Peter Schjeldahl, in the February 7th New Yorker, has a piece on the new Rubens exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There has been a good deal of talk about this show -- it's Rubens' drawings which show Rubens at his best, many believe. "People who like Rubens's paintings willl love this show; the rest of us will be hard put not to like it."
On the advice of an artist friend, I tried for a while to regard Rubens's art as a force of nature, no more reproachable for its mindlessness than are summer clouds, or a waterfall. This futile exercise convinced me that the Rubenesque is, on the contrary, a force of will. More concocted than cultivated, it has the weakness of all "international styles," from Hellenism to the modernistic: the exaggeration of generally admired qualities, absent the grit of a particular culture or personality. I suspect that Rubens attracts painters precisely because his style, being synthetic, presents no integral, daunting mystery. It looks like something you might almost learn to do.
Excellent! That explains the unease I've felt about Rubens for years. Schjeldahl continues:
A telling fact about Rubens is the character of his reliance on workshop assistants, which went beyond what I know of any other Old Master. A Danish visitor to his studio in 1621 reported seeing "many young painters who worked on different pieces on which Sr. Rubens had drawn with chalk and put a spot of color here and there; the young men had to execute these paintings which were then finished off with lines and colors added by Rubens himself." That is, Rubens provided designs at the start and tweakings at the end while ceding the middle, critical stage of a painting, in which, through innumerable decisions and unplanned impulses, thought and feeling become form. He seems to have especially relished the finishing part. (The show includes a few of the hundreds of often fine drawings by earlier artists that Rubens collected and made his own by summarily retouching.) He plainly believed, as did his contemporaries, that he had devised a literally foolproof manner, and he self-replicated to a degree that would be brazened by no other major artist until Andy Warhol -- who positively valued, as an aesthetic sensation, the deadening effect of proxy hands in a work's execution. Rubens's sole excuse was efficiency.