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Painting by Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens now on view

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Peter Paul Rubens
Flemish, 1577–1640
The Virgin and Christ Child with Saints Elizabeth
and John the Baptist
, 1611–14
Oil on wood
Private Collection, L2020.36.1

On view through mid-September 2021

In this beautifully rendered scene by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), on loan to the Portland Art Museum from a private collection, the beloved devotional subject depicts the Virgin Mary and Jesus being visited by Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her son John the Baptist. Not mentioned in the Bible, the encounter was imagined by later writers to touch the hearts of the faithful, and artists visualized numerous variations on the theme. Rubens shows Elizabeth and John arriving just as Mary finishes breastfeeding, to emphasize Jesus’s humanity. He gazes lovingly toward his mother, but her eyes do not meet his; in keeping with tradition, she is shown lost in thought, sadly foreseeing the boys’ tragic fates. The chubby infants cuddle a lamb, which alludes to the milestone—thirty years later when John baptized Jesus and identified him as the Lamb of God. The scene takes place before an ancient Roman temple to signify that Christ’s church would supersede paganism.

Rubens based the composition on Italian Renaissance prototypes, which he infused with his distinctive energy. The artist was devoted to his family, and his numerous drawings and paintings of his children inform the vivacious treatment of the infants here. The finesse of his brushwork is especially evident in the highlights on the fabric and in the boys’ wispy, tousled hair.

Dawson Carr, Ph.D., The Janet and Richard Geary Curator of European Art

PETER PAUL RUBENS

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640) ranks among the most inventive and influential painters of all time. In the early 1600s, he played a key role in the development of the exuberant Baroque style that dominated European art for over a century. Versatile and prolific, he produced a body of work that ranged from memorable treatments of religious, historical, and allegorical subjects, to insightful portraits, thrilling animal pictures, and breathtaking landscapes. Artists into the nineteenth century were inspired by his energetic and sensuous compositions, his bold use of color, and his masterful handling of oil paint.

Rubens made his home in Antwerp in the Southern Netherlands (now Belgium), but spent lengthy periods in Italy, France, Spain, and England. His intelligence, dashing good looks, charm, and self-confidence were instrumental in his international success. Although he viewed himself principally a painter, he was also a savvy businessman, an amateur architect, an antiquarian, and a scholar who corresponded with the most learned people of his day. Rubens was also renowned for his diplomatic work seeking peace between Catholic and Protestant powers. Born to Protestant parents, he became a devout Catholic and his paintings constitute profound visual expressions of Counter-Reformation spirituality.

Rubens combined the grandeur and gravity of Italian art with Northern European realism. His compositions almost always suggest movement that imbues them with a sense of life. While standards of beauty have changed, Rubens’s careful study of human behavior and psychology continues to delight audiences. —DC

Explore the Museum’s European Art collection.

THANK YOU, DR. CARR: The Museum and our community are deeply grateful for the expertise and insights of Dawson W. Carr, Ph.D., who marks his retirement April 30, 2021, after eight years as the Museum’s first Janet and Richard Geary Curator of European Art.