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A small but concentrated exhibition that closely examines key works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens, and their collaborators.

3 May 2013 • 5 Jan 2014

Masterpiece in Focus: Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was the most successful and entrepreneurial artist of his generation. Based in Antwerp, a major centre of artistic production, he came from a culture where painters and artisans worked collaboratively, with a full understanding of their materials and craft. Using his formidable intelligence to reconceptualize the nature of the Flemish painter’s workshop, he came to dominate the arts in Flanders and was in demand across all Europe. Primarily a painter, Rubens continued the tradition of working in different media, designing prints, tapestry, architecture and sculpture. His synthesis of Northern and Italian traditions helped to create a new international style of painting, a learned visual language that resonated deeply with his contemporaries. His impressive social network gave him freedom on many levels – from the petty controls imposed by trade guilds to conventions that dictated the social status of those who worked with their hands. He achieved a standing that had not been reached previously by any artist, able to participate in international affairs and the government of his country. He became a model – socially, professionally and artistically – for painters across all Europe and his workshop became one of the busiest in the history of art. The practices he developed – exploitation of the painted sketch, for instance – would produce an enduring artistic legacy. And his dazzlingly flamboyant painting technique became a model held up by supporters and detractors alike in the centuries that followed. His immediate legacy was the success of Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) and Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), artists of the succeeding generation, who fully understood Rubens’ methods and strategies. Both men were able to effectively adapt his model to their own artistic personalities.

The paintings and works on paper exhibited here demonstrate both the sound practical thinking, based on traditional craft practices, as well as the innovations that were essential to Rubens’ model. As such, they reward the close study of their making and function. New research, in the course of preparation for this project, has clarified historic misunderstandings and opened new avenues of investigation. The exhibition also allows us to focus on works from the national collection, which may seem familiar, but continue to hold secrets. Bringing a fresh viewpoint to the artistic interactions in Rubens’ studio, we have gained both insight into factors beyond the mere physical nature of the objects and access to the creative minds of their makers. We can put ourselves in the position of the artist, or at least a visitor to his studio.

Director's Foreword

Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens is the first exhibition in a series devoted to exploring and animating key works from the National Gallery of Canada. The Gallery’s collection has been built over the course of a century, during which time the discipline of art history and the nature of museums has changed radically. So too has public engagement with art and the nature of its expectations. Special presentations of blockbuster exhibitions now draw the public, and are vital to the life of the modern museum. Yet in all of this, the so-called permanent collection – the objects which should be best known – will be forgotten if we fail to put it before the public in a vital, engaging manner. These objects should be the foundation of any institution and key to our understanding of the broader culture of art. We will attempt to do exactly this, through a series in which we look again, with fresh eyes, at our national treasures. We will present them in new ways, drawing on new research and technologies, and new understandings of the role of the museum. [Read More…]

Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens are a fitting point of departure for this initiative. Their success was founded on the re-examination of traditional methods and the development of innovative practices, all without losing sight of what was worth preserving from the legacy of Flemish art. These artists responded to changes in their own environment, and to expanding, truly international horizons.

The core principle of this series is to present a full and comprehensive experience of the authentic object. While this is the role and privilege of the museum, it can only be achieved through collaboration with the public. We aim to challenge and excite our audience, and make the occasionally esoteric discipline of art history vital and meaningful, as engagement with the arts should be.

Three of the paintings in this exhibition have been recently restored, and visitors will be able to see these works clearly for the first time in centuries. Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens is built on the seamless collaboration between curatorial and conservation expertise. This is an excellent way to begin, as it has led to a sharp focus on the practical, the intelligent use of technology, and a fresh clear-sightedness that will be the hallmark of the series.

We would like to thank the lenders to the exhibition, whose generosity allows us to bring together intimately connected works that have been separated for centuries. These include three portrait studies for the Gallery’s only Van Dyck, a work made on the cusp of his international success – and so producing something of a touching family reunion. We would also like to thank members of our academic and museological family who assisted us: Sven Adelaide (Oldenburger Landesmuseum), Graeme Barraclough (Courtauld Institute), Dr. Friedrich Buchmayr (Stift St. Florian), Alison Cable (Medway Archives), Michel Ceuterick (Asper), Bendor Grosvenor (London), Michal and Renata Hornstein (Montreal), Philip Mould (London), Dr.Arthur Stögmann (Liechtenstein Museum), Robert Wald (Liechtenstein Museum), Alejandro Vergara (Prado), Bert Watteeuw (Rubenianum), and Father Augustinus Zeeman (Schottenstift, Vienna).

Marc Mayer
Director and CEO
National Gallery of Canada