Rubens’ Animals

Natural History and History Painting in Rubens’ Animals

Susan Maxwell

In 1616, Prince Elector Maximilian I of Bavaria (r. 1573–1651) commissioned four hunt paintings from Peter Paul Rubens, then one of the most sought after artists in Europe. Rubens’s hectic schedule in his capacity as diplomatic agent for the Spanish Netherlands meant that a large volume of paintings were being executed by his workshop. The fact that all of the Bavarian pieces represent specific commissions executed largely by the artist himself or under his direct supervision, reveals their importance in the highly charged political climate of the Thirty Years War. Given that there was hardly any direct contact between the Bavarian court and Rubens before this point, it may be that Rubens recognized Maximilian’s importance to the Counter-Reformation cause and expedited the commission as a gesture of good will in his capacity as artist-diplomat, as he is known to have done on other occasions.

During this phase of his career, Rubens usually left his large output in the hands of his workshop and collaborators. But in this case, rather than turn to his usual collaborator in all things animal, the specialist Frans Snyders, Rubens undertook to master the animal form himself, as revealed in numerous preparatory sketches, in Rubens’ own letters, and in the quality of the finished works. The commission thus opens up a new line of inquiry regarding Rubens’ theories on artistic transmission and the training of the artist. The four hunt paintings not only played a role in furthering the political aims of artist and patron, they should also be placed within the context of a growing interest in documenting and studying the natural world. Rubens elevates the animal to a for him unprecedented importance and his personal engagement with the observation of animal physiology and anatomy reveals Rubens’ embrace of humanist endeavor, the early modern sciences, and specifically, natural history. As Jakob Burckhardt recognized in 1898, Rubens was the master of animal painting who understood, as did Leonardo da Vinci, how to elevate animals to the heroic status of man and give them a central role in the genre of history painting. The full relationship between Rubens’ developing artistic theory and the birth of empirical sciences, especially in the realm of natural history, deserves a closer look. For Rubens, who discusses the dueling roles of naturalism and classical models in artistic invention, these works become the visual manifestation of his artistic theories. Because one of the hunt paintings depicts native game, a boar hunt, while the other three depict exotic hunts of lions, tigers, a crocodile and a hippopotamus, the set also can be tied back to early modern art and science collections in which the goal was to establish a universality of species that would reflect the ruler’s command of his territory.

The Wittelsbach dukes play an important role in the history of collecting and patronage. Albrecht V founded the Kunstkammer in 1563–67, as well as the Antiquarium (1569) and the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (as the Hofbibliothek in 1558). The first theoretical treatise on collecting practices, the Inscriptiones vel Tituli Amplissimi, written by Samuel Quiccheberg and dedicated to Duke Albrecht V in 1565, explains the Kunstkammer as a virtual cosmos that visually represents not only the ruler’s universal reach, but actualizes his control over all aspects of his realm by allowing for interactive study. This development can be placed within a larger early modern context in which man imposes an ordering system that allows him to control his world. Maximilian I, despite a reputation for fiscal restraint and counter-reformatory zeal, was also a keen collector who had a sharp sense for value and a ruthless drive to acquire the best works of art. For the Wittelsbach dynasty, collecting and display were an important component of statecraft. The Kunstkammer was no longer an element of Maximilian’s collecting practice, but Kunstkammer theories shaped ducal identity and political interaction among early modern rulers, making it a crucial element in the development of both the natural sciences and the birth of the absolutist state. This project placed the paintings into the context of the collecting and patronage practices of Maximilian I of Bavaria, as well as examining the role of the natural sciences in Rubens studio practice and the formation of his artistic theories.

Publications

"Attention and the Values of Nature in the Enlightenment," forthcoming in: Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal, eds., The Moral Authority of Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003

Funding Institutions

DAAD
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh