Rubens’ Sentimental Horse

After Rubens left Spain, Velazquez went to the royal painting collection to have another good look at his work.
He stood before the big equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma, which Rubens had painted years before, during his first trip to Madrid. It had pleased everyone at the time.

rubens duke lerma
The Duke of Lerma by Rubens, 1603 (200 x 283 cm.)

What was so good about it? That horse. It was typical of Rubens in many ways. The breast and head of the horse were the realism of genius, but other parts of the animal showed a shocking lack of observation or care. And Rubens led the viewer’s eyes away from these faults with the lushness of the horse’s mane and enormous sentimental eyes.

Velazquez might have thought as follows.

He liked Rubens but thought there were big defects in his style of painting. So much exaggeration of everything, affectation, faulty observation. It seemed to him that Rubens had picked up some of Michelangelo’s faults, such as his restlessness. Every man in his pictures, every thing, simply had to be in movement. That was the Renaissance idea of naturalism. It seemed to them the only way to represent life. A man had to be depicted in action: twisting in his chair at the very least. Their painted tree was bent in the wind; their horse was in full gallop, his mane flying, his nostrils wide. Nothing was static. This finally became tiring to see.

And to Michelangelo’s dynamism Rubens had added some bad of his own. He filled his pictures with too many things. Maybe this was the result of his skill at drawing—that he couldn’t stop it. He drew and drew all over the picture. The trouble was, most of the filler drawings were plain decoration—empty, truthless scrollwork. They distracted from the main figure, destroyed the focus of the picture. It was as if to show a flower Rubens had painted the whole field of flowers around it, and all the grass and weeds—even those that interferred with a clear view of it. And the grass and weeds were painted hurriedly and without care for realism. The result was confusion, not clarity; and frustration or disappointment for the viewer when he sees how small the reward for the time he spent on any of the details of the picture. Could anyone remember a Rubens? All those pictorial accessories robbed his pictures of power.

But Velazquez’s biggest objection to Rubens’ pictures was the pervading sentimental distortion. Michelangelo had never stooped to that kind of appeal—his figures kept their distance. Rubens sweetened his people and all his things. He chose color not to represent truth but to elicit feeling. And so you had those false red and blue shadows everywhere and those golden tints. It was as if he painted while watching the viewer all the time instead of his subject. Velazquez liked truth, clarity, focus. The color of his figures was the color necessary to understand them—there was none added to make you love them. That was an abuse of color. It was a cheap trick. Color had its place in a picture but it had to be bridled or it could run away with you. It ran away with Rubens. It was the most dishonest thing about his work.


This entry was posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Diego Velazquez, oil painting, Renaissance, Rubens, Velazquez and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Rubens’ Sentimental Horse

  1. wrjones says:

    Who were the painters that influenced Rubens? Did they paint this way?

  2. 100swallows says:

    Basically, the great Italians, Bill. Michelangelo, Veronese, Tintoretto. Also Caravaggio. Rubens did an apprenticeship in Amberes with some second-rate painters but then went to Italy. There he got to see the work of those great masters and he developed his own style quickly. Of course he was more important than Velazquez in the history of art. He is THE Baroque painter. And Velazquez wasn’t probably as critical of him as I make out. Before such an original artist–such a force of nature as Rubens was–you can only stand in awe. Even the carelessness in much of his painting and drawing seems somehow above reproach. He was so sure of himself, so prolific, so much above the little picture makers and their precepts.

  3. iodanu says:

    It is know that Rubens had a huge workshop with dozens of apprentices and semi-masters etc. They did most of the work… Probably he draw the cartons and, at the very end, put his master brush on the painting and corrected some errors etc. And signed…

    Except for the family and VIP paintings, most of his paintings were probably the result of a very collective work… That could also respond to most of “Velasquez” critiques.. I think…

  4. Binario-AQ says:

    ¿Sabes de algun libro, de algun autor en español? Y que no sea un ladrillo. Es que, en inglés, me cuesta bastante, y de todas formas preferiría que fuese “de aquí”, pues, es como lo de las corridas, aunque nadie lo reconozca, todos pensamos “¿Qué va a saber éste, si no es de aquí?”

    Quisiera saber más sobre su vida y también me gustaría leer una crítica de su obra.

  5. will says:

    I cannot resist objecting at the point made in the last but one paragraph:’Could anyone remember a Rubens?’!!!This statement is so unexpected to me! If anyone would be at risk to fall into the incredible misery of not being able to remember any Rubens, please send him at once to Antwerp Cathedral and plant him in front of the Crucifixion: he will never forget the awe.
    I admire Rubens immensely, and I shall come back to expand a little more on this.

    • 100swallows says:

      Will: Don’t forget that this is Velazquez’s view of Rubens, or as I imagined it. It is only a device for comparing the work of the two. Of course it is risky: Velazquez, wherever he is now, might also be trying to object:”I never thought any such thing. I admired my friend’s work.” He never saw the Crucfixion in the Antwept cathedral.
      Let me say that I admire Rubens too and “remember”, precisely, this picture of the Duke of Lerma and his horse with the sentimental eyes (and try to forget its ears).

      • will says:

        My apologies, 100swallows, for having overreacted like this. I generally consider it inappropriate from others when discussing such pleasant things as art, and here I find myself falling into the same trap! It must be the high quality of your blog that has carried me away…
        What I like with Rubens is first his dazzling drawing skills, where foreshortenings and vertiginous perspectives seem to be dealt with so easily. His control of anatomy is so amazing. These skills are so broad; they can extend to delightful pen and ink sketches of trees as well.
        I also like his colors, so rich and and bright. The golden light that suffuses many of his paintings is indeed remarkable and , I feel, so attractive (I am ashamed to disagree here with what Velasquez would have said about this…,!)
        A third point is the breadth of his scope, ranging from large, awesome dramatic scenes to sensitive and delicate portraits, full of kind humanity, and tenderness when it comes to his own family for example.
        One thing I love is his little sketches in oil that are on display in Brussels Museum.
        When it comes to horses, which I realize is the starting point of this discussion, I agree with you that the Duke of Lerma’s one is not his best despite he has used it in several other paintings. I am not sure this is due to neglect of some parts. I would rather think it comes from a certain stiffness which often occurs when drawing a horse in frontal view, and when moreover he is at walk. As for the ears, I wonder whether their weird shape is not due to the (detestable) habit of cropping them in those days. This can be clearly seen in many Stubbs’ horses. Just a thought. Having said this, Rubens (and Velasquez for that matter) were in my view the first great Masters to get interested in picturing horses properly.
        Delacroix in his Journal often refers to his admiration for Rubens – another comforting argument for me regarding my admiration for this Master, who is sometimes, and so unfairly, considered as the painter of fat Flemish ladies!
        Anyway, may I congratulate you again about the quality of your blog, and the wonderful platform it offers to art lovers.
        With my thanks

        • 100swallows says:

          Will: Don’t you apologize! I am glad to get such a thoughtful and also knowledgable response from a fellow art-lover. I too am always amazed at Rubens energy and skill. Before I had read about him I pictured a man all full of rebellion and fire. Then I learned that he was a quiet man with court manners he had learned in the service of a countess! But it’s true, his scope is huge: it seems there was no subject he couldn’t depict with authority.

          Long ago, on one of my visits to the Prado Museum (there are eighty-eight of Rubens’ paintings here in Madrid), I noticed a striking similarity between his Duke of Lerma portrait

          and this one by El Greco of San Martín.

          Maybe Greco’s painting was in the royal collection when Rubens came here and he saw it. He must have liked it and copied it or sketched it quickly. You say he used this front view of a horse in other paintings (which I didn’t know) and I agree it is a hard one to bring off for the reason you say. It is interesting to compare the two horses. For all his stylization, El Greco solved the front-view problem better, don’t you think? His horse is not half so original or full of life (and curiosity!) but at least it doesn’t look lame!
          I don’t think there is any good “excuse” for the ears on Rubens’ horse and I’m just sorry about a flaw like that in such a great work. Wouldn’t Velazquez have been sorry too?
          I didn’t know about the cropped-ear custom but what do you think of the shocking slit-nostrils fashion in the Italian Renaissance that you see in Pisanello’s drawings?

          Thanks again for all the kind things you say about this blog. Your drawings of horses are some of the best I’ve seen.
          Un saludo

          • will says:

            I am late in answering your questions, and El Greco’s horse painting has disappeared from wikimedia in the mean time. But I remember him when first reading your post, and I agree with you that the horse does not suffer the shortcomings of the Duke of Lerma’s one. He is better poised and not stiff. The only remark I might venture to suggest (difficult when it comes to discuss such Masters!) is that his gait looks a little weird. The hind legs are almost on the same line, i.e. at halt while the front end is at walk.
            As for the slit-nostrils showing on Pisanello’s drawings, it seems that they were intended to increase the air intake, and hence the speed of the animal..In those days, horsemen were rather barbaric and ignorant indeed!
            It is worthwhile mentioning however that the Italian Renaissance has revitalized all Arts, including Equestrian Art: some decades after Pisanello’s time, Grisone and Pignatelli developed the first approaches of what was to become the Art of Riding Horses which culminated later in France during the XVII and XVIII centuries. Like other arts, the advanced equestrian art developed by the Greeks with Xenophon had been lost in medieval times in Europe – and it was the Italian Renaissance which resurrected it and opened the way towards future refinements. Such a fascinating period!

Leave a Reply