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The Louvre is the repository for a spectacular collection of paintings by the Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Among his patrons were the aristocrats in the courts of England, France, Spain and the Southern Netherlands – the Catholic counterpart to the Dutch Protestants. While Rembrandt and Hals painted pictures on a scale appropriate to bourgeois houses, Rubens painted larger canvases and panels for palaces and royal dwellings. Just imagine the scale of the Palais de Tuilleries when you visit the twenty-four paintings commissioned by Marie de Medici in 1621. (Richelieu, 2nd floor, salle 18) These grandiose tableaux place the wife of Henri IV in the company of gods and goddesses, quite an enviable position for a mere mortal.
The lower ranks, while barred from such elevated company, seem to have all the fun. The tradition of painting peasant frolics, ribald drunkards, merry music makers and women of easy virtue who party with men of doubtful gentility, has a long history. You can even find late thirteenth-century gothic manuscripts with indiscrete peasants. The theme however, finds fertile ground in the Netherlands and in particular in the Northern Provinces. Pieter Brueghel the Elder is exemplar of this theme and numerous Dutch artists depict small-scale scenes of peasant merriment. So it comes as something of a surprise to find a more modest-sized Rubens panel painting of a peasant party in celebration of some undisclosed event (Richelieu, 2nd floor, salle 21). In fact, the painting is so unlike most of the master’s work it is easy to disregard it on your path towards the Medici Room. I hope that this brief description can entice you to go and spend some time in front of this joyous depiction of raucousness and affection.
Alternatively known as “The Village Festival,” “A Kermesse” or a “Village Wedding,” we are neither in the midst of a village nor at a wedding nor at a kermesse, technically a celebration for the dedication of a church. There is no bride in evidence and the village is far away over the hill on the right, the church steeple just visible in its midst. We find ourselves, instead, outside an inn that is obscured in the shadows at the upper left-hand corner of the image and we are in the company of some seventy people. Arranged in groups and couplings, this merry company stretches from the lower left foreground on an oblique angle extending to the right middle ground. The oblique thrust into the middle distance cuts off a right-angle triangle on the right, filled in with a nearly autonomous still-life painting. In this corner we see an assortment of metal and wooden tubs, one of particular interest to a thirsty dog. There is a low table covered with pitchers and vases, already emptied of their drink. And finally, a straw-covered hutch from which protrudes a pig’s snout. The pig may be a symbol of gluttony in some contexts but how then to explain the chicken and the ducks? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and these farm animals may just attest to the rural setting of this scene.
Like the inn at the upper left, this area of the panel is in shadow. Rubens uses an even light, coming from the upper right, to focus our attention on the central subject, the revelers. The predominant tonalities, the warm browns, deep late summer greens and occasional reds serve to unify the mass of figures. It takes some time for our eyes to adjust so that we can untangle them. Finally, if we move in, we can truly focus on the actors in Rubens’ country drama, his modern comedy.
Act One is at the center of the picture, an interlaced couple who stand on the same oblique angle of the general composition. The woman in a red skirt is encircled from behind by a strong arm around her waist. Her consort lifts her into the air, an act that was considered to be lewd and vulgar. She leans backwards, away from the center and onto his shoulder. Her right arm around his head, she pulls him towards her and they kiss. With this public display of affection, unheard of among the upper classes, this couple sets the stage, and creates the tone for this first act. To the right, still on the same mid-ground plane, we find another couple also interlaced. Instead of leaning away from the viewer their bodies bend towards the picture plane. Just behind them we find a third couple in motion, her body twisted to the right, his left leg thrown over her left leg. The “thrown leg” is an iconographic sign for sexual intimacy. In Rubens’ mid-seventeenth-century audience this could be quite daring. Equally daring is the kissing couple on the ground, their upper bodies entwined, oblivious to all others around them.
These couples appear to have broken off from the large mass of dancers behind them who still swirl about to the music played by the musicians standing in the shadow of the center tree. Others have also ceased to dance. They now find themselves paired in intimate conversation; heads huddled together like conspirators whose voices cannot be heard over the din of the music and hoop-la. Yet others are now beyond hearing, such as the two men at the table to the left, who have passed out, asleep in the warmth of this summer afternoon, their heads leaden in their alcoholic stupor. No one pays them any mind and the drinking goes on all around them.
But there are two areas of quiet respite, the second act of Rubens’ modern comedy. Back under the trees, seated together as they gossip about the younger folk, the middle-aged men neither dance, nor drink. They have entered another place in the life cycle of the peasants. They are the counterpart to the circle of families, the women and children in the foreground at the lower left. You’d almost miss them, they’re so placid in this swirling mass of humanity. They too once swirled, danced and breaking off from the general masses, coupled and had sex. They now seek their own company with the fruits of their intimacy, and face inward to create their own placid world apart from those others. They do not gaze longingly at the raucous fun-loving peasants, but turn their full attention towards their children.
At a time when peasants could be invited to court as a divertissement for the aristocracy, when the upper classes would go in peasant disguise to a country fair so they could better enjoy the more base pleasures, Rubens does not make any social distinctions, does not pass any moral judgment on the behavior of his characters. Unlike the Breughels who painted foolish peasants to teach us lessons in decorum, or to illustrate moralizing maxims, Rubens gives us a peasant’s Garden of Love, a pendant for his aristocratic couples who stroll or sit quietly before the garden façade of an elegant house done in the style of sixteenth-century Italy. The two Gardens of Love, painted within a year of one another, are parallel to the two stages of love within the Village Feast – shown without judgment, or preference but as a simple fact of life.