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Rubens, The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, 1617-18, oil on canvas, 224 x 210.5 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(bouncy piano music) >> We're in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and we're looking at Reuben's The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. >> Reuben's is using this ancient myth to portray what he's interested in, the human body. >> Specifically the female body. >> We should spend just a second talking about who these figures are. The men are Castor and Pollax and they are the cousins of the men that are supposed to be marrying these two young women. >> The poses don't really look natural do they? >> No, not at all. >> They're supposed to be being abducted, taken away to be raped, these two women who are about to be married, and yet there's something melodramatic about their gestures, something that doesn't quite suit the tragedy of the moment. >> Yes. It's almost as if this is the overwrought gesture that we expect from the silent film era. >> Exactly. >> But that's because Reuben's is interested in rendering and articulating the human body as this expressive form and there's nothing literal about it. >> Look at the impossibility of the positions of the bodies, the amazing amounts of twisting, seems highly unlikely. >> Oddly, there's also a kind of balance. Reuben's is creating this complex composition asking us to look at the form as a whole. >> Absolutely. There's a real sense of frenetic movement, a horse rearing in one direction, another horse rearing in another, a woman falling down, a woman rising up and yet at the very same time it's all very carefully composed. >> Steady to panic. >> Exactly. It's really impossible to look at this without the frame of Baroque Art, which is interested in movement and forms that burst out of the frame of the canvas. >> Right. All of these elements, all of these contradictions that we're talking about are actually characteristics of the Baroque, all of this energy, all of this movement and yet, Reuben's is a court painter and so there is a polished clarity, there is a compositional order. >> As is typical in Baroque Art, we have a composition that is constructed by two interlocking diagonal lines. We move from the upper left where we've got the horse looking down toward the central female figure and then we follow that figure down toward the lower figure's right arm that takes us to the corner of the painting. We have a similar diagonal moving from the bottom left to the upper right with the horse's hooves, the woman's foot, up through her arm to the upper right corner. >> Look at the way in which the top woman's thigh is then picked up by the right arm of the lower figure so that there is this relationship between those two bodies that is visual, if not actual. >> Actually there's relationships all over, that's why I think it's so important to talk about how carefully composed it is. There's rhyming of forms everywhere. Look at the bent left leg of the central woman. It's repeated in the bent left leg of the brown horse or the way of the curve of the neck of the brown horse is mirrored in the curve of the man's neck. >> Reuben seems to be delighting in the way in which the bodies are coming together. Look at the bottom of the painting. You see the woman's foot on the man's that is unexpected, maybe even uncomfortable. >> The tension in that space between the two female bodies. >> Right. There's that negative space that really forces apart those two figures. It's a kind of rupture. Those colors and light and the movement of the two women seem to go together, seem to pull together, want to actually merge and become a kind of single figure and then there's the handling of the paint itself. Look at the colors in those bodies. Look at the pinks and greens, yellows, the flesh tones which are prisms and you get a sense of the translucency of the flesh. >> Look at how much fore-shortening we've got the male figure on the right who strides towards us, the brown horse who's facing us, the woman on the bottom who's falling out of the picture. This couldn't get any closer to us than it is. (bouncy piano music)