Rubens’ The Four Philosophers (c.1611-12)

This famous group portrait of Rubens (far left) with his brother, Philip, the philosopher Justus Lipsius and Jan Wowerius has always been a puzzle. Lipsius, in the fur wrap, is a posthumous portrait which explains, according to scholars who read art literally, the stilted nature of the portrayal. That kind of explanation is nonsense because Rubens, of all artists, was capable of putting life in any figure whether painted from a model, another painting or memory. If Lipsius’ figure looks different from the other three, as it does, Rubens had a reason for it.

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Rubens, The Four Philosophers (c. 1611-12) Oil on canvas. Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

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Rubens’ younger brother, Philip, is a substitute for the artist himself with his hand raised holding a pen. To strengthen the connection, Rubens the real artist stands behind him. Artists often depict themselves, allegorically, in pairs with the real artist behind the alter ego. Besides, as brothers, Philip naturally resembles the artist. (Edouard Manet used his brother for the same reason in Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.)1 

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Detail of The Four Philosophers

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With his hand raised holding a pen, Philip posed like an artist at work “paints” the figure of Lipsius which explains the stiffness of Lipsius' figure. Lipsius is “a painting”. Philip, though, turns to look out of the picture at his model, “the artist before the canvas”, before continuing to paint “Lipsius’ portrait.” This means that Rubens, a follower of Lipsius, imagined himself as Lipsius though we, now standing where Rubens once stood, are encouraged to identify with the great man and his philosophy too.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of The Four Philosophers

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Eileen Reeves has pointed out how the reddish sky in the background is an aurora borealis which in Flanders was most often described as rubens or reddish.2 Though unknown to others, this further confirms that the painting is a scene in Rubens’ mind with the view in the distance, perhaps, a scene through his inner eye.

Notes:

1. Other prominent examples of artists and their alter egos in pairs, one looking over the other's shoulder, include Baldung Grien's St. Sebastian Altarpiece, Signorelli's self-portrait with Fra Angelico in Orvieto Cathedral, Raphael's self-portrait with his supposed fencing master in the Louvre and, lastly, Manet and the artist who shared his studio in Concert in the Tuileries

2. Eileen Reeves, Painting the Heavens: Art and Science in the Age of Galileo (Princeton University Press) 1997, p. 64

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