A 400-year-old masterpiece by devout Catholic painter Peter Paul Rubens is going on display following extensive conservation work by The National Gallery.
Dating from around 1636, An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, was in the Flemish artist’s possession when he died in 1640, together with its companion, The Rainbow Landscape.
Both paintings will soon be reunited this spring, at the Wallace Collection, after more than 200 years apart.
Although originally intended as a pair, these panoramic masterpieces parted ways upon arrival in London in 1803, with one entering the National Gallery Collection and the other going to the Wallace Collection.
The landscape paintings depict Rubens’ beloved manor home and estate, Het Steen, in Antwerp, which was bought the year before he made the two pictures; a purchase made possible due to the wealth and status he had gained as a hugely successful artist and diplomat.
The National Gallery said it is clear that both paintings were “deeply personal” to Rubens, noting that he chose to live alongside them and display them in his own home. It said it is “only fitting that they are to be reunited after over two centuries apart, as the artist intended”.
“Although his religious commissions and grand portraits were commercially successful, we know that landscape painting was a subject close to Rubens’ heart, one that brought him great joy,” the Gallery said.
Experts said the results of the conservation work on Het Steen had “so far proven revelatory”.
Layers of aged, discoloured varnish – some over 75-years-old – have been removed to reveal the “depth and vibrancy” of the original colours.
Experts noted how “now even the smallest details, like the bits of pure white, dotted to suggest the bubbling of a brook as it turns a corner, are visible to the naked eye”.
Repairs were also made to the 400-year-old oak and poplar panels on which the work was painted, which were severely damaged as a result of severe frosts in London in 1947.
Experts said the construction of the panel provides an important clue to understanding the intended audience of the picture. “We can be reasonably sure Rubens made these pictures for his own delight because of these small and unevenly shaped panels, patched together in a fashion that would be unacceptable to a collector,” they said.
Larry Keith, the National Gallery’s Head of Conservation and Keeper said: “It was quite a special painting because it was painted for his own pleasure. Everything you see here is him, it is wholly autograph…taking off the varnish is quite revelatory, allowing you to see an artist really working for himself at the peak of his powers in a completely free and personal way.”
Rubens is widely known for his paintings of Biblical scenes, including The Massacre of the Innocents; The Descent from the Cross; and The Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
Het Steen will be unveiled at the Wallace Collection’s exhibition Rubens: Reuniting the Great Landscapes, from 21st April to 15th August.
Picture: An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, probably 1636, by Peter Paul Rubens. (The National Gallery, London).