OIL PAINTING: The Combat of the Amazones, 1618
The work of Peter Paul Rubens, one of the most influential painters of Baroque Europe, is sometimes difficult to appreciate. Rubens' seventeenth-century visual vocabulary for artistic message-making, classical mythology and allegory, is a foreign language to most. His frolicking, chubby women, often ludicrously naked, displaying cellulite and all, embarrass us: their largeness is an anathema to the iconic female slenderness we now surround ourselves with. The sheer busy-ness of Rubens paintings, and the exaggerated expressions and poses of his characters seem theatrical, contrived and even melodramatic. The nuances of the diplomatic niceties in his epic royal commissions aren't easily decipherable without knowledge of the historical context; nowadays we aren't susceptible to the religious fervour his passionate biblical evocations were designed to provoke. Rubens' overt ambition and self-promotion, and his business-like approach to his art, make him seem somewhat unappealingly immodest and prosaic to us, too. Our idea of an artistic genius isn't confirmed by the fact that Rubens' assistants did much of the painting.