The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, opens “Spectacular Rubens” in February 2015
Exhibition explores one of Peter Paul Rubens’s greatest achievements; reunites panel paintings with monumental tapestries from Spain
Unprecedented loans from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge are unique to Houston presentation
HOUSTON—November 17, 2014—In the early 1620s, Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) designed a series of 20 tapestries on the Triumph of the Eucharist that celebrated the glory of the Roman Catholic Church. The commission came from the Spanish governor-general of the Netherlands, the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia (1566–1633), as a gift to the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales (Convent of the Barefoot Royals) in Madrid. Spectacular Rubens reunites Rubens’s exuberant oil sketches painted for this commission with the original tapestries, the largest number of works for the Eucharist series assembled in more than half a century. The exhibition, on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from February 15 to May 10, 2015, presents an unrivaled opportunity to experience the Baroque master’s extraordinary impact on both an intimate and a monumental scale.
Organized by the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Spectacular Rubens features six painted modelli, or large-scale oil-on-panel studies, from the Prado’s collection, recently conserved with the support of a grant from the Getty Foundation through its Panel Paintings Initiative; four of the original silk and wool tapestries, among the most celebrated treasures of the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, in a rare loan from the Patrimonio Nacional in Madrid; and several other paintings by Rubens related to the Eucharist series, on loan from national and international collections. In Houston, the presentation also includes another series of preparatory sketches for three of the four tapestries to be shown, lent by the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge in England.
“The paintings and tapestries from the Triumph of the Eucharist series, considered one of Rubens’s greatest artistic achievements, are among the most important works of art produced in the Baroque period,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “We are pleased to partner with the Prado and the Getty in reuniting works from the series to give Houston visitors a glimpse into the artist’s enormous skill and complex process.”
“The Prado’s six oak modelli were recently conserved to address issues caused by centuries-old alterations,” said David Bomford, MFAH director of conservation, who organized the Houston presentation of the exhibition. “This painstaking treatment stabilized the wood and again rendered the pictorial surfaces lively and forceful, offering a record of Rubens’s impressive and beautiful brushwork.”
Designing the Tapestries
For the Triumph of the Eucharist series, Rubens drew on a wide range of classical and Christian iconography and traditional allegories of Good versus Evil to express the spiritual victory of the Catholic Church over its foes. The 20 tapestries together formed a complex illusionistic decoration for the interior of the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales church in Madrid. Remarkably, the artist devised the series in his Antwerp studio based on secondhand descriptions of the church.
The tapestries portray a splendid architectural setting in which small angels hang fictive tapestries depicting dramatic Eucharist subjects. Powerful figures in motion, rich color, stone framework, and the narrative of angels unfurling their tapestries connect individual compositions. Playful illusions and spatial ambiguities appear in many scenes.
Rubens’s process began with small, quick oil sketches on oak panel, which he then enlarged into more detailed, brilliantly painted modelli, also on panel. The completed design was enlarged again into a full-scale cartoon on paper, to be used as reference for the weavers. The 20 tapestries that constituted the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia’s gift to the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales may have been woven during a span of several years, from about 1625 to 1633. They were woven in Brussels by two of the most prominent tapestry workshops, headed by Jan Raes I and Jacob Geubels II, with the assistance of two other weavers.
Rubens was a leading tapestry designer, and the Eucharist series was the third and largest series of his career. Making no concessions to the weavers, Rubens designed intricate scenes in the manner of large-scale paintings. Large expanses of bare flesh, often in dynamic, foreshortened poses, challenged weavers to create volume with gradations of delicate hues for modeling. His demanding compositions advanced tapestry production toward a more pictorial effect.
The Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia was the eldest and favored child of Habsburg monarchs Philip II (1527–1598) and Isabel of Valois (1545–1568). Raised at the Spanish court, the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia had a profound sense of religious obligation and familial duty from an early age. She was also exposed to the extraordinary art collection of Philip II, who favored the art of the great Venetian master Titian, as well as Flemish painting.
She and her husband Cardinal-Archduke Albert of Austria (1559–1621) ruled the Southern Netherlands (a region corresponding roughly to the country of Belgium today) as co-sovereigns, establishing a solid Catholic state after decades of conflict and suffering. Following Archduke Albert’s death in 1621, Isabel Clara Eugenia exchanged her court dress for the habit of a pious nun and stayed in Brussels as governor-general. For the remaining 12 years of her life, she assiduously waged military and diplomatic campaigns to secure peace in the Thirty Years’ War and success for the Spanish crown. Tremendously popular, she was mourned at her death in 1633 as a model of virtue.
At the time of the commission for the Eucharist tapestries, Rubens was at the height of an illustrious career. After early training in Antwerp and eight years in Italy and Spain, he accepted the generous terms of Archduke Albert and Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia to become their court painter in 1609. Painting intense devotional works as well as captivating mythologies, among many other subjects, Rubens gave form to the values of the cultured Brussels court. After Archduke Albert’s death in 1621, Rubens also served the infanta in a diplomatic capacity and was rewarded for his success with a knighthood by Philip IV. Patron and painter shared a deep spiritual conviction that infuses the Eucharist series.
In relation to the exhibition, a lushly illustrated volume of the same title, coproduced by Getty Publications and the Museo Nacional del Prado, provides new insight and information about the Triumph of the Eucharist series. The book presents stunning photography of the paintings and tapestries, which are testaments to the brilliance of this master artist of the Baroque period.
Organization and Funding
Spectacular Rubens is organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museo Nacional del Prado in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and in collaboration with the Patrimonio Nacional.
Generous support for this exhibition is provided by the Estate of Margo Lamb.
Additional funding is provided by:
Houston Trust Company
Lois and Carl A. Davis
About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH)
Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the 10 largest art museums in the United States. Located in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, the MFAH comprises two gallery buildings, a sculpture garden, theater, two art schools, and two libraries, with two house museums, for American and European decorative arts, nearby. The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH numbers some 65,000 works and spans the art of antiquity to the present.
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