Goethe's Insight on Rubens' Double Light

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Château de Steen (1635-1637)
Oil on panel, 54 x 92.5 in. (137 x 234 cm.), National Gallery, London

Enlarged painting of Château de Steen (800x453 pixels)
Detail of the left side of the painting (900x1074 pixels)
Photograph of Château de Steen by Prof. Jeffery Howe, Boston College (636x442 pixels)

In 1635 Rubens bought a country estate, the Château de Steen, south of Antwerp. The house has survived, but not in its original 17th century condition. In Rubens' time, it included a moat and bridge as well as a crenellated tower. This is one of the most famous of Rubens' landscapes. Rubens only discovered landscape painting late in life as he fell in love with the Château de Steen and the countryside around it. Steen lies near Malines, and although the terrain is actually somewhat flat, Rubens set his house in gently rolling country lit by warm sunlight.

Goethe on Rubens in Conversations with Eckermann:

When the others had departed, and I also prepared to leave, Goethe requested that I stay for awhile. He ordered a portfolio with engravings and etchings by Dutch masters to be brought in. “I will treat you with something good, by way of dessert,” he said. With these words, he placed before me a landscape by Rubens.

Goethe continued: “You have already seen this picture, but one cannot look often enough at anything really excellent. Besides, there is something extraordinary about this artwork. Will you tell me what you see?”

I said: “Starting with the remotest background, there is a very clear sky, as if after sunset. Then, in the extreme distance, a village and a town in the light of evening. In the middle of the picture there is a road along which a flock of sheep is hastening to to the village. At the right hand of the picture are several haystacks, and a wagon which appears well laden. Unharnessed horses are grazing near. On one side, among the bushes, are several mares with their foals, which appear as if they were going to remain out of doors all night. Then, nearer to the foreground, there is a group of large trees; and lastly, quite in the foreground to the left, there are various laborers returning homeward.”

“Good,” said Goethe, “that is apparently all. But the principal point is still wanting. All these things, which we see represented— the flock of sheep, the wagon with hay, the horses, the returning laborers— on which side are they lighted?”

“They receive light, ” I said, “from the side turned to us, and the shadow is thrown into the picture. The returning laborers in the foreground are especially in the light, which produces an excellent effect. But how has Rubens produced this beautiful effect?”

“But making these light figures appear on a dark ground,” I said.

“But this dark ground,” said Goethe, “whence does it arise?”

“It is the powerful shadow,” said I, “thrown by the group of trees toward the figures. But how?” I continued with surprise, “the figures cast their shadows into the picture. The group of trees, on the contrary, cast their's toward the spectator. We have, thus, light from two different sides, which is quite contrary to Nature.”

“That is the point,” returned Goethe, with a smile. “It is by this that Rubens proves himself great, and shows to the world that he, with a free spirit, stands above Nature, and treats her conformably to his high purposes. The double light is certainly a violent expedient, and you certainly say that it is contrary to nature. But if it is contrary to nature, I stil say it is higher than nature. I say it is the bold stroke of the master, which he, in a genial manner, proclaims to the world that art is not entirely subject to natural necessities, but has laws of its own.

“The artist,” continued Goethe, “must indeed, in his details faithfully and reverently copy nature. He must not, arbitrarily, change the structure of the bones, or the position of the muscles and sinews of an animal, so that the peculiar character is destroyed. This would be annihilating nature. But in the higher regions of artistical production, by which a picture really becomes a picture, he has freer play, and here he may have recourse to fictions, as Rubens has done with the double light in this landscape.”

“The artist has a twofold relation to nature— he is at once her master and her slave. He is her slave, inasmuch as he must work with earthly things, in order to be understood. But he is her master, inasmuch as he subjects these earthly means to his higher intentions, and renders them subservient.”

“The artist would speak to the world through an entirety. However, he does not find this entirety in nature. But it is the fruit of his own mind, or,if you like it, of the aspiration of a fructifying divine breath.”

                                    — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
                                         Conversations with Eckermann, April 18, 1827

Notes: Conversations with Eckermann is the quintessential wine of Goethe's life. This priceless book is a record of Goethe's conversation with his secretary, Eckermann, covering the period from December 3, 1822 to Goethe's death on March 22, 1832. Goethe was in his 77th year at the time of this conversation about Rubens. From this conversation, we see how a master illumines the mind of a student. This book is full of insights and inspiration from the Olympian poet, and I return to it often for spiritual nourishment. The edition I've used to transcribe the above text with minor editing is Goethe's Conversations with Eckermann, with preface by Eckermann and introduction by Wallace Wood, M. Walter Dunne Publisher, Washington & London, 1901, pp. 200-202.

No title was mentioned concerning Ruben's landscape in Goethe's conversation with Eckermann. After searching through numerous Rubens books and web sites, the closest Rubens' landscape that resembled Eckermann's descriptions was “Château de Steen.” I can't find the flock of sheep and grazing horses in this picture. However, it has the laborers returning home at the left as well as the group of large trees. Most importantly, the laborers and the hunter in the foreground cast their shadows into the picture while the trees cast their shadows toward the viewer. This is the “double light” which Goethe saw when examining this Rubens' masterpiece. If there is another Rubens' landscape that bears closer resemblance to Eckermann's description, please email me on your findings and I'll share it here at Wisdom Portal. In the meantime I'm searching for Rubens' “Return from the Harvest” at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence that may be the answer. However, I have not been able to locate a copy of this painting on the web or in a book. Your help is appreciated.

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