The new exhibition at the National Gallery in London ought to be yet another triumph for an institution that is now running a very ambitious exhibition program. Who can forget the shows recently devoted to Titian, El Greco, and Vermeer? Yet this event makes a curiously uneasy effect.
There are several, not just one, reasons for this. The first is that Rubens, of all great artists the one who enjoyed the greatest degree of worldly success, had distinctly uneasy beginnings. Of sound Flemish bourgeois stock, he was born in 1577 at Siegen in Westphalia. His parents had fled there to escape persecution, because they were Calvinist converts.
His father, Jan, a lawyer, became the intimate adviser and eventually the lover of Princess Anna of Saxony, the second wife of William the Silent, the champion of the Protestant cause. When the affair was discovered, Jan was placed under house arrest but was eventually allowed to go to Cologne, where he died in 1587. His wife, with her four children, returned to Antwerp, where they all re-converted to Catholicism. The young Rubens was placed as a page in an aristocratic household, but was later allowed to study as a painter.