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Shadow Master

Rubens was very much a figure of his time, and artist too.

May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By COLIN FLEMING
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Rubens approached negotiations as he might have approached a painting. That is, as a problem to be solved, requiring just the right balance of materials and techniques—shadow, color, and symbolism on the painting side of the equation; pointed reasons, financial assurances, and talk of shared interests at court. On occasion, Rubens overextended himself, negotiating treaties without the authority to do so; but there’s little denying that he was a polymath qualified to be especially well versed in political matters, knowing human nature so well, and history too. Lamster liberally quotes Rubens’s aphoristic political musings, which tend to resonate now as then: “Confidence alone is the foundation of all human commerce,” he opined, and there’s little in his own adventures to suggest otherwise. 

Intriguingly, we see Rubens’s political dalliances feeding into his art, ceding it greater narrative scope. His early work—featuring all manner of convoluted subtext (even Rubens said you’d be taxed to discover what he meant without his help)—gave way to a style where the relationship between metaphor and meaning became more direct. He had a pressing need to make sure his clientele understood precisely what his art was conveying. Satiating human vanity went a long way in Rubens’s political career, and positing a king as some kind of metaphorical god of justice and happiness, beloved of his flock, made for a favorable frame of mind when a favor was needed.

At times, Rubens inserted his own image into his paintings depicting some diplomatic triumph or other, a de facto acknowledgment of his own role in European power relations. He reworked his Adoration of the Magi—executed in 1609 in recognition of the signing of the Twelve Years’ Truce between the northern Netherlands’ provinces and the Spanish-controlled lower region—to feature his own person atop a horse, the worthy crusader. The truce had expired, but Rubens’s role as a mediator had not. 

Few scholars, as Lamster points out, pay much attention to Rubens’s diplomatic career. The art historians, not surprisingly, tend to care only insofar as the machinations at court informed what Rubens rendered on the canvas; political historians often overlook Rubens’s accomplishments as an intermediary because of their fleeting effects. “Rubens’s greatest achievement as a statesman, the treaty he negotiated between Spain and England, is now a footnote in the grand sweep of seventeenth-century international relations,” Lamster writes. Many of the measures Rubens brought about didn’t last, and were canceled out by war, or new accords. And a reconciliation of Spain’s Dutch territory and the northern Dutch provinces did not take hold until eight years after Rubens’s death, thereby keeping him from witnessing a diplomatic dream, of sorts. It was a dream that never would have transpired without Rubens’s years of intense identity-shifting, an ability akin to removing one painted image to replace it with another, and then back again, perpetually.

Colin Fleming, a writer in Boston, is the author of a forthcoming collection of stories.

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