Peter Paul Rubens and my Painting of the Month for November – A Carmelite Prior.  

What is good art? Since I have been studying art I have often been asked this question and of course there is no real answer. But many years ago a critic gave me a clue. He said for art to touch the inner self it should be strong in three characteristics; namely technique, originality and emotion. If a painting is weak in any of these areas, he said it will join that great morass of discarded art. It is not simply about the content or the form. 

Peter Paul Rubens, it could be argued is one of the greatest of the Old Masters and my Painting of the Month for November is a work he produced in around 1616, while he was in Antwerp following an apprenticeship in Italy. In The Spanish Netherlands he painted a series of ecclesiastical commissions.

Rubens, Peter Paul; Portrait of a Carmelite Prior; c1616, oil on panel, 80cm x 64cm, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
Rubens, Peter Paul; Portrait of a Carmelite Prior; c1616, oil on panel, 80cm x 64cm, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

Portrait of a Carmelite Prior is held by The Barber Institute of Fine Art at Birmingham University and is rich in all three characteristics. Firstly in technique you will struggle to find a richer representation of the human face and hands in any gallery. Here is a face full of intensity combining the furrowed brow of life’s trials with the tenderness of of the smile. There may even be evidence of a stroke in the markings on his temple. The hands are those which have seen toil as they come together in front of the crucifix. The treatment of the priors gown is also quite exquisite, made up of brushstrokes of white and grey. 

But what of the emotion. This striking portrait shows the man at his most sympathetic, giving his all for his faith. The eyes are revealing the spirituality of the moment. But look beyond the portrait to the background and the atmospheric treatment of the paint: the grey washing over the underlying reddish brown base, as the gallery notes say ‘allowing the picture to “breathe”

What gives the Rubens portrait its originality is the photograph like realism. Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and again during the later periods of academic rigour artists strove for the perfect reality. The faces of the Renaissance tried to recreate the god like images of Ancient Greek sculpture. All that was perfect was melded together to create the perfect image, as in Botticelli’s Madonna. The realism of Rubens was the reality of living with the wrinkles, the blood vessels in the temples, the work hardened hands.

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist, 1480, The Barber Instiute, Birmingham

The subject of the portrait is not known, which makes this wonderful painting even more appealing. It is interesting to compare with a representative image typical of those that appeared after the invention of the camera and photography. Realism ceased to be as important as the camera could create the image very accurately. Artists like Derain started searching for the emotion or feeling. Derain, with Matisse was one of the founders of the fauvist movement, whose wild playful use of colour was their trademark. look for the red & blue of Savona’s hair and the striking background.

André Derain, Portrait of Bartolomeo Savona, 1906, oil on canvas, 46cm x 36cm,

So What makes Great Art? Well a painting that makes you stand in awe could be included and hopefully the above characteristics is what makes some works awesome and some not! All the images are in The Barber Institute, which I thoroughly enjoyed yesterday having not visited for some three years. Unfortunately, The Carmelite Prior was not actually on display, as it was being restored by the conservators. However due to the incredible help of the management and Head Curator I was afforded a private view on a return visit later in the day. As I had gone to see the Rubens portrait particularly I was very grateful for the Gallery saving the day!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Susie says:

    What an amazing painting I really felt the emotion


    1. Thanks Susie, comment appreciated


  2. Steve Oberg says:

    Wonderful comments and description of “good art”. We all have our favorites, don’t we?
    Thanks again for a nice art lesson!


    1. Thank you Steve, much appreciated!


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