Joy unconfined

Delight, vigour, passion. Rubens's landscape paintings gave expression to his exuberant love of life. Constable hailed them as his greatest works. But are they really his best pictures or just the pictures the British love best? By Andrew Graham-Dixon
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The Independent Culture
In the summer of 1833, while making "a few observations on the history of landscape painting" to the members of the Literary and Scientific Society of Hampstead, John Constable turned his attention to the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. What followed was not so much an appraisal as a declaration of love: "In no other branch of the art is Rubens greater than in landscape - the freshness and dewy light, the joyous and animated character which he has imparted to it, impressing on the level monotonous scenery of Flanders all the richness which belongs to its noblest features. Rubens delighted in phenomena - rainbows upon a stormy sky, bursts of sunshine, moonlight, meteors and impetuous torrents mingling their sound with wind and wave."

Constable concluded by advising the modest audience gathered that day in the Hampstead Assembly Rooms to seek out two of the artist's finest works, namely "a pair of landscapes which came to England from Genoa, one of which is now in the National Gallery".

An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, painted by Rubens circa 1636, is still in the National Gallery. It is currently to be found at the centre of a new exhibition in the Sainsbury Wing, "Making and Meaning: Rubens's Landscapes", which is meant, among other things, as an opportunity to test the truth of Constable's assertions. Are Rubens's landscapes really among his greatest works? Or are they just the only paintings in his uvre that the British - so mistrustful of the swagger and flourish that Rubens showed in his mythologies, and so embarrassed by the dimpled, rippling flesh of the figures with which he populated them - have been able to contemplate with any degree of comfort?

The Landscape with Het Steen, which hangs at the heart of the National Gallery exhibition, is one of Rubens's most beautiful and profound paintings. The picture is a view of the estate near Malines on which the painter spent much of his time during the last and most prosperous years of his life, yet it is far more than an example of merely topographical art (the type of painting that Henry Fuseli once dismissed with aphoristic ease as "the tame delineation of a given spot"). Rubens's picture shows us the essentially panoramic nature of his genius. The painting is exhilarating because it is like a distillation of his generous, exuberant sensibility - a great epitome of that love of life, and that infectious joy in the abundance of its forms, which Rubens brought to western art.

Like nearly all Rubens's works, whether pastoral, biblical or mythological, the Landscape with Het Steen is a cornucopia. In the background on the left of the picture we see Het Steen itself, the house of which Rubens was so proud. In the foreground a hunter crouches with his dog, while just beyond, over a rise crowned by the stump of an oak tree twined with unruly brambles, several partridges have allowed themselves to be lulled into a sense of false security by the warmth of the morning sun. Two oblivious magpies - an appropriate number given the spirit of Rubens's painting - hover in the sky, while a heavily laden farm wagon crosses a stream in which snakes of reflected light writhe - a detail that may remind us that Constable's much-beloved picture of a cart crossing glittering water, The Hay Wain, owes at least as much to Rubens as to Dedham Vale (The Hay Wain is, in fact, a grand variation on the Landscape with Het Steen - an entranced memory of art becomes art itself). Beyond, a Flemish distance unfolds. Fields dotted sparsely with poplars are interspersed with patches of woodland, shot through with the occasional trace of human habitation - here a building, there a village - reaching all the way back to a flat horizon. Rubens's art is a hymn to fullness - the fullness of the world, the fullness of the human imagination - and it is entirely characteristic of him that he cannot bear to lose detail even in the misty blueness of distance. Like nature, he abhorred a vacuum, so his faraways still throng with detail and even his skies are well stocked, alive with fast-moving clouds, breezes and showers.

The rapturous amplitude of the Landscape with Het Steen, which he used to hang on one of the walls of the house depicted within it, doubtless carried several meanings for the painter. A certain degree of amor patriae surely informs it and we may see the picture of the fertile, prosperous state to which Rubens believed the nation had been brought in his time. The slight bird's-eye perspective reinforces this sense of blessedness. The sunny landscape viewed fondly from above is, by pictorial implication, a land beloved by God. There are echoes, too, of Virgil's Georgics in this idealised vision of a happy land immune to the cares of city life (Kenneth Clark was surely wrong when he said that Rubens entirely avoided "the backward glance to a golden age which may be called Virgilian"). But there is a strong element of personal meaning to the painting, too. It seems almost certain that Rubens's primary motive in painting this picture was to celebrate his second marriage.

On 18 December 1634, Rubens wrote a letter to a confidant explaining his decision to remarry after the death of his first wife, Isabella Brant: "I was not yet inclined to live the abstinent life of the celibate, thinking that, if we must give the first place to continence, fruimar licita voluptate cum gratiarum actione [we may enjoy legitimate pleasures with thankfulness]. I have taken a young wife of honest but middle-class family ... one who would not blush to see me take my brushes in my hand."

The fertility of the Landscape with Het Steen alludes to what Rubens hoped would prove to be the fertility of this marriage to his second wife, the young Helene Fourment. Close to the left edge of the picture, in the shadow of a stand of tall trees, three diminutive, well-dressed figures, two of whom have been identified as the painter and his wife, are enjoying the warmth of the bright, clear morning. The two birds together in the sky may refer to their union. The motif of the hunter after game was a time-honoured emblem, derived from the courtly love tradition of the pleasures of amorous pursuit. There was anyway something essentially amorous about Rubens's character as an artist - a kind of noble indecorousness, lodged at the heart of him - and this certainly reflected in the picture. The contours of the landscape have an almost carnal palpability, as if it were flesh laid out before us, not earth.

The panorama was a natural format for Rubens because it allowed him to get so much into a single work of art and so satisfied the needs of his devouring, joyful eye. But although the individual details in a Rubens invite inventory, inventory actually does no justice to the effect of the whole because it overlooks what truly sets Rubens apart - the pictorial dynamism with which he, the painter as whirlwind, could sweep so many elements of observed life into a single, coherent composition.

Perhaps the greatest masterpiece of all Rubens's landscapes to have been painted in this spirit of high Baroque animation is the Landscape with a Rainbow, conceived by the painter as a pendant to the Landscape with Het Steen. Although this picture could not be lent to the exhibition, it is in London, at the Wallace Collection; and the curators at the National Gallery clearly wish the public to regard it as an extramural complement to their show. It is a painting almost startlingly alive with movement. The great rush of its perspective, organised along the scything diagonal of a simple dirt track running along a cornfield, cuts to the heart of the painting from its left edge. This works in such a way that the abundance of the picture's contents - the herd of cows, and the peasant girl with the plump cleavage, taking time away from her flirtation with the haymaker to stare us straight in the eye, and the great sweep of the rainbow, and the trees on fire with their own foliage, and the crop of gold corn, and the great arc of the rainbow, swiped across the sky - is virtually thrown in your face. It is like a cornucopia that has been spilt. It forces those who would try to convey its effects into breathless ampersanding, or the string of dashes ("rainbows upon a stormy sky - bursts of sunshine") with which Constable conveyed his almost uncontainable enthusiasm for Rubens.

As well as including many of the most highly finished and highly worked landscapes, the National Gallery exhibition contains all of Rubens's existing landscape drawings and several of his extraordinarily fresh, informal oil paintings. These demonstrate Rubens's unconventional powers of observation, and the brilliant, artful inventiveness with which he found equivalents for natural phenomena in the medium of oil paint on paper, wood or canvas.

At the centre of A Forest at Dawn With a Deer Hunt, recently bought for a great deal of money by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, we see the rising sun through the earthy rootball of a deracinated tree. Rubens conveys this theme (something that no one, perhaps, had thought to paint before) by means of a thick, rich circular passage of yellow framed by darkness - sunlight forcing its way into the world like butter forced through an icing syringe. The immateriality of light gives rise to some of Rubens's most substantial devices, the paint-speckled starry sky of Landscape with Moon and Stars being a ravishing instance of this. The squally sky, rendered in a flurry of marks in Landscape After a Storm, is another wonderful instance of Rubens's ingenuity in thinking up devices that do not depict nature so much as find brilliant pictorial equivalents for natural phenomena. This aspect of Rubens's genius would be much admired and emulated by the Romantics (there are similar passages in the art of both Gericault and Constable); and it would be taken to its expressive limits by Van Gogh, whose butterball suns or slashing lines standing in for rain are Rubensian both in their artificiality and their exuberance.

With the exception of Charles I, who commissioned him to paint the grand, airborne allegories on the ceiling of the Banqueting House, it is true that the British have only ever really loved Rubens as a landscape painter. But even as a landscape painter, his patent artificiality and the bold theatrically of his art continue to worry some people. The catalogue to the National Gallery exhibition, written by Christopher Brown, is enthusiastic and quite informative but it also includes the following, rather peculiar caveat - which is effectively an attack on Rubens's high artifice:

"In terms of the future development of landscape painting, far more innovative ideas were being explored in the North Netherlands, and in particular in Harlem in the 1610s and 1620s when a group of young Dutch painters and printmakers forged a new landscape style based on the direct observation of nature. Their experimentation was to culminate in the achievement of the greatest Dutch landscape painter, Jacob van Ruisdael, whose intense and dramatic scenes make Rubens's landscapes, for all their beauty and vigour, seem overly dependent on long-established conventions."

Brown's loyalties clearly lie with Dutch landscape art. This should perhaps come as no surprise, since he is, after all, the National Gallery's curator of Dutch paintings; but his faintly damning view of Rubens's place in the history of landscape painting is refuted by the very exhibition of Rubens's work that occasioned it.

It is certainly true that Rubens was an extremely artful landscape painter. His landscapes are all, self-evidently, compounds of observation, memory and invention. But does this make him a lesser artist than the supposedly more "truthful", supposedly less schematic Ruisdael? Surely not. Indeed, precisely the opposite case can be argued. Ruisdael, we might say, submitted too easily to the tyranny of the camera obscura, finding that its neutral eye furnished him with endless compositional alternatives to "convention". His much vaunted realism would prove, ultimately, to be a cul-de-sac, leading in the end to the dumb literalism of the plein-air painter, dully transcribing the motif. But Rubens, by retaining his artfulness, by forming his landscapes as he did from his own resources as well as those of nature, made sure that what he saw was always shot through with what he felt. This is why his paintings are so wonderful. They contain him.

Constable chose the right word when he said that Rubens "delighted in phenomena". Delight is the emotion that he wants to teach the rest of us to feel, too. This is why he is one of the most cheering and invigorating painters in the world, and why his works are such heartening remedies for disillusionment or depression. His passion, his full-blooded love of the world pulses through his art, with its great sweeping rhythms - and the expressionistic intensity that we find in Rubens, his artfulness, is precisely what has made him so much more of a moral force in the painting of the last three centuries than Ruisdael or any of his Dutch followers. In the landscapes of Rubens, nature is always shaped by the pressures of the heartn

`Making and Meaning: Rubens's Landscapes' is at the National Gallery, London WC2, to 19 Jan 1997 (0171-747 2869)