Skip to Content

Art Gallery of Ontario

Keyword Site Search

Art Matters Blog

Liveblog: David Jaffé on Peter Paul Rubens and The Massacre of The Innocents

October 26th, 2011

Rubens, Peter Paul (Flemish, 1577–1640) The Massacre of the Innocents circa 1611–1612 oil on oak panel The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario

We’re in for a treat at the AGO tonight. David Jaffé, Senior Curator in the Department of Painting, National Gallery, London will talk about the work of 17th Century Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens. In particular he will discuss the Massacre of the Innocents by Rubens from the Thomson Collection at the AGO. The talk, and the liveblog, begin at 7pm – see you then! – Holly, Internet & Social Media Content Coordinator

19:03 DJ ‘I apologise for those who can’t understand Australian… there will be lots of images so you won’t get bored.”

“The Massacre of the Innovents was painted by Rubens just after he returned from a 10 year sabbatical to Italy… holiday in the sun… his brother was working in Rome and he could speak Latin so he quickly adapted to Italian. It became his language for letter writing.”

19.05 ‘The Flems are considered hard workers… art was a production, a business. This Petroda sculpture (on screen) is a link to Massacre of the Innocents. Look carefully at the way the figures are animated.” (Available to view in the Gallery – HK) 

“Rubens realised sculpture was the key to making a new kind of drawing for his age.”

19.07 “Rubens started by looking back at Raphael. We have few paintings from between when he qualified as a painter and when he went to Italy in the 1600s. His mum writes ‘there are many beautiful paintings in my house by my son’… but we don’t know if they really were beautiful or not.”

On screen – Rubens’ sketchbook of human forms

19.08 “The drawing on the right is of Hercules with a little Greek inscription. It’s recording a story about Hercules and monkeys – a learning association drawing a famous statue. On the left is a pen sketch of Paul preaching from the Raphael design – he thought that gesture was powerful enough to record. The inscription? The cube is the source of all stability.”

19.10 On screen – Images of Hercules, larger than life and strong from the 1590s.

“The only current people who are good to look at are rowers, porters and dancers.” – Rubens’ view of the human form.

19.11 “How does Rubens use the pocketbook and how can we interpret this? My job is to find out what he’s actually copying. He picks up a painting made in 1548 and puts a figure from it with lots of other guys… he arranges figures like a topographer.”

“Rubens almost took an academic attitude to art to begin with.”

19.14 “He often picked quite obscure people from prints to copy into his pocketbook.”

19.15 “We tend to think of Baroque as gruesome.. but it was always a streak in Italy, the same streak you see in Hollywood.”

19.16 “He copied Holbein. In this picture is death, grabbing the coattails of a monk – and Rubens copies this (shown on screen). He changes the skeleton/monk scene into a girl/boy event. The sketchbook isn’t always literal – they get an inspiration and then think how can I exploit it?”

19.19 “He kept it (his pocketbook) with him for the whole of his career but it didn’t infiltrate his art as much as I was hoping. But sometimes I got lucky.”

On screen – More examples of sketches from Rubens’ pocketbook that have made it into his paintings.

19.22 “Rubens is famous for doing girls who forget to get dressed. They’re buff.. they’re not sloppy girls. The sense of the back and the energy of the back… you can seriously think of Matisse but he was probably thinking about Julio Romano”

19.25 “This sketch of Atlas trying to bend the back at different angles becomes the helper trying to raise the cross.”

19.26 “The copy is sometimes quite literal – this (on screen) is from a famous Rosso print.”

19.30 “Rubens thinks girls are a good idea.”

19.30 “Rubens responds to prints in an aggressive way… and he responds to prints that I’ve never heard of. Rubensian figures look a bit out of date when you realise Rosso has already got there.”

19.32 “Rubens in 1598 was prepared to go to his pattern book, his source book, and clamp together a painting from a variety of sources.”

19.33 “Anything will go as long as it’s the right kind of thematic source… but he realised that this isn’t the way to go. The switch is very interesting.”

19.35 Talking about Raphael and bodies in action – Looking at a Raphael print of The Massacre. “It’s made to make you feel on edge but not quite go over the decorum lines.”

On screen – Different versions of the massacre of the innocents tale.

19.37 “Rubens was aware of his history. It becomes a genre… you no longer see it as a vital thing but an exercise in extreme foreshortening.”

19.39. “Rubens could have entered the contest. He knew engravers and could have made a print but decided to take it back to a different level by doing a painting. It’s almost a conscious effort to sweep away the saturation of printed images. That’s why it feels so fresh, so strong, so powerful. Love it or hate it, it’s a masterpiece of communication. You can’t get this kind of immediacy from a print – you have to go to a painting, to a large painting.”

19.41 “Rubens was looking at different kinds of sources. For The Conversion of Paul he used this Kopp tapestry design – notice the detail from the hand on the horses rump. Rubens has self-consciously picked up this image and explored it, rotated it, to get the pose he wants.”

19.46 DJ is talking about The Massacre as a painting that was designed to be displayed well above our heads above a fireplace, a chimney piece. This placing affects where the painters places details and highlight in the work.

19.49 “You have to think of Rubens as an artist responding to sculpture. You can’t ignore that sculpture has power and that you interact with it – think of the Henry Moore Gallery.”

19.51 “I want to think about the first known owner of The Massacre of the Innocents. Carenna lived in a big house with a huge fireplace. If you go into his house there’s a blank wall above the fireplace, over 6ft tall. We never hang paintings that high up now – that’s where The Massacre sat, surrounded by tapestries 4 or 5 metres long. Rubens must have been aware that was how it was going to look – it had to have the power to explode out.”

19.57 On screen – Carenna’s tomb. Very elaborate marble.

19.59 ‘It’s interesting to think of the kind of power and awe that the painting must have generated. There’s a lot of history in it.”

20.00 “Rubens thought peace was very important… it has some of that in it. Although you can’t read it too much as a political painting.”

20.03 “The Tetroda with the ligaments running around the limbs… if you get it from exactly the right angle you can see how Rubens got the pose of the figure in The Massacre. He’s rejected hard laboured print sources and gone to this anatomical way of making figures come alive. It’s almost a homage to Tetroda in this painting. He takes inspiration from an unexpected source and takes it further.”

20.07 “Go up and see the painting and see it maybe slightly differently.”

Thank you for tuning in to our liveblog! You can come in and see The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens any time – part of the Thomson Collection at the AGO.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.