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Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de' Medici

Peter Paul Rubens painted 24 grand artworks for Marie de Medici, showcasing her life's triumphs. Rubens creatively included mythological figures, making her life seem divinely ordained. One painting features King Henry IV admiring Marie's portrait, surrounded by gods and symbols of love and marriage. The composition uses diagonal lines and masterful techniques to engage the viewer. Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de' Medici, c. 1622-1625, oil on canvas, 394 x 295 cm (Musée du Louvre) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) -We're in the musee du Louvre in Paris, and we're in an enormous room which is completely filled with 24 huge paintings by Peter Paul Rubens about the life of one woman. -Well, one very important woman, or at least she thought so. These were commissioned by Marie de Medici, a member of the very wealthy and powerful Italian Medici family who married Henry IV, the King of France. -And she hired Rubens, one of the most important painters in Europe during the Baroque period, to paint an elaborate cycle of the triumphs of her life, and then she put the series in her own mansion, in what is now the Luxembourg Gardens, just south of the Louvre. Now this wasn't an easy task, because although she was wealthy and she married a king, her life just wasn't that interesting. She had children, one of them died in infancy. Her husband would ultimately die, and she would become regent of France until her son was old enough to rule himself, but besides that, there really wasn't enough to fill 24 canvasses. -So Rubens was very inventive, and elevated these moments of her life by including mythological and allegorical figures that gave a sense that her position as queen was divinely ordained. -And we certainly see that in the panel that shows Henry IV first gazing on her face in a portrait. It's interesting, because in this case, we're looking at a painting of a man who's looking at a painting. -You can see that he's completely taken with the image of her. It looks as though he's about to say, be still my heart. He turns his body toward the portrait, his left hand is open, a gesture of being awed. -But there's such elegance in the way he turns his body. It's such an expression of the courtly manners of France in the 17th century. -Then it's funny, because we're talking about Catholic Europe, but this is filled with ancient Greek and Roman mythological figures. We see Zeus and his wife Juno, also known as Hera. -And we can identify them because of the eagle on Zeus' side who holds a thunder bolt, and the peacock behind Hera. So you're right, we're not seeing Christian references that speak to the value of this couple, but rather this mythic caste of characters. So Henry is taken by this portrait of Marie de Medici, and the portrait is being held aloft by Cupid, appropriately the god we associate with love, Eros in Greek, and then Hymen, the god of marriage. -And behind Henry is a personification of France, also urging him forward, as though saying, do this for France. -So there's political imperative here as well. This is not only a match made of love, not only a match that has been sanctified by the gods, but this is an important political alliance as well. -Right, this is an important moment for France. -And then we have this marvelous landscape, which is quite low in the composition, and we can see that there's been a battle, and in the foreground the king has taken off his helmet, he's put down his shield, we see two puti who are playing with these, it is as if the king is leaving behind war for love. -We have the sense of wanting to leave everything behind for his great love, for Marie de Medici. -Marie de Medici, in the portrait, is quite formal. She's surrounded by this glorious color, this very rich fabric, but she is close to the picture plane, and looks rather straight out, so there is a kind of flatness, whereas the king is in the process of movement. -In typical Baroque fashion, the composition is structured using a series of diagonal lines, so my eye starts at the bottom with those two puti, leading up to Henry the IV the king, and the personification of France, across to the portrait, which occupies the center of the painting, the god of marriage, and then back up to Hera and Zeus. So there's a zig-zagging that animates the entire composition, with that portrait still in the center. -The complex pathways that Rubens uses to lead our eye around this canvas is masterful. There are these little veniats. Look at the way the personification of France touches so gently the king's upper arm, and seems to be looking eagerly at the portrait, almost as if she's whispering in his ear. Then look at the Cupid, who looks back at the king's face to judge his reaction, and seems so pleased with his admiration. -Or the Cupid below, who's playing with Henry's shield. -And looks directly out at us. -Very mischievously. -Rubens produced the entire series within just a few years, but he was also known to have an enormous workshop of assistants. Rubens would have laid out the overall drawing, and would have likely been responsible for the hands, for the faces, and presumably, for the representation of the king and Marie de Medici, but he would have had lots of help with all that surround them. -It is so over-the-top. -The word ego doesn't even suffice. -Although it's important to remember that she is just acting as a member of her class. (piano music)