Rubens broke through the traditions of the earlier Flemings ; his vigorous temperament made him impatient of the constraints imposed by the saving at all hazards of the white negative ground. White pigment becomes with him a very active agent, and he reserves the white and sometimes light-grey ground to secure transparency in his shadows.
We are told on good authority that " Everything at first under the pencil of Rubens had the appearance of a glaze only."
One of his leading maxims respecting colour, which he repeated often in his school, was that " it was very dangerous to use white and black. Begin painting your shadows thinly, and be careful not to let white insinuate itself into them, as it is poison fora picture except in the lights. If white is ever allowed to dull the perfect transparency and golden warmth of your shadows, your colouring will be no longer glowing, but heavy and grey. The case was different in regard to the lights ; in them the colour may be loaded as much as may be thought requisite. They have substance; it is necessary, however, to keep them pure. This is effected by laying each tint in its place, and the various tints next each other, so that by a slight blending with the brush they may be softened, passing one into the other without stirring them."
Few masters of the overpowering vigour of Rubens preserve the same methods throughout their career, and perforce adapt their process to the special demands of varying effects ; but there are certain guiding principles to which they remain faithful, and we may conclude that his brilliancy, and the luminosity that belongs equally to the work of his pupils Van Dyck and Jordaens, who was rather an assistant than a pupil, was largely due to the clear under-painting and the
THE ABDUCTION OF THE SABINE WOMEN
separate superposing of more or less transparent colours. .
"Chapeau de Paille." Looking carefully at this, we shall find that the flesh was laid in in a high key ; for the head, delicately shaded by the hat, is toned in thin washes over the brighter ground," The Chateau de Stein " was first prepared in a warm brown monochrome, the distance in blue and white.
The Triumph " Silenus " is in his earlier manner, with much vermilion in the first ébauche. I have a Jordaens similar in colour to this, and there is one head in it, from which the glazes have been rubbed off in the cleaning, showing a white modelling beneath. So solid is the general effect that one would never suspect, save for the white ground discovered, that its rich colour was due to stumbling and glazes. Vermilion is freely used in the extremities.
The " Venus and Mars" on the adjoining wall is on an unusually rough canvas for Rubens. The flesh in it is brilliant, but not much loaded. Its handling can best be studied in the back of the cupid in the foreground and the festoons of fruit.
The influence of Titian is evident here, and there is little use of the fresh reds of his earlier work.
Rubens returned from Italy, to which country he made repeated and long journeys, with many copies of Venetian pictures and several original paintings by Titian. And, while in Spain, he made replicas of the Venetian master's works which had a distinctly chastening effect on his colour.
What, however, I wish you particularly to examine and study is a passage in the " Abduction of the Sabine Women," in which is concentrated Rubens' mastery in the painting of flesh. It is in the arms and hands clasped of the woman bending forward near the centre of the picture, which, by the way, is in surface much smoother than the , Venus and Mars," and so allowing of a greater measure of fatness in the handling. Note the warm brown shadows on these arms, the broken touches of light. and then the liquid melting of the scumble over the warmer ground. In this passage are summed up the master's highest powers as a painter of the nude. This liquid opalescence is seen throughout his work, but rarely to such advantage as in these arms and hands.
The cool grey under the breast of the central woman in black and loaded gold satin is notable, as is also the obvious imitation of Veronese in the architecture and faintly indicated figures in the background.