Making Art Accessible: Peter Paul Rubens and His Workshop

Peter Paul Rubens, Head of an Old Woman (1612), oil on oak, 47.2 x 39.1 cm. NGC

Peter Paul Rubens is a household name—one of those painters we’ve all heard about, but likely don’t really know. Famous for painting full-figured women, he produced an enormous body of work, and was himself larger than life: an artist, diplomat (“spy” to some), knight, polyglot and Classical scholar. One quotation that seems to sum him up is the following colossally egotistical statement: “My talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size . . . has ever surpassed my courage.

How can anyone get to know the bloated monster that history has made of this man? It’s not an easy task, and one that we frankly found daunting as we faced the material at hand: paintings, drawings and prints, and around a hundred very heavy books. The hope was that, in starting with the works of art and examining them carefully—with the additional advantage of fresh eyes—we could strip away the parts of his persona that distract from understanding not only the historical importance of Rubens as an artist, but also how he made art. To do this required a blend of expertise, with the curator and conservator working together to explain Rubens’ pragmatic studio-based approach. And to really understand the artist’s impact, it seemed obvious that we should also look at two of the men Rubens taught, influenced, or worked with: Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens.

Many visitors to art museums face the challenge of having to cut through a fog of historical misinformation, which can prevent them from really understanding an artist. Clearing away this fog was, in fact, one of the great drivers behind this exhibition. We wanted to engage visitors with the objects, by presenting them as clearly as possible in a way that made even tricky concepts easy to understand.

Three of the paintings in the exhibition have been recently restored, and can now be seen clearly for the first time in centuries. The Head of An Old Woman, painted in 1612, can now be viewed almost as she appeared shortly after Rubens’ death, the immediacy of his vision and innovative painting technique clearer than it has been for centuries. We’ve even removed the frame of this painting (although you can still see it hanging empty on the wall in the exhibition space), replacing it with the kind of frame it would likely have had in Rubens’ studio.

This is the first in a series of Masterpiece in Focus exhibitions, designed to celebrate some of the highlights of Canada’s national art collection, while giving visitors a deeper understanding of the nature of art. When visitors leave the exhibition, we hope that they will have a better understanding of how Rubens’ paintings were produced, how he influenced the painters that came after him, and how important his workshop was to the history of art.   

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