The Rainbow

Lawrence Gowing

  • Rubens and the Poetics of Landscape by Lisa Vergara
    Yale, 228 pp, £29.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 03 000250 8
  • James Ward’s Gordale Scar: An Essay in the Sublime by Edward Nygren
    Tate Gallery, 64 pp, £2.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 905005 93 7

The idea of the painter as a power of nature, an organ of creation in himself, has been as deeply-rooted and long-lasting as anything in the Western legend of the artist. Rubens was every kind of power. He was the instrument of divinity, the tool of statecraft, the agent of dynastic aspirations, the wielder of philoprogenitive potency until the last month of his life and the progenitor not only of children but of generative images to match.

When Rubens retired to the country in 1635, at the age of 58, it was to paint the terrain round his new manor of Het Steen no less than his wife, who was just 21, and the children that he engendered. At his death five years later, there were 11 of his own landscapes in his collection. To have kept so many he must have held them as precious as the fur-coat picture which furnished the marital bedroom. In the last landscapes one is looking, as directly as in any picture of his bride, at the character of his possession and the quality of his love.

It was a quality that had changed with the passing of time. As Constable said, Rubens ‘delighted in phenomena; – rainbows upon a stormy sky, – bursts of sunshine, – moonlight, – meteors, – and impetuous torrents mingling their sound with wind and wave’. The words are like a description of Flood Landscape with Philemon and Baucis, the big canvas in Vienna (Constable would have known it in a famous print), full of water, rock and light, with a little rainbow hanging over a cascade in the bottom left-hand corner. ‘It seemed such a marvellous place to have a rainbow!’ Patrick George, a considerable Rubenist, once said to me. But Lisa Vergara’s destination is the idyllic landscapes of the last years of his life – and they no longer show ‘phenomena’ in this sense. There are no catastrophes and no perils. Instead there is the most phenomenal thing of all, the presence of nature itself, with its real lustre. No impetuous torrents to throw up prismatic spray; the rainbow, in the splendid picture of the Wallace Collection, curves serene and broad over the common scene of mid-afternoon in changeable Northern weather, over the roadside coppice glistening in fitful sunlight and the puddles that the rain has left, over the returning cows who turn aside to drink as if to try the herdsman.

Constable already recognised The Rainbow as the pendant to the Château de Steen belonging to his patron Beaumont, the picture that Lisa Vergara has at last rehabilitated on behalf of art history. The great landscapes of Rubens’s last years remain a treasury of natural things-in-themselves. A book on them should be good enough to seem, as one reads, one’s favourite book, a book for which one would exchange everything else on the subject. For me, Lisa Vergara’s book does just that and I am grateful for it. The literature on Rubens landscapes has been transformed. Not out of recognition, I hurry to add: the book is designed like a minor echo of its predecessor, Gluck’s book of 43 years ago – from which his name and his essay were missing, because the Nazi interdict fell on Vienna before it was printed – with the spine along the shorter edge, bound in red linen and banded as Gluck’s was. The colour plates, I am sorry to say, are not much better than those produced in wartime Vienna. Seeking ‘the freshness and dewy light’, Constable would hardly recognise his two favourite pictures. It scarcely matters. After four decades, a subject worth studying is studied again.

The appropriateness of Constable’s devotion lay deeper than style. In painting he attended, as he said, to the still small voice. (He thought of himself as an Elijah, just as Cézanne thought of himself as Moses.) The muting of the thunderous bombast that rang through Rubens’s middle years left exactly the intimate tone that is adopted in confidence and with it, which Constable sought in painting. The burgeoning and proliferation of natural form, the ebullient life-force that could not outline anything that lived without transporting it into the rhythms of flesh and sinew, woke no echo in Constable. The affinity was deeper: Rubens’s late landscapes meant more to Constable than the effects of art, more than the Claudian schema that served for Dedham Vale.

With Turner, although he would have denied it, it was the other way about. At dinner with Samuel Rogers (who owned the Moonlight Landscape now in the Princes Gate Collection), Turner ‘broke out, to the annoyance of all, against the landscape of Rubens’. Wilkie led the rebuttal: ‘We impressed upon him our regret that such a man as he could not feel the beauties of such an observer as Rubens.’ It was no good. Turner’s resistance to Rubens was in defence of visual truth. ‘Rubens, master of every power ... threw around his tints like a bunch of flowers ... obtaining everything by primitive colour, form and execution; and so abundantly supplied by the versatility of his genius ... could not be happy with the bare simplicity of Pastoral scenery or the immutable laws of nature’s light and shade.’ Most of us have resisted Rubens on this account, because we have all shared, more or less, Turner’s apparent conviction, the conviction of the 19th century, that consistent visual truthfulness, the obedient transcription of a coherent coup d’oeil, can amount to pictorial truth. I have believed this and taught it – quite wrongly. Pictorial fidelity is of its nature metaphoric: its truths are synthesised in the mind as much as discovered by the eye, as Cézanne, the greatest of Rubenists, explained. Of course Turner, in another mood, when he did not feel provoked by the appearance of the sun and the moon in a single picture, knew this better than anyone, as his dicta, taken as a whole, make clear. ‘Do you not yet understand that a picture is before all an arrangement of memory?’

The Landscape with Waggoners, with sun and moon on either side, which provoked Turner, was sold from Houghton Hall to Catherine the Great in Turner’s lifetime, but he could only have known it from a print. Lisa Vergara is particularly good on these binary compositions, which offer symbolic antitheses, and also symbolic continuities – majestic lateral progressions through the hours of day and night, or all-inclusive reviews of the elements. No one has written so well on metaphoric landscape, and the literary climate from which it springs. They are Vergara’s starting-point, and on this basis we get a truer impression than anywhere else in the literature of Rubens’s elaboration from 16th-century sources, both pictorial and literary, of his unmannered and non-Mannerist world-view, comprehensive and coherent as nothing else in landscape art. There was a potent intellectual virility: perhaps it was the real message, a message about reality, that the sinuous drawing carried.

This was the issue which Rubenism transmitted to the Romantic movement, the perennial pursuit of an inherent liveliness for painting. Not only the heroic central motif of The Leaping Horse but the peculiarly energetic synthesis of observation in nearly everything that Constable painted were surely sustained by something inherent, way below style, in Rubens’s example. The Romantic painter who derived a manner, and a natural momentum as well, from the landscapes of Rubens (including their bovine staffage, which no one else has had any use for) was James Ward. The Tate exhibition of Ward’s Gordale Scar with the whole range of studies and drawings for that picture (unluckily, too close to megalomania to be taken seriously as the masterpiece which, as a painterly performance, it undoubtedly was) revealed how much of the natural thing-in-itself was still within reach of Rubenist style in the 19th century. The studies and drawings of Gordale Scar, I heard Frank Auerbach say, with that disarming, half-apologetic grin, ‘are the kind of things one might have done oneself’, and I was grateful to him, because he is one painter entitled to recognise some of the drive toward the natural thing-in-itself in his own drive and his manifold abundance – his recent exhibition at the Marlborough proved it. The Tate exhibition and its admirable little catalogue were things of the kind the National Collections do best. Who will arrange for the two pictures of the Steen to hang together for a time, with a catalogue by Vergara? The symbolic antitheses of Rubens’s earlier landscapes, as Vergara explains, enable one to imagine how the two late masterpieces in London must have looked hanging side by side, as they surely did (Château de Steen on the left) in Rubens’s time at the Steen. Vergara’s description of how a relationship between the artist and nature was realised with such unprecedented concreteness in design is for me the best thing in current art-literature. I see I have scribbled in the book ‘wonderful lines’. First in The Waggoners, then in the landscapes leading up to the quite matter-of-fact pictures now at Trafalgar Square and Hertford House, Rubens appears to ‘convert the latent processes of nature into action’. Vergara is so well read and so perceptive that personally I trust her in a reconstruction of fantasy which few historians would venture on. ‘One might say that painting not only treats sublunary nature but symbolises as well the very activity – near divine – of the artist himself.’

Studies of Ward and Gordale Scar assume an almost aggrieved tone when they confess that he took liberties with topography. Visits to Malham over many years persuaded me of exactly the reverse, and the drawings, which are evidently literal and remarkably like the relevant passages on the enormous canvas, strengthen my conviction that, as the deep recession was progressively unfolded on the flat, the picture in the Tate grew more and more faithful. It would be treachery to nature and the nature of painting not to take this much liberty at their prompting. We seem to forget – or rather, in this retrospective, confessional mood, let me say I forget – that virtually no painting worth the name was more strictly limited to compliance with a single coup d’oeil than this. Certainly we forget how to look at Rubens. At the National Gallery, where Samson and Delilah, the coup of the century, now hangs with well-documented appropriateness at the height of the chimney-breast it was painted for, one can hear people puzzling every day about how it is possible to look at once both over and under this heap of silky flesh and shiny satin, without noticing that one is also looking at the span of time and sees both before and after – lust and satiation, as well as vengeance. In Het Steen, Rubens must have been consciously at odds with the demands of consistent recession. (I do not believe that elementary perspective was beyond him.) Living naturalness, plump and leafy or feathered or furry, had to swell and burst its conceptual bonds fully to embody the quality of the thing-in-itself. Whether the inconsistencies of the recession are ‘devices to bind these views into a unified scene’, as the wise Vergara thinks, I am not so sure.

My life in painting has been interwoven with threads of affection for and incomprehension of Rubens’s landscape. After the war the Vienna edition of the nameless Gluck, with text from Burckhardt, was almost the first book to arrive from the Continent. I fell on it and persuaded Henry Inlander to translate it for pocket money. All I gathered from Gluck’s catalogue was an awareness of how many Rubens landscapes had been in vanished British collections at a time when they were crucial for image and imagination in this country. When the Times doubted the utility of the National Collections, I accordingly wrote to protest, to be rewarded by a note informing me that not all the collections of Rubens had gone and inviting me to Princes Gate. I took the book to Sutton in 1946 and though the pictures that I was beginning to paint look naive in the context, I see that the springing life I could not fail to notice, both in the hazel woods and in the book, prevented them from being wholly inert. A dozen years later, moving to Lambourn, I found that the most noted resident of the village had been Joshua Sylvester – ‘the translator of our beloved Du Bartas’. In the woods again I found myself chuckling at ponderous couplets from his Creation poem, together with Turner’s quotations from Akenside. (Neither poet was to blame for the direction taken by my pictures.) Vergara’s admirable account of the landscape mythology which the 16th century transmitted to Rubens found me among distant and neglected acquaintances. To be educated under such auspices is a delight.

Thus the trains of thought and observation that contributed to these masterpieces are gathered together, and one sees the London pictures, as I found, more clearly than ever before. Vergara’s descriptions of great pictures are nearly always worthy of them. Imagining the great panels hanging side by side, she sees first a movement in time. The darkened upper corners evoke, on the left, the sky before dawn and, on the right, the fall of dusk. Between them, the shifting light makes a kind of sense in which we can almost follow the cycle of a summer’s day in the surroundings of Het Steen. It is pursued into the smallest detail – of botany, husbandry, the weather and the clouds, even the social stratification of rustic culture. We are miles away from the single-viewpoint coup d’oeil and the context which has misled us about Rubens. ‘Time and space are conflated to create a copious, complete world.’