Defining beauty: Rubens’s female nudes  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Defining beauty: Rubens’s female nudes is an essay by Karolien De Clippel.


"More than any other Western painter, Rubens is identified with the women he depicted. Apart from being undressed, his female type is above all characterized by specific physical qualities, which tend to be summarized as ‘fleshy’ and ‘corpulent’. Four centuries after date, the ‘Rubensian’ is no longer limited to the artistic field only but has become a proverbial, though not always positive, qualification for voluptuous forms. The origins of this biased perception probably lie in the debate between the Poussinistes versus Rubénistes at the end of the seventeenth century. It found acceptance about a century later in the writings of scholars such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717- 1768) and Georg Forster (1754-1794). Scholarly literature of a more recent date seems to take Rubens’s reputation as the master of the female nude for granted. However, a comprehensive discussion of its genesis, characteristics and constituents is lacking. Well-researched observations tend to be marginal or fragmentary. An important aspect, which has received quite some attention since the 1960s is the remarkable colourfulness and liveliness of Rubens’s human bodies. In the wake of Hans Sedlmayr, especially German art historians have applied themselves to multifaceted analyses of the artist’s unique technique of painting skin and building up flesh colours. Further comments have been given within the scope of iconographical and iconological studies. Both Fiona Healy and Kristin Belkin have brilliantly analyzed Rubens’s renderings of the female nude in his mythological paintings. Healy connects Rubens’s strong fascination for the female nude with his fancy for the Venus iconography. She reads Rubens’s Venus as the personification of physical love, and as such the ultimate image of his own Hélène. This fusion of Hélène Fourment and Venus becomes very palpable in Het Pelsken, the illustrious portrait historié of Rubens’s young wife as Venus, which was only recently brought into the spotlight again as the subject of two widely divergent approaches. While Margit Thøfner used this picture to discuss feminine spectatorship in confrontation with erotically charged pictures, Kristin Belkin drew attention to it in order to show how costume history could contribute to our understanding of Rubens’s portrayal of the nude. Deliberately challenging but surprisingly pertinent within the context of this paper is Svetlana Alpers’s approach. Throughout her controversial book The Making of Rubens she yields a new vision of Rubens’s art and defines his pictorial mode as feminine and highly sensorial - versus masculine and intellectual."

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