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'Master of Shadows' by Mark Lamster

The painter had a secret: A compelling look at the diplomatic life of Peter Paul Rubens.

December 02, 2009|By Tim Rutten

It's hard to imagine an artist more thoroughly out of fashion than the great 17th century Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens.

Even the adjectives with which his name is associated are out of style. A contemporary woman described as "Rubenesque" certainly would be affronted and, in Los Angeles, probably reduced to tears. High Baroque, the style in which he painted, is nowadays synonymous with pointless complexity. The classical texts that inspired so many of his masterpieces are nowadays little read outside specialized academia. The fervent Counter-Reformation aesthetic that animates the great altar pieces and devotional paintings seems more than slightly overheated, even to those remnant Catholic traditionalists to whom the era's theology still speaks.

Mark Lamster is a brave writer to swim against so many currents. But his affection for his subject is so complete -- and completely convincing -- his style is so gracefully unpretentious and his research is so thorough that "Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens" manages to be engaging, instructive and thought-provoking, all at once.

So much so, in fact, that it's easy to pass over a couple of things that might in other circumstances be slightly annoying. One suspects, for example, that the decision to treat Rubens' diplomatic endeavors as a kind of sensational discovery rather than simply as the focal point of biographical reference was a packaging decision. Fair enough -- particularly when one is dealing with a subject whose name occupies that known-unknown borderland where boredom lurks. Still, the fact that Rubens acted as a high-level diplomat and go-between among his royal patrons has long been an established part of his biography. He was, after all, knighted by both the English and Spanish kings out of gratitude for just those services.

Lamster's contribution is to demonstrate so clearly the interplay between Rubens' diplomatic assignments and many of his important painterly commissions, a conjunction whose force in his career was much more consequential than other accounts of his life have allowed. Most of all, the author allows us to see in Rubens the attractive and almost wholly likable man who clearly interested and charmed those around him. That makes the author's occasional tendency to tell us what Rubens, his mother and other people were thinking at a particular moment not only unnecessary, but slightly cloying. It's not required to humanize a subject whose actions and accomplishments speak for themselves and, moreover, it's impossible to know what's in the head of the person next to you in the supermarket checkout line, let alone a 17th century Fleming.

Minor authorial tics of that sort don't really detract from the important portrait Lamster provides of a major artistic master at a time when artists were still fully integrated into the intellectual, social and political affairs of their time. Romanticism with its faux-religiosity and hothouse self-absorption would shatter that connection; modernism's utopian impulse would grind what was left to powder. In Rubens' time, however, the artist was very much a man of affairs -- well-educated, -traveled and -schooled in the social graces. Flemish painters, like their Italian counterparts, were members of respectable, even prestigious guilds. It's not hard to see how a man as self-possessed and as socially gifted as Rubens could find a role in high-level diplomacy.

Like the composer Haydn a bit more than a century later, Rubens also was one of those supremely generous masters unafraid of recognizing genius that, perhaps, surpassed even their own. Thus, he would on several occasions champion the work of his contemporary -- and temperamental opposite -- Caravaggio, whose paintings he repeatedly recommended to his own patron, the Duke of Mantua.

Lamster does a nicely clear-headed job of sorting out the tangled politics of the low countries during what was a violently fraught and dynamic era. His history is judiciously free of judgments, something that's a bit of a feat when you're dealing with heroic regimes -- at least by contemporary standards -- such as the embryonic Dutch Republic and one of history's stock bad guys, Counter-Reformation Spain (with its fondness for a particularly authoritarian Catholicism backed up by the Inquisition). As he emerges in Lamster's account, Rubens manages to be simultaneously the man of the Spanish Court -- and entirely his own.

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