The Presentation of Her Portrait to Henry IV
Peter Paul Rubens and the Marie de Medici Cycle
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a Flemish painter and diplomat, known for his Counter Reformation altarpieces, portraits or royalty, historical paintings containing mythological and allegorical figures, and landscapes—which he painted mostly later in life (National Gallery).
He had a large studio in Antwerp, but Rubens used his work as a painter to travel and gather information without rousing suspicion. Isabella of Spain entrusted him to negotiate with England and France on her be half, as a representative of the Spanish Netherlands (NG). Rubens was knighted by Philip IV of Spain, Isabella’s nephew, and Charles I of England (NG).
While in France in 1622 Rubens was commissioned by the Queen Mother, Marie de Medici, to paint a series of large canvases which would depict the triumphs and struggles of her life, and that of her late husband Henry IV of France (NG).
Marie de Medici’s position in France was not a stable one at the time. She had been Regent until her son, Louis XIII, came of age and she continued to utilize her power afterword until her machinations caused her banishment in 1619 (Johnson 449). They reconciled, and she rejoined the King’s Council in 1621 (Johnson 450).
Marie de Medici hoped to use the series of paintings she commissioned from Rubens—for her new palace, Luxembourg—as visual propaganda, with the obvious aim of regaining the power she had lost along with her son’s trust (Johnson 450). The Presentation of Her Portrait to Henry IV is one of the earlier painting done in the series.
Influence, Allegory, and Personification
The influence of royalty is easy to comprehend—Presentation of Her Portrait was commissioned by the Queen Mother of France and depicts King Henry IV gazing at her portrait—but there were some contemporary events that also provide some influence as well.
The Thirty Years War was going on at the time, and causing tensions in European countries. Additionally, the time of the commission was right on the edge of Absolutism—centralization of governmental power, with the monarchy taking full control—in France.
These two factors probably influenced the use of mythological figures in what is, nominally, a historical painting—the Divine Right of Kings transmuting into the idea that monarchs occupied and existence that was beyond the ordinary mortal ken.
Marie de Medici was not just the commissioner of the paintings, handing off a list of events she wanted immortalized, she influenced Rubens’ choices in the painting. In the “visual culture” of Marie’s court “Amazons and other types of armed women appeared prominently” (Cohen 498).
The love-struck looking man is, of course, Henry IV; behind him is the personification of France. Not the typical subdued, submissive female figure in long demure gowns and bare feet, but a figure harking back to the Amazons, and to popular depictions of Roma—the personification of Rome.
She is dressed in a manner that, for a cultured and educated audience, was blatantly Amazonian androgyny—“one visible breast; the short chiton and bare, booted legs; the helmet and dagger” (Cohen 500). Much as Roma, France is depicted as active rather than passive, able to consort with the Emperor (Cohen 501). This close relationship can also be seen in the gestures of France. Her pose is indicative of the “bond of love between courtly men;” in other words, the friendship of “latter day Chivalry” and the graceful gestures that were becoming part of courtly manners (Cohen 502).
Ruben’s layout of the painting moves the eye from Juno and Jupiter to Hymenaios, the portrait, and Amor to Henry and France, and then to the putti. The colors used are quite pleasant. The red of Jupiter’s wrap echoing in Henry’s breeches is a nice touch; as is the balance of blue in Hymenaios’ wrap with France’s chiton.
I was particularly drawn to The Presentation of Her Portrait to Henry IV not only because of all the mythological figures and symbols in it, but also because of the two putti figures which reminded me of the baby satyrs in Botticelli’s Mars and Venus. The putti are playing with a helmet and shield, much like the satyrs were playing with Mar’s armor in Botticelli’s painting, and are quite cute.
I love mythology so all the divine figures really make Presentation of Her Portrait interesting. I was chuffed to see the peacocks, which are a symbol of Juno, and the eagle, a symbol of Jupiter, flanking the godly pair.
My favorite figure is of Hymenaios, who—along with Amor—is holding the portrait of Marie. He catches your eye right away because of his position, and because he is naked against the dark blue cloth and the grey-blue clouds.
I also liked the androgynous France. I like when artist or writers play with gender stereotypes; and, for me, the strong, martial image of France is more arresting than traditional image.
Part of what intrigued me about this painting is that the Marie de Medici Cycle is so unique; it was the only large scale project commissioned exclusively to “glorify the life of a contemporary woman” at the time it was created (Johnson 447).
Cohen, Sarah R. “Rubens’s France: Gender And Personification In The Marie De Médicis Cycle.” Art Bulletin 85.3 (2003): 490-522. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
Johnson, Geraldine A. “Pictures Fit For A Queen: Peter Paul Rubens And The Marie De’ Medici Cycle.” Art History 16.3 (1993): 447. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
“Peter Paul Rubens” The National Gallery. The National Gallery, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. < http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/peter-paul-rubens >
Original Image Source
Rubens, Peter Paul. The Presentation of Her Portrait to Henry IV. Digital image. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_de%27_Medici_cycle#The_Presentation_of_Her_Portrait_to_Henry_IV >