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Rubens, Arrival (or Disembarkation) of Marie de Medici at Marseilles, Medici Cycle

Peter Paul Rubens, Arrival (or Disembarkation) of Marie de Medici at Marseilles, 1621-25, oil on canvas, 394 x 295 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris) Speakers: Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Louvre, and we're looking at the monumental cycle by Peter Paul Rubens of Marie de Medici. There are 24 canvases that were painted by Rubens over a four year period with the help of his workshop. Now, according to the contract he had to paint all the figures, but his assistants could certainly paint in much of the rest. This is a major commission by one of the most powerful women in Europe at this time, if not the most powerful woman. Her father was the Duke of Tuscany, and her husband was Henry the IV, King of France. This cycle is a commemoration of the major events of her life. Although, I have to come out and say it. It is absurd in its grandeur. It is completely over the top. This is a woman who had some significant events in her life, and certainly was extremely wealthy, and extremely powerful. Nevertheless, Rubens clearly had to struggle and bring in every mythological stage prop that he could in order to complete a cycle that was, we can only say, dedicated to her ego. In reality, she had an interesting and problematic life. There were quite a number of scandals, but not least of which was when her son, who would be Louis the XIII, he was too young to take the throne, and so she was in control of France as Regent. But then when he finally came to age she continued to reign. She wouldn't let him ascend the throne. And when he was finally old enough and had the authority to be able to say no, it's my turn, he actually banished her from France, and he wouldn't allow her to come back for years. BETH HARRIS: And you get the sense of why, because she was obviously very ambitious, very powerful. And it might have been hard to rule in her presence. STEVEN ZUCKER: In her shadow. BETH HARRIS: Yeah. STEVEN ZUCKER: Let's take a look at the ninth painting in the series of 24. It is when she is coming to France from Italy. It's called "The Disembarkation at Marseilles." And to get off a ship is not usually seen as a particularly triumphant moment, but Rubens is able to make this seem as if it itself is a triumphant moment. BETH HARRIS: Right. She is the queen, victory above her with trumpets announcing her arrival. STEVEN ZUCKER: Not just one, but two trumpets. BETH HARRIS: This is the beginning of her fulfillment, of her destiny, as queen of France. STEVEN ZUCKER: And we see France personified by a figure that seems to be preparing to kneel before her wearing a blue cape of gold fleur de lis. BETH HARRIS: Which is the symbol of the royal family of France. STEVEN ZUCKER: Behind her is a knight of Malta that looks on, this fabulous ship just heavily wrought. This sky in the most Baroque fashion is just swirling and full of energy. But that's nothing compared with what goes on below the gang plank. BETH HARRIS: That's right. We have three narayans or sea nymphs below her, along with the gods of the sea, Writhe and Turn. STEVEN ZUCKER: Almost as if they are they the sea themselves. It's as if their bodies are waves. There is just tremendous energy and real beauty. I mean, look at the colors and the understanding of the torsion of the body. BETH HARRIS: The drama of their pose contrasts with the stateliness and the grandeur of Marie de Medici above. STEVEN ZUCKER: You'll notice that they are actually assisting by holding the ship fast to the land so that she can walk easily. BETH HARRIS: They enable. The Pagan gods and goddesses and figures of victory are all there to service Marie de Medici's destiny as queen. And it's strange. She's a little bit set back compared to the sea nymphs who really occupy more than a third of the canvas. STEVEN ZUCKER: OK, so I think we've made the point that it's completely over the top. But let's get really close and take a look at the paint. BETH HARRIS: OK. STEVEN ZUCKER: So the painting is hung in such a way that it starts about four feet off the floor so that we can only really look up at the sea gods and the narayans. In Ruben's characteristic handling of paint there's a tremendous sense of motion and energy. I'm really struck by the beard and the gray hair of the sea god in the foreground. If you look directly under him you can see what look like raw strokes of paint. There's a kind of energy and a kind of facility that Ruben's has. And then look at the coloration of the narayans. They are full of pinks, and yellows, and greens, and blues. BETH HARRIS: And look at all the shortening that's going on. There is a post that one of the narayans is holding onto and tying a rope around. It's moving into our space. That sea god that you talked about a moment ago reaches his hand back into space. Everything in the bottom of this canvas is in motion. STEVEN ZUCKER: I'm particularly taken by the way in which their eyes are absolutely alive with specs of white paint, which become this beautiful reflective surface. You also see that in the pearls of the hair of the women. And then you see it in the drips of water that come off their body. Now, these 24 canvases were, of course, not originally arrayed in the Louvre. They were in the Palace of Luxembourg Gardens, which was, in fact, Marie de Medici's own palace. And that was built to remind her of Florence. BETH HARRIS: It's really fun to go from one to the other and read the story of these great moments of her life.