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Rubens and Women at Dulwich Picture Gallery review: a fresh look at breathtaking beauty

Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders, Diana Returning from the Hunt, c. 1623  (bpk | Staatliche Kunstsammlungen)
Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders, Diana Returning from the Hunt, c. 1623 (bpk | Staatliche Kunstsammlungen)

The thing about Rubens was, he loved women. He loved his mother, Marie, who was the rock that anchored the family, he loved his first wife, Isabella Brand, his much younger second wife, Helena Fourment, his daughters.

And not to put too fine a point upon it, he liked plump rather than etiolated women. One of the points this exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery seeks to make is that Rubens’s women weren’t particularly well-upholstered, any more than the norm.

Well, there’s a reason why he gave his name to an adjective, Rubenesque, as a euphemism for substantial female fleshiness, and this exhibition gives us umpteen examples of it – his study of a Seated Woman in chalk, or his paintings of the Three Graces or Three Nymphs with a Cornucopia all have the kind of pleasing curves and folds that cheer up so many women.

Really, though, it’s unsurprising that he embraced the plus-size woman and would have thought the very term silly: Flemish women, including his wives, were heftier than their Italian or French counterparts and Rubens delighted in them.

In fact it’s interesting here to see images he derives from other sources. There is a drawing from a work by Michaelangelo, for instance, showing a frankly androgynous body with breasts bizarrely appended; left to himself, Rubens would never have drawn that.

Ditto his Study of a Female Nude (Psyche) shows an oddly androgynous and muscular figure, again probably derived from an Italian original. Or there’s his Adam and Eve, a beautiful picture that channels Lucas Cranach, which has a classically featured Eve whose body and breasts are curiously taut; that’s not the real Rubens.

The exhibition suggests that female models were harder to come by than males. I’d like to dispute that. He had two models of rotund femininity immediately to hand: his wives, and it’s often noted that following his marriage to the much younger Helena, most of his females seem to be modelled on her. (She was 16; he was 53, at the time of their marriage, and if that creeps you out, note that her second husband was younger than her).

Indeed it’s impossible to look at his Two Studies for a Crouching Female Nude – seen from behind, entirely at ease – or his Study for Mary Magdalene, both showing plump abdomens, and not surmise that what we’re looking at is an unclothed Mrs Rubens.

These Rubenesque women also feature in his profoundly felt religious work, and if we find that odd, then there’s something wrong with our understanding of Christianity. The whole point of the Counter-Reformation in art was to give emotional heft to our understanding of the life of Christ and the saints and theology itself, and that includes embracing the carnality of humankind.

And yet there’s nothing more affecting than his Lamentation over the body of the dead Christ, with a sensuous Mary Magdalene to one side, and the Virgin closing her son’s eyes, with Christ himself, his flesh grey, seen from the feet up.

But there are also admirable depictions of powerful women, including the tough-nut Infanta of Spain, Isabel Clara, in the habit of a Poor Clare nun – a shrewd gaze there – or the magnificent depiction of regality in the Marchesa Maria Serra Pallavicino, who is not a queen but looks like one, with her astonishing ruff and opulent silks, enthroned.

As for the drawing of Catherine de Medici, a preparatory sketch for the astonishing series in the Louvre on the life of the queen, well, Rubens tells it like it is: she’s plain, and you don’t mess with her.

Dulwich is blessed with a wonderful collection of Rubens of its own and this is an opportunity to look at them afresh. Go, if only for the breathtakingly beautiful drawings – the study of a young women (St Apollonia) or the utterly delicious roundel on the Birth of Venus. Heavenly.

Rubens and Women, until 28 January. Dulwich Picture Gallery