What it must have been like to have been Peter Paul Rubens! Well loved as a child, prodigiously talented in art and in languages, handsome and socially at ease in every stratum of society, friend of everyone including royalty, classically educated, well read, and deeply religious. And if we add to that the fact that he was internationally famous as a diplomat as well as an artist, we must agree that he was a fortunate man indeed!
In fact it is my personal opinion that Rubens was the most brilliantly talented painter who ever lived, one who could paint an incredibly complex battle scene including dozens, even hundreds, of figures as successfully (if perhaps not quite as easily) as a blade of grass or the branch of a tree.
But even genius needs its lighter moments, its time out for gentleness and relaxation, its easy time when art can be approached with leisure and affection -- and without professional concern.
At such moments an artist will often celebrate the goodness of his life, will expose his blessings, in a work of art for all the world to see.
"Rubens, his wife and Son Nicolas in their Garden" is just such a celebratory painting, for it portrays Rubens strolling with his wife in his garden at home, surrounded by all the trappings of wealth and success brought out in his art. With happy pride he looks out at us as if to say, "See what I have? See what I've made of my life? Isn't life splendid?"
But as we study this painting it becomes increasingly clear that an even deeper reason for its being is to introduce Ruben's beautiful young wife to us. It is she who is the real subject of this work; everything and everyone in it defers to her. She is "center stage," so to speak, perhaps not exactly taking a bow, but certainly graciously accepting the approval of one and all.
As a matter of fact, the entire composition resembles an opulent stage set onto which Rubens, his wife, and the boy have wandered. Even the servant feeding the peacocks is unrealized when compared with the three central characters. And the same is true to the building and the trees, which look artificial next to the vibrantly alive trio.
This quality of full, rich, human reality existing within relatively artificial scenery has always intrigued me about this work. It is tempting to attribute the less masterly and painstaking execution of the building, servant, and landscape to an assistant asked to finish the painting after Rubens had completed the details that particularly interested him. But, except for some stylistic evidence that the trees may have been done by another hand, it seems unlikely that the artist had someone else work on this painting. Its informality and intimacy argue against it.
It seems more likely that Rubens wanted nothing in the picture to detract from his wife's beauty, and made sure of this by underplaying everything else. In other words, his wife is portrayed as though she were a beautiful flower placed dramatically against ordinary greenery, in an earth-colored vase.
This effect is particularly strong when seen in color. Only the boy, who is dressed in brilliant red, outshines her. But even he, because of his close proximity to her, draws attention more to her than to himself.
Also, the wife's head is the apex of a compositional triangle whose sides extend down to the lower corners, and whose base is the bottom of the painting itself. Even the fan she holds is an attention-getting device, which not only defines ones side of the triangle, but keeps Rubens in the background by drawing our eye away from him.
Everything, in short, is designed to give Helene Fourment pride of place, to make her the center of attention. She was the jewel of Rubens's life, and he wishes to tell all the world about it.
And indeed he did, for he painted her over and over again: as a young bride, as loving mother (she was to bear five children in the 10 years between their marriage and his death), and as a model for many of the women in his late historical and allegorical pictures.
But never again was he to portray her with such direct and loving pride as he did in this work. For Rubens, master of every complex and difficult artistic device known to man up to that point, this was as simple and forthright a pictorial statement as he was able to make. And, as such, it has come down to us as one of his most personal and most gentle works, one that would be very much at home next to the work of Renoir of the 19th century, and such intimists as Bonnard and Vuillard in the 20th.