Friday, March 21, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Massacre of the Innocents (Peter Paul Rubens)

Peter Paul Rubens is one of my favorite painters of all time, and he did some spectacular works including "Samson and Delilah" and the "Raising of the Cross" altarpiece.  Those were two of the first works by Rubens that I had seen images of, and I became a fan immediately.  Rubens knew the modeling of the human figure the way that Titian did, and knew lighting and color the way Caravaggio did.  Of course, one of the things that Rubens was known for was his use of what we would today call "plus-size" or curvy models in his paintings.  They became known as "Rubenesque" figures, and were the ideal type for painting in the nude.  Although, I wonder why they weren't referred to as "Titianesque" because Titian used the same types of figures in his paintings as well.  Rubens was even likely inspired by Titian's work. 
But even though I love Rubens' nudes, his "Samson and Delilah," and certainly his "Raising of the Cross," there is one painting that I have come to know about just recently within the past year that is perhaps his most disturbingly gripping work in my opinion, and that is his "Massacre of the Innocents" from 1611-12.  He did a later version in around 1637 near the end of his life, but I don't think it is nearly as powerful.  It's almost a little too beautiful and too Baroque, if that makes sense.  There is something about the darkness of the earlier version that the later one lacks that appropriately sets the mood for the scene unfolding.  What, after all, could be more dark and disturbing than King Herod the Great ordering the murder of young toddlers and infants?  The later version, at first glance, kind of appears to be a choreographed dance, and if you didn't look for more than a few seconds, you probably wouldn't realize something horrible was happening in the picture.  Perhaps the raised spears would give it away, but is that really the first thing you see?  In Rubens' early version, there is no mistaking that something evil is happening.  The look of horror on the faces, and the bodies of the young children are front and center in the foreground for everyone to see.  The most unsettling part is the figure to the right of the composition about to throw one of the babies to the ground, as the helpless mother watches.
In 2002, "The Massacre of the Innocents" became one of the world's most expensive privately purchased paintings.  It was one of the rarest events for an old master painting to be sold at auction, and it just happened to set a record at Sotheby's for £49.5 million, or by today's standards in American dollars, $81.8 million.  It was purchased by Kenneth Thomson, a Canadian businessman and art collector, and was eventually donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

Massacre of the Innocents
oil on canvas

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