Many people say Antwerp; but many also say the country of Rubens, and this mode of speech more exactly expresses all the things that constitute the magic of the place: a great city, a great personal destiny, a famous school, and ultra-celebrated pictures. All this is imposing, and our imagination becomes excited rather more than usual when, in the centre of the Place Vert, we see the statue of Rubens and, farther on, the old basilica where are preserved the triptychs which, humanly speaking, have consecrated it.

The statue is not a masterpiece; but it is he, in his own home. Under the form of a man, who was nothing but a painter, with the sole attributes of a painter, in perfect truth it personifies the sole Flemish sovereignty which has neither been contested nor menaced, and which certainly never will be.

The Descent from the Cross. Rubens.

The Descent from the Cross.

At the end of the square is seen Notre Dame; it presents itself in profile, being outlined by one of its lateral faces, the darkest one, on account of the rains beating on that side. It is made to look blacker and bigger by being surrounded with light and low buildings. With its carved stonework, its rusty tone, its blue and lustrous roof, its colossal tower where the golden disk and the golden needles of its dial glitter in the stone discoloured by the vapours from the Scheldt and by the winters, it assumes monstrous proportions. When the sky is troubled, as it is to-day, it adds all its own strange caprices to the grandeur of the lines. Imagine then the invention of a Gothic Piranesi, exaggerated by the fancy of the North, wildly illuminated by a stormy day, and standing out in irregular blotches against the scenic background of a sky entirely black or entirely white, and full of tempest. A more original or more striking preliminary stage-setting could not be contrived. Thus it is vain for you to have come from Mechlin or Brussels, to have seen the Magi and the Calvary, to have formed an exact and measured idea of Rubens, or even to have taken familiarities in examining him that have set you at your ease with him, for you cannot enter Notre Dame as you enter a museum.

It is three o'clock; the clock high up has just struck. Scarcely even a sacristan makes a sound in the tranquil, clean and clear naves, as Pieter Neefs has represented them, with an inimitable feeling for their solitude and grandeur. It is raining and the light is fading. Shadows and gleams succeed each other upon the two triptychs in their thin framing of brown wood fastened without any pomp to the cold and smooth walls of the transepts, and this proud painting only stands out the more amid the violent lights and obscurities contending around it. German copyists have placed their easels before the Descent from the Cross; there is nobody before the Elevation to the Cross. This simple fact expresses the world's opinion as to these two works.

They are greatly admired, almost unreservedly so, and the fact is rare in the case of Rubens, but the admiration is divided. The chief renown has fallen upon the Descent from the Cross. The Elevation to the Cross has the gift of touching still more the impassioned, or more deeply convinced, friends of Rubens. No two works, in fact, could resemble each other less than these that were conceived at an interval of two years, that were inspired by the same effort of mind, and that, nevertheless, so plainly bear the marks of two separate tendencies. The date of the Descent from the Cross is 1612; that of the Elevation to the Cross is 1610. I insist upon the date, for it is important. Rubens was returning to Antwerp, and it was on his disembarkation, so to speak, that he painted them. His education was finished. At that moment he had even an excess of studies that were somewhat heavy for him and of which he was going to make free use once for all and then get rid of almost immediately. Of all the Italian masters he had consulted, each one, be it understood, gave him advice of a sufficiently exclusive nature. The hot-headed masters authorized him to dare greatly; the severe masters recommended him to keep himself under strong restraint.

His nature, character, and native faculties all tended to a division. The task itself exacted that he should make two parts of his beautiful gifts. He felt the expediency of this, took advantage of it, treated of the subjects in accordance with their spirit, and gave two contrary and two just ideas of himself: on the one hand the most magnificent example we possess of his wisdom, and on the other one of the most astonishing visions of his fire and ardour. To the personal inspiration of the painter add a very marked Italian influence and you will still better be able to explain to yourself the extraordinary value that posterity attaches to pages which may be regarded as his diploma works and which were the first public acts of his life as the head of a school.

I will tell you how this influence manifests itself and by what characteristics it may be recognized. But first it is enough for me to remark that it exists, in order that the physiognomy of the talent of Rubens may not lose any of its features at the moment when we examine it. This is not that he should be positively cramped in canonical formulæ in which others would find themselves imprisoned.

On the other hand, with what ease he moves among these formulæ, with what freedom he makes use of them, with what tact he disguises or confesses them, according as he takes pleasure in revealing the well-informed man or the novice. However, whatever he may do, we feel the Romanist who has just spent some years on classic ground, who has just arrived and has not yet changed his atmosphere. There is some unknown quality remaining with him that reveals travel, such as a foreign odour about his clothes. It is certainly to this fine Italian scent that the Descent from the Cross owes the extreme favour that it enjoys. For those indeed who would like Rubens to be somewhat as he is, but very much also as they imagine him, there is here a seriousness in youth, a frank and studious flower of maturity which is about to disappear and which is unique.

I need not describe the composition. You could not mention a more popular composition as a work of art or as an example of religious style. There is nobody who has not in his mind the ordering and the effect of the picture, its great central light cast against a dark background, its grandiose masses, its distinct and massive divisions. We know that Rubens got the first idea of it from Italy, and that he made no attempt to conceal the loan. The scene is powerful and grave. It acts on one from afar, it stands out strikingly upon a wall: it is serious and enforces seriousness. When we remember the carnage with which the work of Rubens is crimsoned, the massacres, the executioners torturing, martyring, and making their victims howl, we recognize that here we have a noble execution. Everything in it is restrained, concise, and laconic, as in a page of Holy Writ.

There are neither gesticulations, cries, horrors, nor too many tears. The Virgin hardly breaks into a single sob, and the intense suffering of the drama is expressed by scarce a gesture of inconsolable motherhood, a tearful face, or red eyes. The Christ is one of the most elegant figures that Rubens ever imagined for the painting of a God. It possesses some peculiar extended, pliant, and almost tapering grace, that gives it every natural delicacy and all the distinction of a beautiful academic study. It is subtly proportioned and in perfect taste: the drawing does not fall far short of the sentiment.

You have not forgotten the effect of that large and slightly hip-shot body, with its small, thin, and fine head slightly fallen to one side, so livid and so perfectly limpid in its pallor, neither shrivelled nor drawn, and from which all suffering has disappeared, as it descends with so much beatitude to rest for a moment among the strange beauties of the death of the just! Recollect how heavily it hangs and how precious it is to support, in what a lifeless attitude it glides along the sudarium, with what agonized affection it is received by the outstretched hands and arms of the women. Is there anything more touching? One of his feet, livid and pierced, encounters at the foot of the Cross the bare shoulder of Magdalen. It does not rest upon it, but grazes it. The contact is scarcely noticeable, we divine it rather than see it. It would have been profane to insist upon it, it would have been cruel not to have made us believe in it. All Rubens's furtive sensitiveness is in this imperceptible contact that says so many things, respects them all, and makes them affecting.

The sinner is admirable. She is incontestably the best piece of work in the picture, the most delicate, the most personal, one of the best figures of women, moreover, that Rubens ever executed in his career that was so fertile in feminine creations. This delicious figure has its legend; how should it not have, its very perfection having become legendary! It is probable that this beautiful maiden with the black eyes, with the firm glance, with the clear-cut profile, is a portrait, and the portrait is that of Isabella Brandt, whom he had married two years before, and who had also sat for him for the Virgin in the wing of the Visitation. However, while observing her ample figure, powdered hair, and plump proportions, we reflect what must some day be the splendid and individual charms of that beautiful Helen Fourment whom he is to marry twenty years later.

From his earliest to his latest years, one tenacious type seems to have taken up its abode in Rubens's heart; one fixed idea haunted his amorous and constant imagination. He delights in it, he completes it, he achieves it; to some extent he pursues it in his two marriages, just as he never ceases to repeat it throughout his works. There is always something both of Isabella and of Helen in the women whom Rubens painted from either one of them. In the first he puts a sort of preconceived trait of the second; into the second glides a kind of ineffaceable memory of the first. At the date of which we treat, he possesses the first and is inspired by her; the other is not yet born, and still he divines her. The future already mingles with the present; the real with the ideal. As soon as the image appears it has this double form. Not only is it exquisite, but not a feature is wanting. Does it not seem as if in thus fixing it from the first day, Rubens intended that neither he nor anyone else should forget it?

As for the rest, this is the sole mundane grace with which he has embellished this austere picture, slightly monkish, and absolutely evangelical in character, if by that is meant the gravity of sentiment and style, and if we remember the rigours that such a spirit must impose upon itself. In that case, you will understand, a great part of his reserve is as much the result of his Italian education as of the attention he gave to his subject.

The canvas is sombre, notwithstanding its high lights and the extraordinary whiteness of the winding-sheet. In spite of its reliefs, the painting is flat. It is a picture of blackish grounds on which are disposed broad strong lights of no gradations. The colouring is not very rich: it is full, well-sustained, and clearly calculated to be effective from a distance. It makes the picture, frames it, expresses its weakness and its strength, and makes no attempt to beautify it. It is composed of an almost black green, an absolute black, a rather heavy red, and a white. These four tones are placed side by side as frankly as is possible with four notes of such violence. The contact is brusque and yet they do not suffer. In the great white, the corpse of Christ is drawn with a delicate and supple line and modelled by its own reliefs without any effort of nuances, thanks to deviations of imperceptible values. No shining, no single division in the lights, and scarcely a detail in the dark parts. All that is of a singular breadth and rigidity. The outlines are narrow, the half-tints limited except in the Christ, where the under layer of ultramarine has worn through and to-day forms blemishes. The pigment is smooth, compact, flowing easily and thoughtfully.

At the distance from which we examine it, the work of the hand disappears, but it is easy to guess that it is excellent and directed with full confidence by a mind broken into good habits, that conforms to them, applies itself, and wishes to do well. Rubens remembers, observes, restrains himself, possesses all his forces, subordinates them, and only half makes use of them.

In spite of these drawbacks, this is a singularly original, attractive, and strong work. Van Dyck will derive his best religious inspirations from it. Philippe de Champagne will not imitate it, I am afraid, except in its weak points, and from it will compose his French style. Otto Van Veen should certainly applaud it. What should Van Oort think of it? As for Jordaens, he is waiting for his fellow student to become more distinctly and expressly Rubens before following him in these new ways.

Les Maîtres d' Autrefois (Paris, 1876).