Blood in Barcelona

Peter Paul Rubens, Aletheia Talbot, Countess of Arundel, 1620, Oil on Canvas, 108.3 x 79.2 cm, Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

In addition to the group portrait, in Barcelona exists a three-quarter portrait of Lady Arundel of Rubens ’hand. The look and pose are completely identical, but the quality of the representation is far higher than in the large-scale Munich portrait. The far more meticulous elaboration of the reddened areas in the flesh is striking. Just like in Mytens’ portrait, the feather in Lady Arundel’s hair is missing. Such a feather cannot be found in any of the Countess’ other paintings and appears to be Rubens’ invention. As Elizabeth McGrath has shown, the feather as an attribute served as a mark of the muses, pointing to an allegorical meaning of the finished composition.

According to Hans Vlieghe, the portrait in Barcelona may be a workshop copy based on the model of the large portrait of Munich. Considering the outstanding quality of the close-up portrait, it is more likely that Rubens first took his time to paint Lady Arundel alone and that the Munich group portrait was devised on the basis of his half-length portrait. The minute portrayal of the skin is striking in each of the individual portraits, but it is especially remarkable in the Barcelona close-up. Lady Arundel’s flesh appears as if alive in the very detailed rednesses on the rosy white skin. It is clear that Rubens focused on the movement of the blood under the skin in the face and décolleté. The layers of paint simulate the skin layers of the human body, under which living blood pulsates. Lady Arundel, having been interested in medicine and healing early on, must have been particularly fascinated by this meticulous imitation of the movement of colour underneath and through the skin and the specific pulsations of the blood.

Rubens’ interest in the treatment of skin and the depiction of vitality has been thoroughly investigated, among others by Ulrich Heinen and Andreas Thielemann, and most recently by Teresa Esposito and Shawon Kinew (https://selvajournal.org/article/sedlmayrs-mother-of-pearl/). Nico von Hout carried out numerous specific analyses. Art and physiology come together in the intensive study of the complexio, the humoral composition of the body. The portrait in Barcelona is an impressive result of the intensity with which Rubens observed the light through the deeper layers of his models’ skin and captured it on canvas.

Exhibition View May 5, 2018

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.