A lone driver steers his horses and wagon down a steep bank into what seems like a deep ford. It’s an idyllic scene evoking afternoon light filtering through woodland, and the subject is typical of Rubens’s burst of interest in landscape painting in the last five years of his life. Rather than paid commissions, these appear to have been made mostly for his own pleasure, when he was spending more time in the country house he bought in 1635. The countryside surrounding the estate became a new inspiration: he made about 20 landscapes, some of monumental size.
A Wagon fording a Stream is much smaller and is unfinished – you can tell this from the black chalk drafting lines and the way the foliage of most of the trees has yet to be filled in. It seems to be a full-size preparatory sketch for Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon (now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam).
A lone driver steers his horses and wagon down a steep bank into what seems like a deep ford, his whip raised to encourage the animals. Rubens has tucked the wagoner into the right foreground, but has made sure we notice him by dressing him in a bright red jacket. We must assume that the driver will soon re-emerge from the river onto the pale, sandy road in the middle distance. That expectation helps draw our eye deeper into the landscape, following the track as it disappears through the long shadows of the trees in the centre of the painting.
It’s an idyllic scene evoking afternoon light filtering through woodland, and the subject is typical of Rubens’s burst of interest in landscape paintings in the last five years of his life. He and his studio in Antwerp produced prodigious numbers of paintings, from portraits of the rich and famous to pictures of historical events and of biblical scenes. They were expensive commissions and Rubens became enormously wealthy on the back of them. By contrast he made only about 30 landscapes, mostly for pleasure rather than profit, especially after 1635 when he spent more of his time on his new estate in the countryside of Brabant.
From then until his death in 1640, he wasn’t always in the best of health, suffering from arthritis and the severe gout that eventually killed him. But he seems to have enjoyed his time as a country gentleman, living with his second wife and young family, and the countryside surrounding the estate became a new inspiration. He would often sketch and draw from nature in preparation for larger paintings, and in those five years he made about 20 landscapes, some of monumental size. One of his most famous is in the National Gallery’s collection: An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning. It is named after his estate, and depicts the house and the sweeping views across the countryside just after dawn.
A Wagon fording a Stream was probably painted about 1635. It was made on paper and later stuck to canvas, and is unfinished – you can tell this from the black chalk drafting lines, the way the foliage of most of the trees has been only roughly sketched and the orangey-brown coloured background that has yet to be covered. The attribution to Rubens has in the past been doubted, but it is now considered to be by him. It seems to be a full-size preparatory sketch for a painting which is now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam: Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon. The finished painting is of a similar height, but is about 16 cm narrower and omits the trees on the left-hand side of this sketch. There are some differences to the trees and the river, and there is another figure standing on a bridge, but the position of wagon and its driver are very similar in the two paintings. It may also be related to a drawing in the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
Rubens’s landscapes were also highly influential on British painting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially on artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable, whose most famous painting, The Hay Wain, also shows a cart fording a river.
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