Peter Paul Rubens, Isabella Brandt (1625), 86 x 62cm (32.25 x 24.4in), Oil on panel
The painting above, Rubens’ portrait of his first wife, Isabella Brandt, is perhaps one of his best. It hangs in the Uffizi, Florence. Earlier I discussed his Trois Crayon study for it, here.
Although I lived in Florence, on and off, for four years and have been back numerous times, I have not seen this painting in person since 1990. On May 27, 1993, a terrorist bomb shook the Uffizi, killing six people. Since then, and I’m told until recently, this masterpiece has been behind closed doors while the Uffizi repaired damages to the building.
You might look for it in this virtual tour, although as far as I can tell, and from memory, the painting is in a room where the tour does not go.
Hopefully the detail images below will help somewhat offset its lack of visibility. Unfortunately, what they do not show is the wonderful interplay of Rubens’ warms and cools. Particularly lacking in the photos are the blues in the flesh halftones.
Although Rubens is sometimes derisively described as the father of the Brown-school, this painting when seen in person should silence those critics. Here again it’s unfortunate that the photos have such a brownish tint.
The first thing to note is that the painting is done in oil on panel. As such, the ground is smoother than might be expected from a work on canvas. In some ways this can make painting transitions more difficult because there is no tooth for the paint to hold onto as you blend the strokes. Edges, therefore, slide back and forth from where they are intended to be. A good medium helps mitigate this somewhat, as does the quality of the ground itself and how thinly you paint.
Rubens’ medium is something which has been debated for centuries. At present, at least in the Charles Cecil wing of contemporary ateliers, the general (and experiential) belief is that Rubens used a mixture of sun-thickened linseed oil (prepared over lead), balsam and turps, with perhaps a small amount of mastic varnish. I’ll not go into this much more here, but feel free to look at my post on van Dyck’s portrait technique for other info on the subject.
In Rubens’ time, lead was the primary ground. The combination of such a ground, the medium, and lead white is something of which I cannot speak to enough. Sound Flemish (as well as Venetian) oil painting technique is impossible without these three pillars.
The image staring back at you, above, is not Rubens’ Brandt. It is a detail of a painting from what are now known as Fayum Mummy Portraits. These paintings were done in Roman-controlled Egypt, during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. I am fortunate to be able to walk by this painting, numerous times a day. The painting, and all paintings like it, are done on panel in encaustic (wax).
My purpose for injecting this painting into a discussion of Rubens technique is related to the artist’s use of the ground. Often in Rubens’ paintings one can see the ground used as part of the final effect. Most of the time it is left showing in the warmer halftone areas. Rubens generally used tinted grounds – imprimature – or occasionally a colored ground, and the undertone created through these types of grounds was chosen expressly for this purpose.
Again, I have not seen Isabella Brandt in 25 years and the images I have are overly tinted. Still, if you look at the eye details (Brandt and Fayum), you may perceive the ground showing through on the right side of the nose bridge(s). In the original Fayum this is quite clear. Someone with both access to and the experience to know what they’re looking at will have to confirm whether this is so in the Brandt.
The detail above is a Rosetta Stone for edge handling in oil paint. Present in it are two of the greatest difficulties an oil painter faces – a highly contrasted edge and differing degrees of paint thickness.
Scroll your browser up and down a few times so that you can see the whole image. Notice how the shadow, beginning at the top, is thinly painted and also that it is not very dark. Then, as you scan downward to the bottom, you’ll see that it becomes darker and hotter. The bottom fifth of the entire shadow also shows a marked luminosity*, where you can see through to the underlayer of paint.
Rubens is often said to have painted in layers, with the shadows painted first, thin, warm and dark. However, in this area it looks as if he painted the flesh first, in its light tone, right up to the blouse. Then, once the area was dry, he glazed in the darks over the lighter flesh.
An exception, at least in this detail, may be that bottom fifth. There we see Rubens using his more traditional technique. In the upper four-fifths, no ground is seen showing through. But in the bottom fifth one can clearly see the dark, hot glaze over a tinted ground.
While you’re at it, take a look at where the scallops of the blouse cross over flesh.
Here’s the other side.
Notice how the white is quite thick. Also notice how Rubens manages the edges where the white touches the black.
Rubens is credited with saying that adding white to a shadow deadens it. By this he meant that the opacity of white kills the shadow’s luminosity.
The area around the nostrils demonstrates this nicely, as does the bottom fifth in the detail I used for my comments on Rubens’ handling of edges. The character of the warm shadow would be wholly different if it was painted in opaquely, rather than glazed as we see here. Lighter shadows were created by using a thinner glaze, thereby allowing more of the ground tint to show through.
The tricky part was, as it often is, along the edges. How to soften a highly contrasted edge and not kill the shadows with white? Using the relative lightness of a warm ground as part of the process helps. Additionally, glazing a dark over the a dried lighter area can also be a solution (see her left nostril wing).
Above is a detail of Isabella’s left cuff. It consists entirely of various grays, painted in differing degrees of opacity. One can see the ground showing through in the thinner areas.
I could talk about the next detail for hours. Scumbled, cool halftones, the ground showing through in the glazed shadow under her chin, and the tinted ground itself seen beneath three of the pearls would comprise parts of the discussion.
Instead, I’ll leave you with the following. Notice how Rubens handles the pearls. At no time is any one completely delineated all the way around. In fact, some are simply commas of white over a scumbled grey. The upper string, on the shadowed side, has had a streak of warm glaze painted across it.
Oil painters in classic Venetian and Flemish times understood not only how to see and represent but also how to use every aspect of their materials. Part of that understanding was due to the fact that they had an intimacy with their materials that most in our present times do not. They knew how to prepare what they were using and what affect this or that difference would have on the outcome. This understanding allowed them to use the full range of their materials.
*Luminosity in paint is akin to how a stained glass window looks when light passes through it. Luminosity is not the effect of light reflecting off of a surface. Rather, it is light passing through something (or the look of it passing through).