Peter Paul Rubens The Three Graces
The Three Graces, painted in 1639, is one of the great Renaissance Humanist thinker Peter Paul Rubens' final canvases. It is an articulate and inquisitive exploration of the popular artistic theme of Charity in the Classical sense. In the mythology of the Roman world the Graces were the goddesses of beauty, nature, creativity, and humour, and were also closely associated with the mysteries of the underworld. Having painted a variation on the theme a number of times over the previous two decades, Rubens was perhaps fixated with the Renaissance master Raphael's 1505 oil painting of the same name. Indeed, for many thinkers of the Western tradition, women's bodies were often the physical site of explorations into a number of apparently universal themes. As one of the first Baroque artists to utilize an embryonic form of realism, Rubens painted life as he saw it, which accounts for the stark and candid method with which he has depicted his subject's bodies. So honest are the artist's depictions that many doctors have postulated posthumous diagnoses on his sitters.
The majesty of The Three Graces is Rubens' ability to fuse the spirituality and ethereality of the classical goddesses with the mortal blemishes of living women. For him, grace, beauty, and charm are to be found as readily in everyday life as in the annals of classical tradition. In would be easy to argue that at this late stage in the artist's life that The Three Graces was a rumination on Rubens' own mortality. In applying such an idiosyncratic and individual approach to vision, Rubens both comments on the integrity with which life is represented in Baroque art and asserts the fragility of his own body.
Having first portrayed the subject in around 1620, Rubens 1639 painting displays a number of differences. While retaining the graces in the archetypical circle, his approach focused more explicitly on interacting with the audience. In his first attempt the graces go about their ceremony with no regard for the viewer. But by 1639 Rubens chose to turn the Graces' faces slightly towards the viewer so they might be better studied for meaning, and included in the mysterious Baroque filigree of nature. Yet, immediately countering this, Rubens' draws the eyes of the spectator away from their faces and towards the hieroglyphic complexity of their bodies, clearly delighting in capturing this brief moment between mortality and immortality.
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