400-year-old Rubens masterpiece unveiled after extensive conservation work
Issued February 2021
A unique opportunity to see behind-the-scenes preparations for two Rubens masterpieces which are being reunited after more than 200 years apart.
The National Gallery’s newly restored masterpiece by Peter Paul Rubens, 'An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', probably 1636, will go on public view following extensive work by our conservation team. 'Het Steen' will be unveiled this spring at the Wallace Collection’s exhibition (21 April 2021 – 15 August 2021) where it will be reunited with its pendant, 'The Rainbow Landscape', probably 1636 (The Wallace Collection) after being apart for over two centuries.
The magnificent landscape paintings depict Rubens’s beloved manor home and estate, Het Steen, in Antwerp, which was bought the year before he made the two pictures; a purchase made possible due to the wealth and status he had gained as a hugely successful artist and diplomat. Although originally intended as a pair, these panoramic masterpieces parted ways upon arrival in London in 1803, with one entering the National Gallery Collection and the other going to the Wallace Collection.
The remarkable treatment performed by the Gallery’s conservation team on 'Het Steen' has so far proven revelatory. Layers of aged, discoloured varnish (some over 75-years-old) have been removed to reveal the depth and vibrancy of Rubens’s original colours, and a comprehensive structural repair has been made to the highly fragile network of panels. This process is currently being documented in a series of new ‘behind the scenes’ films, sponsored by Nikon, which can be viewed on our website.
In the first film, it is astonishing to see the original colours and details emerging from the yellow varnishes, for the painting to mirror more closely the freshness and vibrancy of how it would have appeared to Rubens in the 17th century. As the layers are shed, it is evident how changed the landscape is, with Rubens’s amazing juxtaposition of the yellow sunlight hitting the white clouds and the cool blues leading the viewer gently back into the receding landscape. Although his religious commissions and grand portraits were commercially successful, we know that landscape painting was a subject close to Rubens’s heart, one that brought him great joy. It is particularly poignant to see the exuberant impasto revealed and the original, bold brush work freed. Now even the smallest details, like the bits of pure white, dotted to suggest the bubbling of a brook as it turns a corner, are visible to the naked eye.
In the second film, one of our Conservators and panel specialists makes repairs to the 400-year-old oak and poplar panels on which the work was painted. The construction of the panel provides an important clue to understanding the intended audience of the picture – we can be reasonably sure Rubens made these pictures for his own delight because of these small and unevenly shaped panels, patched together in a fashion that would be unacceptable to a collector. The structural treatment was a particularly delicate process; the panel is very thin considering its large size and was split and severely damaged as a result of great frosts in London in 1947. The repairs strengthened the joins from the three campaigns of construction where the panel had been enlarged over the years.
The conservation work and related research has also helped inform our understanding of how Rubens developed these two landscape paintings together, to be viewed alongside one another. It is thought that the paintings once hung on opposite walls of the same room. The wall in between had a window, and the paintings were probably positioned so that the sunlight pouring into the room matched that depicted in each work. In these paintings, Rubens celebrates what he treasured most: his own success, perhaps, but also the prosperity and peace of Flanders, his native land.
Larry Keith, the National Gallery’s Head of Conservation and Keeper says: “It was quite a special painting because it was painted for his own pleasure. Everything you see here is him, it is wholly autograph…taking off the varnish is quite revelatory, allowing you to see an artist really working for himself at the peak of his powers in a completely free and personal way.”
'Het Steen' was in Rubens’s possession when he died in 1640, together with its companion, 'The Rainbow Landscape'. Clearly these were deeply personal pictures, pictures which Rubens chose to live alongside, to display in his own home. It seems only fitting that they are to be reunited after over two centuries apart, as the artist intended.
NOTES TO EDITORS
More information about the design team selection process including the full brief can be found here: https://competitions.malcolmreading.com/nationalgallery
The National Gallery is one of the greatest art galleries in the world. Founded by Parliament in 1824, the Gallery houses the nation’s collection of paintings in the Western European tradition from the late 13th to the early 20th century. The collection includes works by Bellini, Cézanne, Degas, Leonardo, Monet, Raphael, Rembrandt, Renoir, Rubens, Titian, Turner, Van Dyck, Van Gogh and Velázquez. The Gallery’s key objectives are to enhance the collection, care for the collection and provide the best possible access to visitors. Admission free.
More information and book tickets for online events at nationalgallery.org.uk
YouTube The National Gallery
Features and film are at nationalgallery.org.uk/stories
National Gallery Membership is the best way to support the work of the Gallery. Not only does each Member enjoy access to all the Gallery has to offer, but also yearlong free entry to exhibitions, priority booking and exclusive events online and in-Gallery. www.nationalgallery.org.uk/membership
About the Wallace Collection
As one of Britain’s preeminent cultural institutions, the Wallace Collection is home to one of the most significant ensembles of fine and decorative arts in the world. Highlights include oil paintings from the 14th to the late 19th centuries by artists such as Titian, Velazquez, Rubens and Van Dyck; princely arms and armour; and one of the finest collections of 18th-century French paintings and decorative arts. Visitors can also enjoy superb medieval and Renaissance objects, including Limoges enamel, maiolica, glass and bronzes. Displayed at Hertford House, former home to Sir Richard and Lady Wallace, this outstanding collection is displayed in a manner designed to evoke the lives and tastes of its founders, creating a special ambiance that remains an essential part of its charm. www.wallacecollection.org
National Gallery Press Office on 020 7747 2865 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Publicity images can be obtained from https://press.nationalgallery.org.uk/