Blood, Rocks, and Clouds: Matter and Artistry in Rubens's Antwerp Mythological Paintings
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CitationMandabach, Marisa. 2017. Blood, Rocks, and Clouds: Matter and Artistry in Rubens's Antwerp Mythological Paintings. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractArtistic identity is often sought in self-portraits or in artists’ theoretical writings. This dissertation explores how Peter Paul Rubens shaped a creative persona through mythological and allegorical work. Central to this were a set of paintings that invoked spontaneous generation, the natural scientific theory that certain species or life forms emerged directly from raw matter. Painted in Antwerp, all depict processes related to image-making such as formation, figuration, or procreation. They include Rubens’s Head of Medusa (ca. 1613-18), the Finding of Erichthonius (ca. 1613-18), Deucalion and Pyrrha (ca. 1635), and Neptune Calming the Tempest (ca. 1634). These images center on the fluctuations of raw matter. They therefore theorize, in different ways, the relationship between matter and artistic agency, offering a means to explore Rubens’s art theory and ideas about his own creativity.
There was widespread fascination in Rubens’s time with nature’s “artistry.” Churning out formations that resembled and preserved metamorphic processes, nature was analogized with the artist in the visual practices of the Kunst- und Wunderkammer. The Head of Medusa responds to this interest as well. It depicts the gorgon’s blood spawning a virtual cabinet of insects, snakes, and other reptiles, including a monstrous two-headed snake, painted by the still life specialist Frans Snyders. Erupting from the gorgon’s petrifying mask, her blood is posited as a symbolic “prime matter” of both nature and painting. I discuss this stunning conceit in relation to Rubens’s artistic identity as it was shaped through his other works. I also argue that Head of Medusa thematized its own collaborative authorship. Both in it and in Prometheus Bound (1611-12), the reserves where the painters hands exchanged are depicted as wounds with regenerative connotations, implying images as living bodies in whose creation matter is an active agent. My second chapter centers on two further myths of spontaneous generation: the Finding of Erichthonius and Deucalion and Pyrrha. In both of these images, Rubens lends Mother Earth a symbolic body of rocks, stone, or mud; and he emulates sculptural practice in order to conceptualize painting’s enlivening qualities. Zeroing in on the animating fluctuations of monochrome relief, he shows ancient matter erupting into new forms as it is enlivened by water and air. The third chapter centers on Neptune Calming the Tempest, in which water and air are whipped up into a storm whose embodiment is the North wind Boreas. Rubens created the scene for the festive entry of a Habsburg ruler into Antwerp on April 17, 1635. I argue that Rubens embedded his artistic authority in the cycle, in the two water deities in the Stage of Welcome who activate the procession through images. Rubens’s oil sketch of Neptune Calming the Tempest depicts Boreas as a transparent cloud-figure whose “flesh” mingles brushwork with the preparatory layer of the imprimatura. In this, I argue, Rubens invokes the topos of the “image made by chance,” showing that his oil sketches could model art-theoretical ideas. The works discussed in this study thus offer a surprising conception of matter—not as something that the painter must heroically shape or overcome, but rather as a collaborator in image-making or even a stand-in for the artist.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41140194
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