On a crisp autumn morning, the rising sun casts a cool light on the manor house. Shadows are long and there’s a suggestion of dew on the grass of the meadows. The windows of the manor house and the stream meandering past it twinkle, and the few feathery clouds are tinged with gold. We are high up, so the view is spread before us, allowing us to pick out each incident within the whole: the man shooting partridges, the couple on their way to market and the lord and lady of the manor, the nearby nursemaid cradling their baby.
Peter Paul Rubens worked as a diplomat as well as an artist, and had been ennobled both in Spain by Philip IV and in England by Charles I. His status and wealth enabled him to purchase the manor of Het Steen, near Malines (now known as Mechelen), in 1635. In this landscape painting he celebrates what he treasured most: his own success, perhaps, but also the prosperity and peace of Flanders, his native land.
Peter Paul Rubens was the greatest public artist of the seventeenth century. He was invited to palaces and great churches throughout Europe to paint grand state portraits, rituals of the Catholic faith and opulent allegories. But in this landscape he celebrates what he treasured most: the prosperity and peace of Flanders, his native land.
In 1630 Rubens returned to Antwerp exhausted and in poor health. His beloved first wife, Isabella Brant, had died four years before, but he was now able to find domestic happiness again with his second wife, Hélène Fourment. There were to be no more diplomatic missions. He took on a few portraits and other commissions, but concentrated on the kind of paintings he wanted to do for himself: landscapes. Rubens had been ennobled both in Spain by Philip IV and in England by Charles I; in 1635, this status and wealth enabled him to purchase the manor of Het Steen, near Malines (now known as Mechelen), with the approval of the Council of Brabant (such a purchase was not open to people of lower rank or prosperity).
The sixteenth-century manorial castle with park, pastureland and meadows was a place of retreat in the summer months. There, Rubens could recover his health and paint the landscapes he loved rather than the subjects he was obliged to do for his patrons. At the time, landscapes were considered inferior in status to large images of historical events or biblical stories and to portraits of people of high standing. Only genre paintings were seen as of a lower order. Rubens was one of the first to recognise and grasp the significance of landscape as a means of expressing mood, atmosphere and, not least, delight in the natural world. His nephew wrote that the estate of Het Steen gave the artist the opportunity ‘to paint vividly and from nature the surrounding mountains, plains, valleys and meadows, at sunrise and sunset with their horizons’ – as he did when painting An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning.
On a crisp autumn morning, the rising sun casts a cool light on the manor of Het Steen. The low rays of the sun flicker across the vast surrounding landscape, bringing it and the inhabitants to life. Shadows are long and there’s a suggestion of dew on the grass of the meadows. The windows of the manor house and the stream meandering past it twinkle, and the few feathery clouds are tinged with gold. We are high up so the view is spread before us, allowing us to pick out each incident within the whole, from the tiny, almost invisible, towers of the city way off in the distance to the turrets of the manor house close by. A man with a gun and a lurcher dog crouches, ready to shoot the partridge feeding nearby. Milkmaids are already at work among the cows in the field beyond. On the left, colours are mellowed in the shadow of the tall, spindly birch trees. A couple set off to market on their sturdy farm cart, the rosy-cheeked wife enthroned on a heap of their goods, a giant brass milk-pitcher on her arm. Behind them, the lord and lady of the manor take a stroll as a nursemaid cradles their baby and a man fishes for breakfast in the moat.
The high view also allows us to see how the wide panorama is achieved through bands of colour that extend across the picture – browns enlivened with deep red for the foreground, greens and golds for the middle ground and blue for the misty distance. This was the ‘bird’s-eye view’ of traditional Flemish landscapes and one of the last in this style that Rubens painted. Many of his other landscapes still have a high viewpoint, but in them we look down on the scene rather than out at it, focusing on one incident. The far distance is often blocked with rocks and trees, as it is in The Watering Place, another of his most famous landscapes.
Rubens painted this picture for his own delight – perhaps as a mark of a life well lived and a reward well earned. We can be reasonably sure that it was never a commission because of the oak panel, or panels, on which it is painted. The supports of other great pictures intended for wealthy patrons, like Samson and Delilah, are always in no more than two or perhaps three large sections. The support for this work, however, appears to have been cobbled together from several small and unevenly shaped panels in an almost higgledy-piggledy fashion, with bits added and pinned together with short planks as Rubens went along – a method unacceptable to a collector.
The picture was in Rubens’s possession when he died, together with its companion, The Rainbow Landscape (now in the Wallace Collection, London). That work, which is also painted on patched-together panels, gives a different view of his estate in the evening. It is thought that the paintings once hung in Rubens’s house, 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. The sun shines from the left in The Rainbow Landscape, so that work probably hung on the right-hand wall; in An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, the sun appears on the right, so it must have hung on the left-hand wall.
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