Art History: Behold Rubens at the Royal Academy


When was the last time that a piece of art really moved you? Made you think? Made you look at your surroundings differently? The latest Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, Rubens and His Legacy, doesn’t just present classical artwork: It guides you on a gripping, operatic journey through a master’s career — and it shows how he influenced the major artists who came after him.

Each showroom of the exhibition explores one of six themes through a centrepiece canvas by Peter Paul Rubens and an orbit of other works, all illustrating how his style influenced the others. The first theme, Poetry, draws you into a bucolic world of dancing couples and frolicking lovers. Pay attention to ‘Garden of Love’ and look for the lady in the red dress — you and your friends will swear she’s watching you. As you compare Rubens’s lively, vigorous drawings and the paintings of a later generation of French artists, you plainly see how the younger artists were striving to imitate his lifelike human figures.

In the following rooms, you and your companions are invited to seek more parallels between Rubens and his artistic descendants. The room dedicated to Elegance juxtaposes his flattering portraits of the aristocracy and the work of van Dyck, one of the finest European portraitists, who started his career as an apprentice to Rubens. Your friends might only see a copycat, but pause for a moment, and you will notice the differences in their works. While Rubens aimed to flatter Maria Garibaldi with a grand, imposing portrait, van Dyck painted an intimate portrait of a ‘Genoese Noblewoman’, as if attempting to capture her real personality.

As you walk through the winding halls, you see that drama was the norm in Rubens’s world, and that many were fascinated by it. The epic mythological depictions of kings and queens, the sinners hurtling from Heaven down to Hell, and the abductions of nymphs; all had their admirers among ensuing generations of artists.

Eugene Delacroix, for one, openly admitted to studying Rubens’s sketches diligently. As you compare the two artists, you might argue between each other whether Delacroix’s leaping lions and twisting horsemen look as dramatic as those in Rubens’ fierce ‘Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt’. You might even be inspired to grab a bench and start sketching.

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