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A Stormy Landscape

Peter Paul Rubens
A Stormy Landscape, c. 1635-38
oil on panel
29.7 x 42 cm
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Michal Hornstein, Montreal, 1998

The National Gallery of Canada recently received a generous gift from Renata and Michal Hornstein of a small, gemlike landscape by Rubens dating from his last years at his estate, Het Steen. In the foreground a stream meanders into the distance; beside it four trees are clustered on a bank and three cows graze. Seven more trees are set slightly farther back at the right, while, on the left, the eye is drawn to the distance over the rolling fields to a dramatic sky with sun emerging from behind stormy clouds. By gradual changes in light effects, Rubens here displays a full command of atmospheric perspective typical of Venetian painting of the early 16th century, examples of which he saw in Italy at Mantua and Rome, but which was also practised in contemporary Dutch landscape painting, equally familiar to the artist. A Stormy Landscape was first documented through an 18th-century engraving made after it by the Dutch artist J. Dansaert (or Danckerts) and was later part of the vast collection of Adolphe Schloss, comprising mainly northern pictures.

Perhaps the most famous of 17th-century artists, Rubens is remembered primarily as a figure painter. His dynamic, large-scale compositions of both religious and mythological subject matter were popular not only in Flanders where he spent most of his life, but were sought by foreign princes whom he met through the Brussels court of Archdukes Albert and Isabella, joint governors of Catholic Flanders. Throughout his career Rubens also painted landscapes, which were prized by such eminent collectors as the Dukes of Richelieu and Buckingham.

Trained in Antwerp, where he became a master painter of the Guild of St. Luke in 1598, Rubens’s early landscapes conform to the Flemish tradition established by Joachim Patiner (c. 1485–1524) and Peter Bruegel (c. 1525–1569). He travelled to Italy in 1600, first to Mantua, then to Rome two years later, making contacts with other artists, studying the works of Renaissance masters, and enjoying a certain personal success. Following his return to Flanders, Rubens was kept fully occupied producing altarpieces for the churches in Antwerp and pictures for the court in Brusels. On diplomatic missions in Madrid and London, he renewed his acquaintance with the works of Titian by examining the important collections of Venetian paintings in both capitals. In 1630 Rubens, by then fifty-two and a widower for four years, married the young Hélène Fourment and five years later purchased Het Steen, situated between Malines and Brussels, where he spent his last years. The buildings included a tower from which it has been suggested he may have painted views of the extensive plain beyond it that characterize his late landscapes. These landscapes reflect a more
personal expression, are often on a small scale and, increasingly, are devoid of figures (only the occasional animal is permitted to stray into his line of vision). The intimate character of these works is underlined by the fact that a number of them remained in the artist’s possession, suggesting they were not made for sale.

While the National Gallery’s collection of Flemish painting is strong in figurative works, comprising religious paintings by Rubens himself as well as the marvellous As the Old Sing, So the Young Pipe by Jacob Jordaens and van Dyck’s Suffer Little Children to Come unto Me, landscape of this period is scarcely represented, making A Stormy Landscape a notable and appreciated contribution.