April 30 1816: Not Liking Rubens


“We went to see another church, wherein is the tomb of Rubens.

It is in a chapel by itself, where annually a mass is said for his soul. It is worthy of him : ornamented by a painting, by himself, of St. George, and a statue he brought with him from Rome of the Holy Virgin. The church in which he is buried was saved from pillage by the priests belonging to it revolutionizing.It is crowded with altars and pictures — some Rubens, some Polenck, and others. There is a painting by Metsys, who originally was a marechal, and who with his mere hammer formed the decorations to a pump, which are not bad. The Latin inscription on his monumental stone refers to a story related of him: that, upon courting the daughter of Francis Floris, the artist with indignation talked about the dirty rascal’s impudence, he being merely a blacksmith; on which Metsys set off for Rome, and upon his return asked the daughter to introduce him to her father’s room of painting : where, finding a picture not finished, he painted a bee — that excited the indignation of Floris’s pocket-handkerchief, and gained him his daughter. I have seen the picture, and it might be true. The pump is not bad, being merely beaten into shape. On the top is a giant who used to cut off merchants’ gains by means of tolls, and their hands by means of axes. He used to throw an iron band into the scales of his tradesmen ; and from thence, ’tis said, Antwerp got its name. The sides of this church all along are lined with confessionals.

In the Church des Augustins we saw Rubens’s Assembly of the Saints’ from Paris ; where he has shown how weak he could be in composition, and in vanity — for it is the third picture in which he has put himself in St. George’s armour. The composition is confused, without an object to fix the attention. A Vandyck near him is much superior.


Here is also the famous picture of Jordaens, of The Martyrdom of St. Apollonia. Colouring approaches Rubens ; but abominable composition — crowded, large, numerous figures in a small space. There were some modern paintings of existing artists — meagre statue-compositions.

In the Musee we saw many Rubenses. The famous Descent from the Cross : the effect of the white sheet is wonderfully beautiful. Picture’s drawing I do not like. The Christ seems not dead, as there is certainly action ; but the colouring is splendidly rich. The Crucifixion near it, inferior in all. In a sketch near it he has not succeeded so well in the white sheet, it
being not so splendidly white. We could only see the side-pieces of the great Crucifixion, as the large piece was being framed. In these there is much caricature drawing : a woman rising from the dead— surely a woman large as Guy Warwick giant’s wife, if ever he had one : caricature physiognomies, and most hellish egregious breasts, which a child refuses,
with horror in its face. His horses have much spirit — true Flemish size. Indeed, divest Rubens of his rich apparel, and he is a mere dauber in design. There is a Mary going to Elizabeth looking more like a cardinal : indeed, my companion, Lord Byron, took her for one of the red-vested nobles. No divinity about his Christs ; putrefaction upon his Gods ; exaggerated passion about his men and women, painted not all-concealing. In his picture of The Adoration of the Magi, query did he not intend to play upon the people by passing off a caricature for a religious painting? The royal personage in green seems as if his eyes had grown big after dinner. He has no costume properly applied : the Virgin in the manger is dressed meretriciously in silks and lace. Then look at our blessed Saviour showing His wounds. His finest painting is his Crucifixion in which is the white sheet : but there are defects. What then must be the power of colouring which causes you to view
his paintings with pleasure! It is like melodious music which makes you forget the absurd words of an old English song.

Vandyck, in my opinion, was much superior to Rubens. His colouring, near his, is sombre ; but then his design is more perfect, his impressions remain longer in the mind distinct, and do not fade away into ideas of red and blue round white. A little Crucifix of his is worth his rival’s largest paintings. His Christ Dead is beautiful, wherein are contained the Blessed Virgin, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. John weeping: the different expressions of grief, the unison of colouring with the subject, the composition, all excellent.

— John Polidori, travelling with Lord Byron, writes in his diary for April 30 1816.

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