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Art Review
Beautiful Religious Propaganda
From the Wall Street Journal of Mon, 22 Dec 2014 22:47:45 EST
‘The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek’ (c. 1626) by Peter Paul Rubens, an oil modello for a tapestry.
‘The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek’ (c. 1626) by Peter Paul Rubens, an oil modello for a tapestry. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Los Angeles

In the 1620s, Peter Paul Rubens painted a series of oil-on-wood sketches (the largest about 2 by 3 feet) for a series called “The Triumph of the Eucharist,” promoting an aggressively propagandist Roman Catholic message. A few years later, 20 of these were transformed by four expert weavers in Brussels into wall-filling tapestries up to 16 by 24 feet. Four of the tapestries and six of the oil sketches have now left Madrid for a stay at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles before visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The tapestries were made to decorate a royally subsidized convent church, where they have been for 380 years. Six oil sketches came from the Prado; three others from American museums.

It would take a book to relate the interlocking religio-political background stories that led to these impressive examples of Counter-Reformation art—at their extreme, overwrought and hyperdramatic in the artist’s best theatrical manner: The spectator was meant to be blown away. Rubens created them for a powerful Spanish princess, so profoundly pious she ended her life as a nun. The Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia was fixated on the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation—the “Real Presence” of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, which many Protestants denied—and commissioned this series to celebrate the doctrine, decorating her convent in Madrid with the tapestries.

The big tapestries on display appear faded. Flesh colors pale to gray, flying angels and draperies disappear, gold loses its gleam—although this may be due in part to the use of fugitive pigments and rubbing by centuries of pilgrims. Except for bright blue robes (which retain their original luster), many parts of the tapestries are at once enlarged from and reduced to a shadow of Rubens’s small painted versions. At their best, woven wool and silk seem unable to do justice to faces and eyes, except those of animals and the very old.

On the other hand, the 2- by 3-foot oil modelli by Rubens himself (some impeccably restored by Getty conservators) constantly remind us—for all their dramatic compositions, bright colors and crisp outlines—of their status as preliminary sketches. Robes, surrounding swags, framing columns are left unfinished, for assistants to complete (under Rubens’s supervision) in the full-size “cartoon” versions, which were used as templates by weavers making the tapestries. At this small scale, they cannot possibly evoke the grandeur he envisioned in the wall-size works, which were to be created by other men.

‘Le Printemps’ (1881) by Édouard Manet.
‘Le Printemps’ (1881) by Édouard Manet. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

But at their best—as in the second version of “The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek” (an Old Testament prefiguring of the Last Supper, which freed the artist from contemporary polemics)—the baroque master’s genius for complex composition, credible human faces, mingled crowds, spotlighted muscles, living horses and gold vessels recalls the very best of his ceilings, altarpieces and other big showy paintings all over Europe.

I must admit I remain a bit ill at ease with the heavy-handed Counter-Reformation propaganda that underlies the whole series, a spectacular exercise in defense of a single Roman Catholic dogma. A woman representing the Church (a papal tiara is held over her head) rides a golden four-horse chariot and holds aloft a gold-and-glass monstrance bearing the sacred host. Dragged alongside the coach or crushed under its wheels are burly, seminude male figures representing enemies of Rome. In a similar painting, the dazzling light of the Eucharist terrifies into flight and collapse a muscular band of bull-worshipping pagans. Luther, Calvin and other heretics are shown fallen at the feet of a glowing female figure representing Truth (specifically identified with the doctrine of transubstantiation), while a hapless Jew and a Muslim run off in defeat.

My way around this unease is to try to ignore the sermon underlying the images, as I do with scenes of the creation drawn from Genesis or episodes from the life and death of Buddha, intended to instill belief and foster worship. Even self-assured papal triumphalism can yield powerful sensual and aesthetic experiences in the hands of a master like Rubens, aided by his assistants and followers.


“Le Printemps” (1881) is a half-length Édouard Manet portrait in profile of a fashionably dressed young Parisienne that was bought by the Getty last month for $65 million, a record auction sale for the artist. She now holds the place of honor in the center of the end wall of the museum’s most popular gallery, among 16 other works by Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The model was Jeanne Demarsy—then just 17—who also posed for Renoir. She wears a ruffled, flowered bonnet and tilts a matching parasol over her shoulder, carried by a hand and forearm closely fitted into a suede glove. Her tailored, beautifully flower-embroidered gown (Manet personally chose her outfit) reveals the curves of a full bosom, shoulder and derrière, against a spring garden background of foliage and flowers. Her face in profile is pert and self-consciously sexy, with pursed, bee-stung lips, a retroussé nose, and striking dark lashes and brows. The brushwork is impeccable, the play of light, the choice of colors and subject could not be better.

Although she cannot displace Cézanne’s nearby “Still Life with Apples” (1893-94) for quality, or Van Gogh’s “Irises” (1889) for popularity (17 iris-branded objects are for sale in the gift shop), “Le Printemps” is destined to become a favorite with the public. She’s so pretty, so tastefully seductive, so feminine and floral, so easy to admire—and at the same time an important addition to the museum’s collection of 19th-century painting.

Mr. Littlejohn writes about West Coast cultural events for the Journal.

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