Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish baroque painter who was born on June 28th 1577. In his time, he was the most renowned Northern European artist and is still recognised as one of the foremost painters in the history of Western Art. His work creates a fusion of the traditional realistic style of Flemish painting and the imaginative freedom and classical themes of the Renaissance. He undoubtedly revitalised European painting.
Rubens received his artistic training in Antwerp and by the young age of 21 he was a master painter. His aesthetic and religious views led him to Italy, where he completed his education. It was in Venice in 1600 that the great artist gained his most significant influence from Titian, with bright colours and majestic forms. Following the establishment of his reputation as a very gifted painter, Rubens moved back to Antwerp in 1608 and quickly became a dominant artistic figure in the Spanish Netherlands.
During the mature phase of his career, Rubens personally executed and supervised the execution of an enormous body of works, that encompassed all areas of painting and drawing. A devout Roman Catholic, he created his many religious paintings with the emotion of the Counter-Reformation. His aggressively religious stance, along with a deep involvement in various public affairs, lent Rubens' work a conservative, public cast that contrasts with the private and secular paintings of his contemporaries.
Rubens successfully avoided sterile repetition of the academic forms of Italian classical art throughout his career by injecting lusty exuberance and frenetic energy. His work can be recognised by his characteristic use of colour and light painted on limbs and drapery and a baroque sense of movement and tactile strength.
The painting to the left is Rubens' "Cain Slaying Abel" (1608-09).This painting portrays the well-known bible story Cain and Abel, two sons of Adam and Eve. In the story, Cain – the sinful brother – committed the first murder, the murder of his brother in retaliation to God rejecting his offerings of produce but accepting Abel’s sacrifice of his first born lamb.
The piece, from London's Courtauld Gallery, is thought probably not to be a commission from one of his many patrons, but created for the speculative market. It is arguably one of the artist's most significant works in the galleries collection and is due to go back on display next month, following an 11-month project to clean it and address it's structural issues.
Scholars have long known that this painting belonged to a group of works produced after an eight year trip to Italy, where Rubens studied the works of such masters as Michelangelo and Caravaggio, a dendrochronological analysis of its panels revealed that the work must have been created pretty much immediately after the artist's return to his home of Antwerp. The fact that the oak boards are made from sapwood (the outermost, younger wood) has led conservators to speculate that the painting was meant for the art market, rather than a well-paying patron.
"It was typical for a client to buy panels for the artist, and in doing so, he would normally buy the best quality materials," says conservator Kate Stonor, who explains that sapwood, is not ideal because it is soft and sweet, making it prone to woodworm. "We think Rubens bought the panels himself and chose the 'cheap and cheerful' option, knowing that the work was for the art market," says the conservator Clare Richardson, who also worked on this piece.
Infra-red imaging has revealed line drawings beneath a tree in the background, which are uncharacteristic of Rubens and they may be the work of a landscape artist.
Apart from the areas of paint loss and layers of varnish that had yellowed over time, and, in some areas, become opaque, the most pressing concern related to the work's cradle, a late 19th- or early 20th-century addition which was preventing the panel's natural movement and was full of woodworm. The glue was beginning to fail and the panel was beginning to pull away from the cradle, causing unnatural inward curving of the boards. This curvature also caused lines which cut through the figures' flesh.
"One of the greatest benefits of the treatment is that we are no longer fighting with the condition of the work... the piece now really speaks for itself," says Caroline Campbell, the curator of paintings at the Courtauld.
The Courtauld's chief conservator, Graeme Barraclough, has constructed a bespoke frame with a built-in support system that will "accommodate the natural curvature of the board, allowing it to move without imposing stress on the painting", unlike the cradle that previously kept it in place. "It's like support hose, rather than a rigid corset," Stonor says.
If Rubens had simply used a more expensive panel – which would surely seem the obvious choice for such valuable work as his – perhaps the Courtauld could have saved their funds, or perhaps used it to restore other possibly "cheap" boards.
8 February 2012