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Rubens’s Horses

By Amélie Tsaag-Valren, translated into English by Danielle Haywood

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Pierre-Paul Rubens, painter, diplomat, and trader, is a name associated with an offering of baroque works that is incredible both in its abundance and its attention to detail; it is seldom a name synonymous with equestrian art. However, Rubens’s animals emit an emotional power rarely seen before him, which is notably conveyed by their heads. Rubens’s horses also provide valuable evidence of the so-called equestrian “Iberian-mania”.

Peter Paul Rubens was born in 1577 in the Holy Roman Germanic Empire to a wealthy and Protestant Flemish family, who had fled the religious persecutions of the Spanish Netherlands. Baptised and raised as a Catholic, he began painting between the ages of twelve and thirteen by recopying the works of Paolo Veronese. He received a classical and humanistic Latin education, where horse riding didn’t appear to play a major part. From the age of fourteen to twenty-one, he was apprentice to the most important Flemish painters of his era: Tobias Verhaecht, Adam van Noort, and Otto van Veen amongst others.

A Self-Portrait of Rubens
A Self-Portrait of Rubens.

In 1598, the Guild of Saint Luke acknowledged him as an independent painter, and he left for Rome three years later in 1601. During this first Italian visit, he took it upon himself to recreate the paintings of the Grand Masters, notably Titian’s. His first real equestrian work made an appearance two years later, thanks to a voyage to Spain.

The Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma (1603)

The young painter was sent on a diplomatic mission to the court of King Philip III of Spain. There he met the Duke of Lerma, who presumably requested this portrait. Greatly inspired by the works of Titian, this equestrian portrait became a true work of reference. The painting is Rubens’s first real equestrian work amongst a long series of robust, Iberian horses, which are often grey and wavy maned. His attention to detail even went so far as to respect the direction of the mane, the swirl of a hair tuft, the subtle outlining of a blaze upon the head, and the patch of pink on the muzzle! It is easy to see how intently the subject was observed, from the visible veins to the welts on the legs.

Portrait of the Duke of Lerma
Portrait of the Duke of Lerma.
Detail of the Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma
Detail of the Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma. This masterful equestrian portrait is however an “early work” of Rubens, as he painted it in 1603 at the age of 26. Proud but gentle...

But this painting is not without fault. The hoof, notably the back right one, does not conform visibly to the others and the back left knee presents a rather peculiar shape. But these mistakes in the lower half of the picture are quickly forgotten when faced with the incredible intensity of the horse’s stare, eyes piercing and nostrils flaring. It is a proud but gentle gaze with which our grey Iberian looks upon the observer. This horse’s presence nearly overwhelms that of the Duke’s! However, this equestrian portrait isn’t radically different from its predecessors, as the Duke appears to be in absolute control in the saddle, fully embodying a period where classical dressage was rigorously practiced.

Saint George and the Dragon (1606 – 1608)

The image of Saint George fighting the dragon was a popular...

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Published 23-05-2015

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