Did Rubens make big beautiful?

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1. Introduction

Peter Paul Rubens is celebrated as one of the greatest painters of his age. Today, Rubens is more popularly known as the painter of 'big' women than he is for his actual art. His work has even coined a phrase still used to describe women with a fuller figure – ‘Rubenesque’.

The earliest mention the Oxford English Dictionary has for Rubenesque is in 1834 – almost 200 years after his death - to refer unflatteringly to a woman’s size.

Did Rubens set out to glorify the larger female form? Was he really the man who made big beautiful?

2. Encountering Rubens

Are Rubens' women really so big? Arabella Weir goes to the National Gallery to find out.

3. Who was Rubens?

Born in 1577, Peter Paul Rubens was a 17th Century Flemish artist who became recognised as one of the leading proponents of a bold, exuberant artistic style called Baroque.

Having started in Rome, the style was championed by the Vatican as being suitably grand enough to communicate its religious message.

Characterised by strong colour, movement, drama and theatricality, through the work of masters such as Caravaggio, Bernini and Rubens, the style became popular across much of Europe.

Rubens became one of the leading Flemish artists at the head of a Catholic cultural resurgence and he won many commissions to provide religious art in his home city of Antwerp.

Alongside his religious works, Rubens became famous for his dramatic paintings about ancient mythology.

Across all of these vastly different pieces was a constant – Rubens’ distinctive and extraordinary depiction of the human form.

Rubens dedicated his life to mastering the painting of the human body and studied anatomy and medicine as well as the work of the Italian master artists to achieve his goal.

4. The body beautiful?

For Rubens the human body was never just simply a body – there was a lot more involved. The human form provided a canvas to explore larger moral, ethical and religious truths.

Rubens’ humans are often commonly seen to be almost excessively fleshy and vigorous. They are – and for very specific reasons.

Rubens, like many of his generation, venerated the cultural, artistic and scientific achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

He also believed they possessed ideal bodies as demonstrated by the beautiful ancient statues.

Trained as an artist in the classical tradition, Rubens was expected to emulate the statuesque forms of these ancient sculptures.

Rubens looked around him and saw an epidemic of 'paunch-bellies, weak and pitiful legs and arms' sweeping through his native Antwerp and beyond.

Sharing views common among his contemporaries, Rubens believed physical weakness could easily equate to spiritual weakness.

For Rubens, his generation was nothing like the brilliant and beautiful ancients.

Rubens did not merely copy antique sculptures and insert them into his paintings as lesser artists had done.

He re-invented them, to do what only painting can do: to make the human body into an expressive force of emotions and passions utilising only oil paint.

5. Faith as muse

Rubens was not really concerned with notions of beauty, body shape and body size as we understand them today. He was far more concerned with questions of faith and eternity.

Rubens was a devout Catholic and was seen as the leading cultural figure of a period of spiritual renewal in the Catholic faith that came to be known as the Counter-Reformation.

Typically bold, vibrant and dramatic, these religious works sought to use the human form to provide a powerful religious experience in the eyes of the viewer.

In the Massacre of the Innocents, Rubens captures the Biblical story of King Herod’s slaughter of first Bethlehem first-born sons in gory, passionate detail.

Among the muscular bodies of the male assailants is the falling figure of a mother trying to protect her infant son.

Bare-breasted and vulnerable at the centre of the slaughter, her pale, fleshy body fights off the powerful male figure that clutches at her child.

In The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist, the bare breast of the Virgin is there to suggest the nourishment of the infant Christ and to link the piece back to earlier depictions of the same scene by other artists.

In paintings such as The Great Last Judgement, Rubens shows off his technical mastery of painting human form and flesh to depict the blessed ascending to heaven while the damned are dragged away to hell in flamboyantly dramatic fashion.

There is no bodily distinction between damned and saved – fat or thin, for Rubens flesh is flesh and all are judged by a higher power in the end.

6. Rubens and sensuality

There is an eroticism to Rubens’ nudes. They are full of curvy women in varying states of undress, muscular males rippling the canvas and scenes of lust and love.

Whether it be sensuous scenes from the Bible or Greek and Roman mythology, Rubens painted them with a physicality and vigour that lifted them off the canvas.

Rubens painted perhaps his most personal painting for his new wife. It gives us an insight into the intimacies of his private life.

After the death of his first wife, Rubens, aged 53, married Hélène Fourment – the 16-year-old daughter of a wealthy Antwerp merchant.

Wrapped in fur, fresh from a bath, Hélène looks suggestively at the painter – her husband.

Not designed for public viewing, the painting was actually a depiction and celebration of sexuality within the context of a Christian marriage.

Even here, in this most intimate of portraits, Rubens adds layers of meaning into the painting. According to Elizabeth McFadden, University of California, Hélène wears a fur garment called a tabbard that was normally worn by a man. Is she covering up from her husband or seducing him?

The body – whether displayed publicly or hidden privately – is more always more than meets the eye.

Rubens never set out to make big beautiful. Rubenesque – with all its connotations of body shape – is a modern invention. Looking at Rubens' paintings and seeing only large bodies says far more about our age than his.

7. Choose your Venus

The goddess Venus has been held by artists such as Rubens as the ideal of female beauty. Who would you select to be be Venus?

Venus number one

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Venus number one

Svelte, skinny and girlish, Bouguereau’s Venus painted during the 19th Century references Botticelli's 15th Century masterpiece, The Birth of Venus.

Venus number two

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Venus number two

Rubens' rather muscular take on Venus from 1612 references a work of the Roman poet Terence and could be read as a plea for moderation with food, love and wine.

Venus number three

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Venus number 3

Giorgione's Renaissance-era Venus sparked controversy in its day for the overt eroticism of the nude figure. The painting was much imitated by other artists.