Rubens’ Forest Path (n.d.), a drawing

Visual metamorphosis turns one form or shape into another and, although widely used in art over the centuries, it has very rarely ever been seen by art historians.1 Salvador Dali used it, of course, obviously but, as he himself also knew, it can be done so subtly that only artists would ever be likely to recognize it. One of the most common types is also, from our point-of-view, the most significant: the turning of an artist's self-portrait into a completely different scene, often a landscape, as I have already shown of several great masters including Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Giovanni Bellini, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Poussin, Rembrandt, Turner, Corot, Monet and Van Gogh. In such company, would Rubens be missing? 

At left is Rubens' pen and ink drawing of a forest path, a pastoral scene about which, using normal methodology, there is not much to say. However, if art is self-representational and a sustained inquiry into the nature of the artist's self - as I claim it is - then landscape must be self-representational too.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Rubens, Forest Path (n.d.) Pen and ink on paper. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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To see artworks this way you need to become familiar with an artist's self-portraits, of which there may be many or only one. Those for whom serial examples are still extant often seem to impose some similarity on them. Rubens, for instance, tended to hold his head in semi-profile wearing a wide circular-brimmed hat, almost like an inverse halo. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Rubens' Self-portrait (1628-30) Rubens House, Antwerp
Right: Rubens' Self-portrait (1638-40) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

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Artists familiar with Rubens' face would then see elements of it in the tree's forms, here most notably in the shape of the eye on the left and the eyelid on the right. Above and in between them where his "mind" is, the branches of the tree flourish. This is not the most obvious example but I include it to demonstrate how subtle the use of this method can be. If you look carefully you can just see the indication in the branches for the tip of his nose and shrubbery in the distance for the horizontal lines of his mouth.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Diagram of Rubens' Forest Path
Right: Rubens, Self-portrait (c.1623), detail, inverted and rotated. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

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Even branches extending outwards on either side of the path suggest the flying hairs of his extravagant moustache. Meanwhile the loose fencing in the foreground recalls details of the studio: both the wooden stretchers over which canvas is pulled and a drawing squared up for transfer. Rubens has thus displayed his mind as a product of nature (which, to him, it clearly was) and the studio, fusing the two into a mental image of the drawing's own creation.

Captions for image(s) above:

Rubens' Forest Path

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Notes:

1. The most recent case was Sidney Geist, a sculptor and art historian, whose book on Cézanne revealing such forms was roundly criticized by the leading art historians of the day. While some of his theories were misplaced and should not have been included, they should in no way subtract from the very substantial contribution he made to the understanding of Cézanne's methods. His most prominent revelation was the face of a girl forming the underlying framework of Cézanne's massive Large Bathers painting in Philadelphia. Geist, Interpreting Cézanne (Harvard University Press) 1988

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 15 Jun 2012. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.