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THE day when, far from the Flanders of his ancestors, Rubens was born, Antwerp was still to be rebuilt. His resigned and courageous mother had shared the exile of his slightly mad father, who had become the lover of the wife of William of Orange after having been one of the closest companions of that hero. When Rubens was ten years of age and his mother, who had become a widow, brought him to Antwerp, there was still the threat of fire beneath the ruins of the great port. It had not forgotten the stake and the gibbet, the statues torn from the temples, the sea of blood that had been shed and the livid face of the Duke of Alba in his iron armor.

Only after two and a half centuries, when liberty was conquered, would Antwerp regain its position in Europe. For the artists, it was no longer the live city which had tried, with Quentin Matsys, to escape from the Gothic spell of Bruges and to enter the modern spirit through individual effort, and which, with Breughel, had succeeded in doing so. It was that very effort, however, which had brought forth the Beggars. Rubens had been conceived in the thick of the storm; within him he bore, together with the wild hope of the people and the energy of its most splendid moment of activity all of its past conquests. The decadence of Flanders and of Antwerp could affect only those who were to come after him. He was to profit by the brief moment when Spain loosened her grip a little, and to send forth, like a flood, the mass of life that for two centuries had been accumulating in the granaries, the barns, and the ships of the country, and in the hearts and minds of men, through the labor of their fields, their cities, and their ports.

Rubens - His Wife Helena Fourment and, Their Son Frans*
He did better than that. No country was placed more advantageously than Flanders for the gathering together of the currents which for two centuries had been crossing the Occident in all directions. For a hundred years Bruges had served as a bond of union between England, the Baltic, Venice, and the Orient. Antwerp was the first commercial port of the world under Charles V. It drained France by the Meuse and the Scheldt, Germany by the Rhine, and the Indies, Italy, and the lands of Spain by the sea. At the critical hour when the north and the south found themselves face to face in their age-old activities, when the problem of religion was opposing the social idealism of the Latin countries to the economic realism of the Germanic countries, Flanders, the heart of the universal empire of Charles V, was quivering from all the shocks which the arteries of commerce brought upon it by merchandise, books, and soldiers. Struggling both for its independence and in support of the Reformation, it remained a country of the Empire and remained Catholic. It was natural that the man who expressed with an eternal force this unique moment of its life, should infuse southern intellectualism into the substantial, fat, and moving matter of the north.

The painters of Flanders had been trying to accomplish this for a hundred years. But Bruges was no longer sufficiently alive at the beginning of the sixteenth century for her Romanized masters, Jan van Mabuse and van Orley, to be able to assimilate the soul of Italy deeply, without danger. Antwerp, on the contrary, even at the end of that century, had not yet attained a degree of maturity sufficient for the Italian soul to penetrate the original nature of Flanders. The attempt of Quentin Matsys was premature; Martin de Vos, Coninxloo, Francken, and the good portraitist Pourbus were not, as men, big enough; the task of Breughel, a Hollander by birth, who released the spirit of the north from its primitive matrix, was too all-absorbing for him to attempt to find his agreement with the mind of the peninsula. Rubens had scarcely to listen to his two teachers, Otto Venius, with his Italian tendencies, and van Noort, with his Flemish tendencies, to discover in himself the destiny meted out to him by fate; the eight years he passed in Italy in the intimacy of the giant realizations of Tintoretto and of Michael Angelo, his repeated journeys to Spain, to France, and to England, the seven languages that he spoke, his superb manner of life and his two marriages for love permitted him to fulfill this destiny with unparalleled generosity and with royal abundance.

Rubens - The Landing of Marie de Medicis at Marseilles*
What a life! He was the only hero of humanity, doubtless, to unite the splendors of external life with the splendid images of it which he made. The period, in which the aristocracy had for two hundred years been receiving its education in art and had been charmed by his taste for the sumptuous, had conspired to have him maintain, until the end, his exceptional balance between moral health and sensualism. He was like a king of Flanders; he represented it to the kings. His great dinners, his receptions, his fortune, his castles, his luxury, and his embassies, none of these could detract from him. Never even does he consent to admit to us that he suffered from his second marriage when, at the age of fifty-three, he married a girl of sixteen. From his very disquietude he drew forth a multiplied force and spread across the future the joy which he could not ask from her and which he could not give her. He ended his triumphal existence by triumphing over the anguish which he could not have failed to feel.

If in this exceptional man one desired to find only the highest expression of the Flemish nature which he unites with universal nature, one would perceive only one aspect of his work, the most accessible, in truth, but not the most essential. One would have to turn to Jordaens, who came fifteen years after him, a pupil of van Noort, as he was, but who, while turning toward him at every moment, was able to live and act with such confidence in his strength that, outside of Rubens, he remains the most robust interpreter of Flemish paganism.

Rubens - Bacchus*
Almost never did the feet of Jordaens leave the soil of Flanders. His eyes almost never pierced beyond the opal space of Antwerp. Almost never did they see anything beyond the going and coming of the ships through the luminous mist on the muddy river, and the products of the sea and of the countryside that were sold in the market place. His canvases heap up masses of living matter. His confusion is a force. A heavy rhythm gives to his blessed orgies an accent of ponderous joy which approaches the general idea, the unconscious symbol. Everything drinks and eats, all the mouths are open, all the nostrils and the eyes and the throats. Dogs, cats, and chickens wander among the gluttons and the gormandizers, snapping, picking, and licking the bones fallen under the table, the sauces that have been spilled, and the beer and wine that have overflowed. Flesh has the thickness of pumpkins that have opened, human fat is in layers like sausages, the skin of the women is as warm as the sides of soup pots, their hands lie on their breasts with the bunches of grapes from the baskets, faces and coppers glisten, and the smacking of lips and the slapping of hands on thighs are rhythmed by the gurgle of the bottles. Men and women clink their glasses while they sing, and bang the metal lids of the coffee-pots, and the rumbling of the stomachs, brought about by the heaps of food, is accompanied by the squalling of indecent babies, in the obstinate chorus of the drunkards and the gossips. Here is nothing but eating, feasting, gluttony, and lechery, in which an innocent old faun, with a shining face, a trembling hide, and a flapping belly takes part. He has just crossed the threshold of the Flemish houses, for which he deserts the immense poem of the fields and the broad nudities of a mythology less heretical than one thinks: the backs, the bellies shining in the light, and the robust limbs of the women who milk the heavy udders of the goats amid the foliage, the vine branches, and the plowed land.

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