A Unique Exhibition at the Legion Of Honor in S.F. 
By Iride Aparicio

Photos courtesy: Antonio Gadong

Peter Paul Rubens, front second right, and friends (1602-1605)
Peter Paul Rubens, front second right, and friends (1602-1605)

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - Made possible with the singularly ambitious collaboration between the ART GALLERY of ONTARIO and the FINE ARTS MUSEUMS of SAN FRANCISCO, "EARLY RUBENS," shown at the LEGION OF HONOR MUSEUM in the city, is an exhibition of RUBENS's paintings infrequently exhibited in North America.

RUBENS was born in the town of Siegen, Westphalia (now Germany) in l577,  to JAN RUBENS a prosperous  Calvinist Lawyer, and MARIA PYPELINCKS, a cultural Catholic mother who named him PETER PAUL in honor of two Saints because he arrived into this world at midnight of June 28, the solemnity day of  St. Paul, and early morning of the next day, June 29,  the solemnity day of  St. Peter.

The family returned to Cologne, the next year, and after RUBENS's father's death  in l589, the boy moved to Antwerp with his mother who raised him as a Catholic and gave him a classical renaissance humanist education. He studied Latin and classic literature and at the age of fourteen, began his artistic apprenticeship with TOBIAS VERHAEGHT and ADAM VAN NOORT, two of the city's leading painters of the time. His early training  involved copying earlier artists' paintings.

In 1600, to continue his art studies, young RUBENS travelled to Italy where he saw (and studied) the paintings of TITIAN, VERONESE, and TINTORETTO. With the financial support by Duke VINCENZO I GONZAGA, he also travelled to Rome where he studied the Roman art and the works of Italian masters RAPHAEL, MICHELANGELO, and LEONARDO. His major influence, however, were the naturalistic paintings of  CARAVAGGIO who he later imitated.

Peter Paul Rubens The Flight of Lot and His Family from Sodom 1613-15
Peter Paul Rubens The Flight of Lot and His Family from Sodom, 1613-15

As a painter, RUBENS was productive. His works' catalogue by MICHAEL JAFFÉ lists 1,403 pieces, excluding the pieces he made in his workshop. During his 62 years, he became a diplomat and was knighted by both PHILIP IV of Spain and CHARLES I of England. He died in May 30, 1640, in Antwerp, Spanish Netherlands.

Speaking at the press conference, prior to the  opening of the "EARLY RUBENS" exhibition to the public, THOMAS P. CAMPBELL, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of  San Francisco, said that when in l608, after a period of intense study, PETER PAUL RUBENS returned to his hometown of Antwerp, the  city was eager to renew its visual culture. Working at a rapid pace, RUBENS was able to paint pictures of dramatic scale that could satisfy the demand for religious, images, while supplying the private collectors with different paintings and portraits.

Rubens The Raising of the Cross, 1638,  Oil on Paper and later on Canvas 
Rubens The Raising of the Cross, 1638,  Oil on Paper and later on Canvas


Sanson and Delilah, an oil sketch for Antwerp's Burgomaster NICOLAAS ROCKOX, is one of RUBENS's few commissions for which we possess his preparatory drawings providing us a rare vantage on the artists thoughts.

Sanson and Delilah an oil sketch

The pen and ink sketch provides us with information on the painting's composition. Looking at the sketch, with the three figures looking at him, it becomes obvious that RUBENS's composition is focused on sleeping Sanson, and the dramatically tense moment of his hair cutting.

Rubens Sanson and Delilah, 1609-l610, oil on panel
Rubens Sanson and Delilah, 1609-l610, oil on panel

The catalog's explanation of the painting, indicates that the artist intended multiple light sources; the brown wash indicating the shadow cast by the torchlight of the Philistine soldiers entering through the back doorway, the other flame in the foreground, illuminating Delilah's work. At the end, the different light sources finally defined in the final painting.

During his talk, Director CAMPBELL reiterated the uniqueness of this exhibition that is arguably the most ambitious phase in RUBENS professional life. It is the first exhibition dedicated to the twelve years after RUBENS  returned to Antwerp from Italy, the years in which he painted his most ambitious works and established a foundation for his careers as an artist, business man and diplomat.

Museum Director and CEO, Thomas P. Campbell
Museum Director and CEO, Thomas P. Campbell

Director CAMPBELL considered important to mention that at the time when RUBENS returned to Antwerp, the city was calm because there were no longer religious clashes between Belgium and Holland and the peace provided RUBENS the stability to establish his workshop in Antwerp, which lead to his reformation.

The Baroque Style
In part, RUBENS's reformation as a painter may have been his adopting the Baroque Style. If requested to describe the style with a single adjective, we would select "dramatic." The reason being that the theme of the Baroque Style paintings have to display to the viewer a dramatic moment, structured in a highly dramatic form. Other requisites are: The size of the painting must be big. The action it represents, exaggerated. The composition, dramatic. The colors, vivid and contrasting, and the contrast of light determined by  the chiaroscuro trait, which employs the interplay between intense light and dark shadows to form a high contrast and  a dramatic atmosphere. We must remember that the Baroque Style in art, was created to appeals to the senses.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Massacre of the Innocents, l6ll-l2, Oil on Panel 
Peter Paul Rubens, The Massacre of the Innocents, l6ll-l2, Oil on Panel

If we observe RUBENS's The Massacre of the Innocents, (shown above) it illustrates the Baroque Style, with gruesome details, in its depiction of the New Testament's story. Others, however, had interpret the painting as an allegory for understanding humanity's need of the strong and powerful to abuse and even kill the weak (women) and their innocent children. Its mastery and its visual power, is best described by JAFFÉ who saw in it "A bravura display of classical an artistic learning", because, understanding art, he saw that in this painting RUBENS had applied many of the rules of Baroque style Art he had learned in the Italian schools.

In the background Daniel in the Lions'Den (l614-l618)
In the background, Rubens Daniel in the Lions' Den (l614-l618) 
on the front, L to R assistant curator of European paintings at the Fine Arts Museums in S.F. KIRK NICKEL, and curator of European art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, SASHA SUDA.

The press conference ended with a tour of the RUBENS's galleries in which the paintings were described by Curators NICKEL and SUDA.

Those familiar with paintings or curious about masterful art, will love this exhibition for a reason: it presents the works of RUBENS, considered the most influential artist of Flemish Baroque tradition, at the most ambitious phase in his professional life. As an art exhibition, EARLY RUBENS is unique.

The exhibition will be at the LEGION OF HONOR Lincoln Park 100 34th Avenue until September 8, 2019. For information call 415-750-3600 or online to