Peter Paul Rubens    Flemish    1577-1640
SN 221    Oil on Canvas        1630/35

by Robert Anderson

    Peter Paul Rubens, along with the Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, was one of the greatest artists of the 17th century. His canvases can be said to define the scope and style of high baroque painting through their energy, earthy humanity and inventiveness. A devoutly religious man, a man of learning and a connoisseur of art and antiquities, he was also a man of the world who succeeded not only as an artist but as a respected diplomat in the service of Isabella and Albrecht of the Spanish Netherlands.
    Travels to Venice where he studied Titian, Veronese & Tintoretto freed his artistic talent from rigid classicism. While he did incorporate copies of classical statues in his paintings he always avoided the appearance and coldness of stone. To the contrary, his nudes, for which he became famous, always depicted an ample female form of vitality and good health as well as of sensuousness. His mastery of color along with his knowledge of antiquity is seen particularly in his mythological paintings.
    As court painter and confidant to the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, Rubens recognized the role art was to play in the Counter Reformation. His genius found expression in his designs for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestries which he and his assistants completed between 1625 and 1628.
    Knighted by two monarchs and master of a successful workshop, Rubens became rich and famous in his own time. Having executed over 3,000 paintings, woodcuts and engravings of all types, he died the most respected artist of his time in 1640.

    Thetis was a Greek goddess of the waters who was pursued and finally won by Peleus, the grandson of Jupiter. Their son Achilles became the most famous warrior of his age. The subject of this painting is the immersion of Achilles in the River Styx by his mother Thetis, when he is an infant, in order to make him invulnerable. She has grasped him by the heel in the process, however, and therefore his heel becomes the vulnerable spot where he eventually receives his fatal wound during the Trojan War.
    Thetis plunges Achilles into the river between two caryatids, representing Pluto and Prosperpine,which support the portico. They are the rulers of Hades. Thetis grasps Achilles by the heel with her left hand. Clotho, one of the Fates, assists by holding a torch to illuminate the act, while Cerberus, the triple headed watchdog of the infernal regions, lies in front. In the background Charon ferries passengers across the river and is beseiged by a waiting multitude on the banks, who appeal to him with outstretched hands for passage. Ill omened bats circle above in the air, forming the ornamental frame with their wings.
    The Ringling painting is a modello from The History of Achilles, which was the last of the four tapestry commissions designed by Rubens. This painting is the first in the series. The last tapestry in the series shows Achilles dying from an arrow that pierced his foot, the only area of his body left unprotected when Thetis dipped him into the Styx.
    Most of the surface may be considered Rubens' work. The background figures, the mountains and much of the term at the left probably is uncorrected assistants' work. Clearly recognizable is Rubens' hand also in details like the fire in the sky at the left, the light emanating from the torch, and the heads of the dogs.

    The four tapestry commissions designed by Rubens were :
        The History of Decius Mus - 1617
        The History of Emperor Constantine - 1622-23
        The Triumph of the Eucharist - 11625-28
        The History of Achilles - 1630-35