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The comprehensive corpus on Peter Paul Rubens

Two new titles are added to the peerless catalogue of Rubens’s work

by Theodore K. Rabb  |  24 March 2017
Peter Paul Rubens, The Tiger Hunt (1615—1616)

Few would deny that amidst the mass of publications devoted to the history of art during the past century, one undertaking stands out as the most monumental of them all: Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard. With more than 40 books published since the 1970s and another ten or so planned, the enterprise towers over even massive encyclopedias. Nor is the comprehensiveness of the effort inappropriate, for the subject was one of the world’s most prolific artists and also a colossus who has few equals as a creator and shaper of Western art. The Harvey Miller imprint may sponsor multi-volume complete surveys of the work of other figures, such as Cassiano dal Pozzo or Carlo Cesare Malvasia, but none has the standing or the wealth of materials that underlie the treatment of Rubens.

The subjects of the latest books are the collaborations with both Jan Brueghel senior and junior, and the treatment of mythological themes. Thanks to the first of these, one is able to glimpse a situation very different from the world of the artist these days. Not only was there heavy dependency on large workshops, filled with apprentices, but the willingness to let many hands intervene in a painting extended to close collaborations. One commission by the City of Antwerp involved the efforts of 12 artists. It is no surprise, therefore, that Rubens should have contributed to some 40 paintings in collaboration with the two Brueghels. Usually his role was to produce the figures, and one sees his hand again and again in Madonnas and nymphs. The oeuvre is analysed and documented, moreover, with a wealth of scholarship by Christine van Mulders that makes this volume a fitting addition to the Corpus.

When we turn to ancient myths, we come to one of Rubens’ signature subjects. Arranged alphabetically, this two-volume publication, comprising nearly a thousand pages, brings us only to the letter “G” and the three Graces. It will take four more volumes, and probably another two thousand pages, to complete the alphabet. In the meantime, Elizabeth McGrath, one of the editors of these volumes, provides an elegant introduction to the topic. A regular worry at the time was the danger of the nudity in such scenes (which prompted courtiers to hang veils over the Titians in the Escorial when the Queen of Spain was to pass them). The assumption that naked figures were an Italian proclivity (Cranach notwithstanding) helped patrons to accept the justification that, as long as it was restricted to elite audiences, nudity did not necessarily encourage lasciviousness. The stories and characters were not only, for Rubens, effective moral guides (especially in treating warfare), but they reflected the profound classical learning that was one of his hallmarks. The result was a body of work that remains one of the principal achievements of European culture.

Once again it is the detailed catalogue raisonné of some 50 paintings, accompanied by more than 400 illustrations and a comprehensive scholarly apparatus, that sets this publication apart. Very few artists are worth such effort, but Rubens is certainly one of them, and it is hard to imagine any study of his work that will not begin with the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard.

• Theodore K. Rabb is the emeritus professor of history at Princeton University. A specialist in early modern Europe, he is a frequent contributor to The Art Newspaper and the Times Literary Supplement. His most recent book is The Artist and the Warrior. He is writing a book of essays about the visual arts

Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard Part XXVII (1). Works in Collaboration: Jan Brueghel I & II
Christine van Mulders
Harvey Miller/Brepols Publishers, 360pp, €150 (hb)

Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard Part XI (1). Mythological Subjects: Achilles to the Graces
E. McGrath, G. Martin, F. Healy, B. Schepers, C. Van de Velde and K. De Clippel
Harvey Miller/Brepols Publishers, two vols, 944pp, €275 (hb)

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