Weak Flesh

Peter Paul Rubens, Callisto, 1613, Oil on Canvas, 202 x 305 cm, Kassel, Gemäldegalerie

The most fascinating example of an artist concerned with the human body as an object of both medicine and art is Lady Arundel’s Antwerp acquaintance Peter Paul Rubens. In his Theoretical Sketchbooks he offers a comprehensive theory of the human figure. For Rubens, the human body, as a microcosm and perfect creation of God, reflects the perfection of the stars, the macrocosm. The artist aspires to mirror the divine through the truthful imitation of this microcosm as well as in the physical process of creating the art work which is inspired by nature. Rubens presents himself as deeply influenced by Paracelsian ideas in singling out  three basic geometric shapes for the human body, analogous to the three basic chemical principles of salt, sulfur and mercury (Tine Meganck, Rubens on the Human Figure: Theory, Practice and Metaphysics 2007).

Sketch from De Ganay Album (Copy of Rubens’ Theoretical Notebook) 1651-1692, 455 x 285 mm, Antwerp, Rubenshuis

Rubens’ famous critique of modern bodies in comparison with the superior bodies sculpted in Antiquity, a direct paragone between real, contemporary bodies and the idealized marbled of a distant past, reads less as a contribution to art theory than as an early modern body shaming. The painter interprets the real, ordinary bodies of his contemporaries as a sign of an intellectual and social decline since antiquity, a signet of inferiority.

Contemporary lack of exercise and overeating are held responsible for bodies inferior to those of antiquity, ultimately necessitating the use of statues as models. Roger de Piles recounts Rubens’ train of thought in his Principles of Painting (1743):

“The chief reason why men of our age are different from the antients, is sloth, and want of exercise; for most men give no other exercise to their body but eating and drinking: No wonder therefore, if we see so many paunch-bellies, weak and pitiful legs and arms, that seem to reproach themselves with their idleness: while the antients exercised their bodies every day in the academies.”

Sketch from De Ganay Album (Copy of Rubens’ Theoretical Notebook) 1651-1692, 455 x 285 mm, Antwerp, Rubenshuis

Jeffrey Muller argues that Rubens introduces the possibility of progress in art by pointing to the possible improvement of physical fitness (Rubens’s Theory and Practice of the Imitation of Art 1982). Andreas Thielemann, however, construes the passage as the odd one out in dire need of explanation (Rubens’ Traktat De Imitatione Statuarum 2012).

How bizarre to find that even though the master painter’s apparent pleasure in depicting layers of skin and fleshiness of rosy, glowing, abundant bodies has become proverbial, Rubens’ writings show nothing but contempt for the beautiful soft figures today called Rubenesque. Instead, his Theoretical Notebook reads like a concerned physician’s call for exercise and balanced nutrition.

Pirro Ligorio, Gymnasts climbing Ropes, 1569, Woodcut, in: Girolamo Mercuriale, De Arte Gymnastica, London, Wellcome Collection

Rubens even quotes Girolamo Mercuriale, the author of the very first contribution to sports medicine, who propagated techniques bodybuilding based on the ancient model (Artis Gymnasticae apud Antiquos Celeberrimae, Nostris Temporis Ignoratae 1569). The inseparable connection between the real and the depicted body turns individual physical conditions into a symptom of the times, with the implicit demand for exercise and conscious nutrition connecting life and art.

Cite this blog post
Jennifer Rabe (2022, March 19). Weak Flesh. Lady Arundel 1654–2054. Retrieved May 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/qpe1

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