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Rubenesque glory

The Dulwich Picture Gallery has brought together a range of works to challenge popular perceptions of the world-renowned Flemish artist

Words: Dan Hayes

T his autumn Dulwich Picture Gallery will unveil Rubens & Women, a major exhibition looking at the work of Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

Bringing together more than 40 paintings and drawings from throughout the artist’s career, the exhibition challenges the notion that he effectively painted just one type of woman. After all, this is someone who gave us the word 'Rubenesque' meaning, according to my dictionary, 'voluptuous… having a round body with large breasts and hips'.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition attempts to move on from such predictable visions, however, focusing not only on Rubens’ famously curvaceous models, but also his female patrons, family members and literary inspirations.

In particular, it includes several works inspired by Biblical tales such as The Virgin in Adoration of the Child, depicting a devoted-looking Mary and an altogether Flemish, blonde-haired baby Jesus.

The exhibition also considers how Rubens’ early nudes were rather different in style to those for which he would become lastingly famous, demonstrating how the artist was influenced by classical-style sculpture such as the work Ceres and Two Nymphs, on loan from the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Other highlights include large-scale portrayals of mythological women such as the The Birth of the Milky Way, on display in the UK for the first time, Diana Returning from the Hunt and Venus, Mars and Cupid.

Exhibition co-curator Dr Ben van Beneden said he hopes visitors will be able to look beyond the curvaceous clichés and gain insightful insights into the Rubens’ approach and motivations. 'The [works] highlight the tenderness and empathy with which Rubens depicted not only his family, but many of his female figures. If Raphael endowed his female figures with grace, and Titian with beauty, Rubens gave them veracity, energy and soul.'

Rubens and Women is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, from 27 September until 28 January 2024.

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