Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Much of Rubens’ output — the biblical epics or the set piece classical allegories — are perhaps not to everyone’s taste. But his landscapes are another matter. In the complete landscape canon, they are amongst the most beautiful. And Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen is one of his finest.
The quality of light and the type of plants in flower lead us to the conclusion that we are witnessing a beautiful early morning in autumn. It is one of those mornings when you feel glad to be alive. And this is the reason that Rubens bought the estate of Het Steen in 1635. In an amazingly full life he had travelled widely, amassed a fortune and taken on the role of diplomat. Now he wanted to gradually withdraw (with mixed success) from the cares of working to commission and travelling on diplomatic missions, and devote himself to his estate, to life with his second, very young wife Hélène Fourment, and to painting for his own pleasure. And often this meant painting landscapes.
The rising sun is making its appearance to the right of the picture and we are therefore looking due north across flat Flemish pasture and meadows with a town (probably Malines) in the distance. Yellow highlights on the foliage and trunks of the trees beautifully evoke the raking light of early morning. The manor house of Steen commands the left of the picture set amidst mature trees. In front of the house a prosperous family — presumably the Rubens family — are taking the morning air. In the foreground, the rhythm of rural life is under way; a cart leaves for market and a huntsman equipped with a fowling piece and accompanied by his retriever keeps low behind the cover of the brambles — man and dog forming a perfect vignette of expectant concentration; the object of their concerted attention, the covey of partridge feeding near the bridge over the stream, are oblivious to the impending danger. Nearby to the right goldfinches perch in a small tree.
In this picture, as in its companion, Landscape with a Rainbow, also in London, in the Wallace Collection, we gaze upon a perfect moment of bucolic grace where nature and man are bound together in a harmonious Eden.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1635 Diego Velázquez: The Surrender of Breda, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
1636 Rembrandt: The Blinding of Samson, Frankfurt, Städelsches Kunstinstitut
1636 Nicolas Poussin: The Triumph of Pan, London, National Gallery
1637 Anthony van Dyck: Prince Rupert, Count Palatine, London, National Gallery.