his exhibition didn’t have to travel far: one bit of it came from the National Gallery, the other from upstairs in the Wallace Collection. It consists of two beautiful pictures painted in the twilight years of Rubens’s life, of the landscape around Het Steen, the handsome manor house he purchased for his retirement, seen at the beginning and end of the day, the latter under the arc of a wonderful rainbow. Het Steen was where he spent his last decade after the hurly burly of a life spent in art, business and diplomacy. What remained was his art and in particular his landscape painting – something we don’t usually associate with Rubens, he of the fleshy allegories and highly charged religious works.
The pair were probably painted as pendants, designed to be seen together. After Rubens’ death, the pictures travelled around Europe, finishing up in England where they were much admired by Reynolds, Constable and the Romantic painters and acquired by separate owners. In 1856, the Rainbow Landscape ended up at a Christie’s auction, where the Marquess of Hertford outbid the then Director of the National Gallery, Sir Charles Eastlake. One ended up in Trafalgar Square, the other in Manchester Square and are now brought together for the first time since 1815.
There’s something rather moving about their reunification; John Constable, who especially admired Rubens’ landscapes, and was patently influenced by them, talked about pairs of pictures in terms of marriage and divorce, and he lamented the separation of this couple.
In the one in early day, we see the house itself, with a couple on a wagon making their way, presumably to market, with a trussed calf. In the foreground, there’s a man with a gun holding in his dog, creeping up on a group of partridges – the early bird catching the early birds. The town is tiny and far way on the blue horizon; in between we see the lush pastures and rolling countryside of the Brabant landscape. We see tiny gentlefolk by the house, including a hopeful fisherman leaning over the moat.
By late afternoon, the perspective has shifted; Het Steen is now tiny in the middle distance, the haymakers are still at work, there are peasants coming home from the field, the cattle are making their way by the river, and a group of ducks are flapping and hoovering up the mud: all of it under a symbolic rainbow – the covenant after the flood, tranquility following the rain and Flanders after war and division. In the distance, there’s a little white horse. But this being Rubens, there’s a man on a cart giving the glad eye to one of the girls; another, ogled by her male companion, looks serenely at the viewer.
Expert work shows that Rubens expanded the paintings as he worked (the house wasn’t in the original panel); he was plainly enjoying himself too much to stop (there’s an interesting short film at the start to demonstrate the detective work). These pictures of fruition, of autumnal plenty, resonated with his own life: four years after the death of his wife Isabelle, he married her niece, Helene Fournier, an undoubted beauty with whom he had five children. He was 53, she was 16; unremarkable then, though nowadays we’d take a dim view. These landscapes marked a return to his early training with Paul Bril (in one of whose landscapes he characteristically replaced a hermit saint with a voluptuous Psyche visited by Jupiter). They are very Flemish, but with Italian polish and delicacy. These were paintings done for his own pleasure. What’s striking is the delight he takes in nature: the lovely patch of cow-parsley; the sun on the trees and the dappled light.
This pair reward close scrutiny: slow art. But it seems perverse that this is the one chance we’ve got to see them together. Here’s a suggestion. Rather than dividing them up at the end of this exhibition, how about keeping them together, with the pair alternating every few years between the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection? The Shaw Bequest shuttles between London and Dublin; Rembrandt’s magnificent pair of portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit are jointly owned by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum, with an arrangement that they reside at each museum for alternate periods of five years; it’s not unprecedented. What Rubens put together, let’s keep together.
Wallace Collection, until 15 August. Free, with £5 suggested donation