In 1635 Rubens bought the manor of Het Steen (loosely, “the Castle”), a large country estate near Brussels. With ownership came the title of lord of the manor, a status clearly valued by Rubens. He soon celebrated his newly purchased domain in a pair of large paintings, one now in the National Gallery, London (illus. 1), the other in the Wallace Collection. The former, Het Steen (c. 1636) depicts an idyllic scene stretching into the distance, past the gabled and turreted house and over its well-managed fields – a representation of a cheerful and productive estate.1 In the foreground a huntsman and his dog stalk birds, a cart laden with produce heads off to market; close to the house, a more elegant group of figures converse2 and a man fishes off the bridge over the castle’s moat. Cows are milked in a distant field, bounded by a row of trees and a stream; water meadows lie beyond. The painting and its companion piece, Landscape with a Rainbow, clearly demonstrate Rubens’ pride and pleasure in his country house.3
The purchase of Het Steen, in some sense, represents a stepping back from the busy environment of Antwerp. In the country the artist could assume the role of a more private individual, away from the business of his workshop, which continued to function during his occasional absences. He also set up a smaller studio at the manor house.4 His production during the last years of his life is traditionally seen as two-fold: collaborative paintings, many on commission, and works made with a more personal motivation, into which category the landscapes are generally placed.5 The environment at Het Steen – away from the workshop and surrounded by nature – likely encouraged him to paint these works, and some must have been made there. Drawn studies made outside, termed plein-air, had been a part of his practice for decades, but his engagement with his own landscape seems to have given his work new focus and direction.6 Philippe Rubens, his nephew would later write, “Having bought the manor of Steen … he took great pleasure there in living in solitude, the better to be able to paint from nature the neighbouring hills, plains, valleys and meadows, at sunrise and at sunset, and their skies.”7
Landscape painting had a secure place in the workshop’s production, both to provide settings for overt subject pieces and, less commonly, as the prime focus of a work. At times he sometimes drew upon specialist landscape painters to assist him.8 The painting Het Steen demonstrates a new stage in his development: the style of the works painted around this time set them apart from his earlier production. Looser and more painterly with a richer colour scheme in general, they emphasized the painter’s evident concern with the material – both the paint and the tangled matter of the landscape – and with effects of light and weather. Increasingly, he focused on the elements of the landscapes itself; figures and incidents, where present, mere accessories. Some reflect Italian sixteenth-century models, others show his interest in contemporary Dutch landscapes.
With such differing ways of approaching and using landscape, these paintings cannot have had the same function and market. Some were intended as sketches for other works – or at least would come to have that role; others were likely done for the painter’s own satisfaction. Some were highly finished pictures, and could easily have been made for sale, yet it is unclear if these works were destined for the market or retained by the artist. Rubens did choose to have at least one reproduced as a print in 1638, and others were engraved, likely later.9 His decision to have a print made suggests Rubens believed there was a market for these images. Knowledgeable contemporaries would have placed them in the tradition of both Northern and Italian landscape painting – the latter recently revitalized in Rome – and understood Rubens’ evident desire to measure his production against this.
Rubens’ landscapes from this period – the mid through late 1630s – are not a coherent group; they differ in terms of the degree of narrative woven into the composition, and in their scale, overall approach, palette, and even style. They also likely differ in the extent to which the observation of nature is transmuted in the studio by the process of painting and the conventions of the genre. Some look to be more constructed – more artificial – while others are more directly focused on effects and motifs that seem to stem from observation.
The Ottawa landscape is densely painted, as if Rubens felt the need to depict every detail of the scene with dabs and glides of his brush. We can imagine the artist caught between his sensitivity to the natural world and his fascination with the descriptive power of even the slightest movements of his hand, as he struggles to capture the glittering plenitude of the world on a panel no bigger than two hand spans across.
Although it has rarely been discussed in print, the attribution has been disputed.10 A closely related work, Landscape after a Storm (c. 1636), now in the Courtauld Gallery, appears to be of the same “place,” whether real or imagined (illus. 2).11 This painting is accepted as autograph and its perceived similarity to the Ottawa panel may well have troubled scholars: if the late landscapes are essentially personal and experiential, why would Rubens apparently repeat himself? The creation of repetitions and variants is understood to be the business of the workshop, not the master painting for himself.
The two paintings share the same composition as well as many individual motifs. Considered generically, these elements are the building blocks used by Rubens in his landscapes. The Ottawa panel shows them clearly: the composition is designed to draw in and guide the eye, offering multiple points of interest upon which to rest. The copse placed in the mid-ground gives way to a vista of rolling fields articulated by serried ranks of trees; to the right lies a small clearing flanked by another row of trees through which we can see the light; a stream wends from fore- through mid-ground, the water reflects the changeable sky. In place of the labourers or shepherds seen in other landscapes, here a group of cows provides an anchor, drawing the eye back to the foreground. This is not, strictly speaking, a representation of an actual place; it is, rather, a constructed landscape. Nonetheless, even such composed scenes could draw upon observation of nature: Rubens did make plein air studies of the local countryside, and these could have feed into his paintings.
It is likely that the Ottawa panel follows from the Courtauld landscape, which is more loosely and suggestively painted, and where it seems as if Rubens developed the composition as he worked. The Ottawa painting clarifies spatial relationships left undefined in the larger panel. The stump of the dead tree has been removed, no longer blocking our eye’s progress into the scene; the foreground is opened up, creating a watering place for the cattle. To the right, a clearing leads to a path through the trees. The dense foliage is cut back; light now shines through the rank of trees and the copse at centre, producing the sense of a continuous horizon. The general approach is to clarify and integrate the elements, better defining the land itself – the course of the stream is clearly seen where it cuts through the earth, and the entire landscape is more orderly, less wild – a bucolic vision of the productive countryside. The scale is consciously changed: the figures in the Courtauld painting seem tiny relative to the potentially threatening landscape, while the placement of the cows in the Ottawa panel reduces the relative scale of all but the distant vista. Along with this, the scene is clearer, calmer, the tone more optimistic. Unlike the Courtauld’s turbulent weather, here we are faced with little more than passing rain clouds that mask a sun low in sky, the pretext for the depiction of evocative light effects. Given these changes, it is impossible to conceive the Ottawa painting as a copy or even a close variant of the Courtauld landscape. Rather, the scene has been re-imagined and made, in a sense, more Flemish in that it is more concrete description of what could be a possible place.
In terms of the way the two have been painted, the Courtauld panel has a far more dynamic and inventive touch and has been historically described as a sketch. Yet the Ottawa panel is also painted loosely and boldly, but on a small scale. They also share other key technical similarities. Both show Rubens’ use of the imprimatura, allowing it to set the overall tone – warmer in the Courtauld and greyer in the Ottawa panel – and it can be clearly seen in the stream, comprising little more than paint worked thinly over the streaky priming. Both landscapes were constructed directly in paint as Rubens worked – with minimal underdrawing. On the Ottawa panel, the majority of the paint was applied in one session, wet-in-wet, with two further campaigns, the first deepening glazing, mostly in the foreground and in the mid-ground trees, followed by the last touches of highlights on the trees, leaves, the surface of the stream, etc.
Most importantly, the works share a remarkably similar, if not identical, touch – for instance, the application of liquid highlights on the tree trunks, the notations on the glittering leaves, and the abbreviated treatment of the vista, which are paralleled in other works from this period. The similarity of touch is so compelling that it seems beyond the level of mimicry that we typically see in workshop variants. While assistants were trained to work in a style and with a touch that was consistent with, and imitated the master’s, they rarely came so close.12
The support is a single member oak panel of radial cut. Dr. Peter Klein has identified the wood as local (Netherlands, western Germany), with a felling date after 1573. The panel is approximately 7 mm thick. It is likely close to its original thickness, but has been smoothed in preparation for the application of a cradle; this cradle, of unusual design, dates to the twentieth century and is likely of European manufacture.
Perhaps the Baronne de Hemptinne, Brussels by 1780? Adolphe Schloss (1842–1910), Paris by 1906; by descent; seized by the Vichy government, 1943, and later sold; bought 25,000 French frs by Cornelius Postma; sold by Postma for 1.2 million French frs to the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn, 1944; confiscated by the French Government, 1947; restituted to the Schloss family; their sale, Galerie Charpentier, Paris, 5 December 1951, lot. no. 47, Rubens, “Paysage par temps orageux”; bought 6.8 million French frs by Agnew, London; bought by Sir John Heathcoat Amory, 3rd Baronet (1894–1972), Knightshayes Court (Devon) by 1960; by descent; with Agnew, London; bought 1984 by Michal & Renata Hornstein, Montreal; their gift to the Gallery, 1998.
Perhaps in Brussels by the mid 18th century, judging by Dansaert’s etching (see below). If so, could this be the work listed in the sale of the Baronne de Hemptinne? Brussels, Marché aux grains, 31 August, 1780, lot no. 3, Rubens, “Un paysage avec des Vaches,” 1 pied × 1 pied 4 pouces, i.e. 27.6 × 37.6 cm? See Catalogue de Tableaux vendus à Bruxelles, depuis l’année 1773 (Brussels, 1803), p. 234. This is presumably Barbe Elisabeth de Vreven (1722–1779), widow of Guillaume François Joseph, baron de Hemptinne (1695–1770). Website
I – Schneevoogt 1873, p. 237, no. 59, “Un paysage au soleil levant” etched by J. Dansaert after Rubens (“P.P. Rubens pinxit”), i.e. Jean Dansaert (active Brussels, documented 1742–62). The composition is reversed.
1 On Het Steen see Martin 1970, pp. 137–142 and London 1996, pp. 59 ff.
2 These figures may be later additions.
3 On the question of whether Het Steen and the Landscape with a Rainbow are pendants and whether they were hung at Het Steen itself or at Rubens’ Antwerp home, see London 1996, p. 70.
4In Ruelens and Rooses 1887–1909, vol. 6, pp. 222–224, Rubens asks an assistant to bring him a panel of tronies from the Antwerp studio to Het Steen – undoubtedly so Rubens could paint from it. Notably, the subject is figurative.
5 The exhibition curated by Brown, London 1996, is the fundamental introduction to Rubens’ landscapes; see also Liedtke 1997.
6 On Rubens’ practice and plein-air studies, see London 1996, chap. 7 and Liedtke 1997 who argues strongly for the importance of empirical observation in the late landscapes. That Rubens made drawings on site is certain; he may have painted in plein air as well, but this is less clear.
7Ruelens 1885, p. 167, from a letter by Ph. Rubens to Roger de Piles, 1676, Ayant acheté la seignurie du Steen … il y prenoit grand plaisir de vivre dans la solitude, pour tant plus vivement pouvoir dépeindre au natural les montagnes, plaines, vallées et prairies d’alentour, au lever et coucher de soleil, avec les orizons.
8 On the roles of Jan Wildens and Lucas Udens, see London 1996, pp. 105–106.
9London 1996, p. 106.
10 When the work was last sold at auction in 1951, Ludwig Burchard noted that Fritz Lugt rejected it, claiming the fall of shadow was illogical in places and pointing to weaknesses in the drawing of the cattle. (Neither is unknown in Rubens’ landscapes.) Lugt implausibly suggested Daniel van Heil (1604–1662) as a possibility. Burchard himself accepted the work as autograph. Our thanks to Bert Watteeuw of the Rubenianum for this information. See also Martin 1983.
11 Adler 1982, no. 45. We follow the title and date given by Brown in London 1996, p. 120.
12It might be worth re-examining the relationship between a landscape sketch now in Berlin, loosely inspired by the environs of Het Steen, and the larger painting in which it served as a backdrop, Tournament in Front of a Castle in the Louvre. (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, inv. 776D, Adler 1982, no. 66 and Louvre, no. 2116, Alder 1982, no. 65.) The landscape in the latter was likely laid in by a member of the workshop attempting to imitate Rubens’ touch. While fluent and competent, the hand seems distinct from that of Rubens.
Peter Paul Rubens, An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, probably 1636, oil on oak, 131.2 × 229.2 cm. National Gallery, London, Sir George Beaumont Gift, 1823/8 (NG66). Photo: National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY