painted in oil on wood ca. 1635. It is one of the highly prized paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The curators note that it is a portrait of the artist with his second wife and their first-born son strolling in an allegorical Garden of Love: "The picture is not a family portrait but an homage to Helena as wife and mother, one of whose most important attributes was providing her husband with a son. The gestures and glances of both male figures and symbols of fecundity such as the fountain and caryatid pay tribute to Helena, who has the innocence and serenity of a female saint." The painting was a gift in 1981 from the well-known art collectors Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, in honor of the famous art historian John Pope-Hennessey, who at the time was (I believe) retiring from the Met as a curator. Although this is scandalous to say, I've never been a big fan of Rubens's rather mellifluous work, but this picture is without a doubt an exquisite painting in its handling, color, and composition.

The main reason why I've chosen this work as July's MWA, however, is because of the painting's provenance, or the history of its ownership. The Met has been among those museums who, in putting their collections online, have attempted to make more publicly available the provenance of many of the works in their collection. If you click on the title above, it will take you to the webpage for the painting, and if you scroll down to click on the tab for "Provenance," you will discover that among the illustrious past owners of this picture were the Dukes of Marlborough, and that it hung for a time in Blenheim Palace. From 1884 through 1975, the painting was in Paris at the Hôtel du Duc de Nemours, the home of the Barons de Rothschild. Indeed, if you take a look to the right, this is an image of the painting as it hung in the dining room of this Paris mansion, just before it was sold by the Rothschild estate. This image was a discovery I made when I was working with the William Keighley Collection at the Met Museum (he had been given permission to photograph the Rothschild's home). You may recall I blogged about this when the last phase of the digitization of the Keighley Collection had been released by ARTstor in December 2012. This was a multi-year project that I had overseen while working at the Met, including curating Keighley's original slides to be digitized. Much the same way I recently wrote about exhibition installation views, images such as this offer us a fascinating perspective in how paintings such as this one by Rubens--which we now only envision hanging on a wall in a museum--originally were meant to be seen, hanging among decorative arts and other works paintings and sculptures collected by wealthy owners in the past. Visual provenance helps restore the past incarnations of works of art, and thus are vitally important tools in the history of these art objects. It makes one realize that art objects are not static; rather, they have rich histories that tell a new story for each passing generation.

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