De diplomatie van het schilderij en de schilder als diplomaat

Luc Duerloo
5 juni 2001

Wij ontvingen van de spreker voorlopig een Engelstalige volledig uitgeschreven tekst die we hieronder opnemen

“I have neither the talent nor the station needed to give advice to Your Excellency. Yet when I consider the importance of this peace, it appears to me to be the basis for all settlements in Europe.” Rubens was clearly in a hopeful if not optimistic mood when he wrote these lines to Spain’s principal minister, the Count-Duke of Olivares, on 24th August 1629. He was writing from London, where he had arrived in early June and where he would remain until the beginning of March 1630. From an artistic point of view, Rubens’s nine months in London resulted in some of his most renowned paintings, the Allegory of Peace and War and the series of canvasses proclaiming the Triumph of James I from the ceiling of Whitehall’s Banqueting House. Yet the business that had brought the Flemish master to London, was not that of a painter. He had come as an envoy of Philip IV, King of Spain, and his business was to clear the way for a lasting peace between Britain and the Spanish monarchy.

It was a most unusual appointment, both by contemporary standards and by those of the present day. As Rubens himself frankly admitted in the opening quote, neither his birth nor his profession had prepared him for the task. In the early 17th century diplomatic missions of such delicacy were traditionally discharged by noblemen who held a prominent position at Court or served as senior administrators. Madrid was obviously surprised when the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, the governess-general of the Habsburg Netherlands, suggested sending Rubens to London. To prove that he was up to the task, Rubens first travelled to the Spanish capital and stayed there from mid-September 1628 until the end of April 1629. During his stay he lived and worked in an apartment cum studio of the Alcazar, where the king would come and see him as often as his royal duties allowed. Formally speaking their relationship was one between an artist in residence and his royal patron. Their conversation no doubt dwelt on the work Rubens was executing: a series of portraits of the royal family and an adaptation of his Adoration of the Magi. Still both parties knew that the true purpose of the exercise lay elsewhere. The frequent contacts with the king were first and foremost intended to give Rubens an opportunity to prove his diplomatic talents. Apparently he passed the test with flying colours. On 27 April 1629 Philip IV made Rubens a secretary of the Privy Council in the Netherlands. It was by virtue of this office that he was given letters of credence and that he would function as the king’s envoy at the Court of Charles I.

Rubens’s sojourn in Madrid explains why Philip IV agreed to go along with the idea of entrusting the artist with a delicate diplomatic assignment. It does not however explain why the Infanta Isabella came up with the idea of appointing him in the first place. In order to clarify the latter, one needs to regress by one to two decades and consider the use of art as an instrument of diplomacy by the Archdukes Albert and Isabella. Some new evidence on this matter has come to light and I would like to share it with you today.

Between 1598 and 1621 the Habsburg Netherlands, an area roughly coinciding with present-day Belgium, enjoyed a brief moment of political independence. Hoping to end the Revolt of the Netherlands through persuasion rather than coercion, Philip II divided his principalities among his two surviving children in 1598. His only son, soon to be Philip III, got the Iberian Peninsula, the Italian possessions and the colonies in the East- and West-Indies. His eldest daughter, the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, was to rule the Netherlands as joint-sovereign with her husband, cousin and uncle, Archduke Albert of Austria.  Hopes that this arrangement would lead to a submission of the rebels in the United Provinces, never materialised. In stead the Archdukes and a reluctant Philip III eventually signed the Twelve Years’ Truce in 1609, conceding a provisional recognition of the Dutch Republic. This setback did not however keep the Archdukes from strengthening Habsburg authority in the Southern Netherlands, foster the Counter-Reformation and baroque art and maintain a court in Brussels, that vied in erudition and cosmopolitanism with the most brilliant courts of Europe. Neither did it keep them from engaging in diplomatic activities that spanned from Prague and Cracow to London and from Copenhagen to Madrid and Rome.

In keeping with the usage of the times, presents played a critical part in the archducal diplomacy. Their scope, size, origin and above all value were the sources of cautious deliberation. Listing them all would lead too far. It should be mentioned though that horses were something of a standard gift. The archducal stables were renowned and horses were bought as far afield as Transylvania in order to maintain and enhance breeding standards. A young bellicose prince could expect to receive a riding-horse. His somewhat older colleagues would be honoured with six coach-horses, carefully selected so that they would make a perfect team. Underscoring the peace-loving calling of the office, a prince-bishop might expect mules rather than horses. One dowager-archduchess was even presented with twelve cows and an assorted bull that had to trot all the way from Brussels to Graz. By no means less precious than horses were the vast quantities of jewels that were being distributed to men and women alike. Gender only seems to have played a role as far as relics of saints and other devotional objects were concerned. The Infanta Isabella distributed far more of these than Archduke Albert ever did and most of the recipients were women too. The pursuit of scientific delights furthermore prompted the donation of clocks, telescopes, astrolabes and kindred instruments that heralded the oncoming scientific revolution. Finally came the collectors’ items of the day: Ottoman weaponry, a Persian bed, chinaware or a massive horn of a rhinoceros. The presence of these items certainly gave an air of an oriental bazar to the ensemble.

By comparison paintings were not often used as diplomatic presents. Yet when they were, the effect could go well beyond the consecrated diplomatic formulae. A few examples will help to make that point. Most of the presenting or exchanging of paintings seems to have gone on within the dynasty itself. Naturally enough, most of the paintings acquired in that manner were portraits. Thus in June 1612 the archducal resident at the imperial court sent a letter from Frankfurt, where Albert’s brother Matthias had just been elected emperor, informing the Archduke that: “His Majesty has left his court-painter, Hans von Aachen, in Prague, so that he will finish the paintings intended for Your Highness and others.” Before he could do so, von Aachen however needed to know whether Albert would like his brother’s likeness to wear either “German clothes” or “Hungarian habits”. Albrecht unfortunately replied that he would leave that choice up to the artist. Hence we do not know what the portrait looked like when it came to hang next to those of Rudolf II and Archduke Ernst in the gallery of the palace of Brussels.

A few years on the Archdukes Albert and Isabella made two separate presents that bring us a lot closer to an understanding of the matter. When he returned to his post in December 1614, the archducal resident in Rome presented Cardinal Borghese with a series of eight tapestries. It was a very expensive gift by any standard, given to a very powerful man. Cardinal Borghese was the cardinal-nephew of Pope Paul V. As such he headed the Vatican’s foreign office and was next to the Pope the most influential patron in the Eternal City. In line with tradition, the Cardinal was also one of the greatest collectors of art and antiquities of his time and had a reputation for ruthless acquisitioning. With the aim of harnessing his power and influence for their own interests, the Archdukes had just appointed him cardinal-protector of the Netherlands. The tapestries were intended to cement the relationship. They worked to perfection. In June 1615 the archducal resident reported that the Cardinal had hung the tapestries from the facade of his palazzo on the day of Corpus Christi. Since the route of the procession of the Holy Sacrament went past the palazzo, all of Rome had been able to see the tapestries. As a result, the resident suggested, everyone had been able to note the entente they implied between the Borghese papacy and the archducal government of the Netherlands.

A few months earlier a different diplomatic exchange had taken place. In the middle of May Duke Wilhelm of Bavaria took up contact with Archduke Albert. The main purpose of his letter was to persuade the Archduke to come in aid of his new son-in-law, Count-Palatine Wolfgang-Wilhelm of Neuburg. The Count-Palatine was one of the main contestants for the disputed inheritance of the Rhenish duchies of Jülich and Cleves. Though a Lutheran by birth, the search for allies had lead him to side with the Catholic princes of the Holy Roman Empire. The change of alliance had been sealed by Neuburg’s marriage with a Bavarian princess and his conversion to Catholicism. Duke Wilhelm now hoped that Archduke Albert would procure the troops needed to secure at least part of Neuburg’s inheritance. Putting all this to one side, the Duke went on to explain that he was a collector of  “important, old, artistic and diligently painted pieces by old and important masters”. The one thing, he added, he was still looking for was something by Quinten Massys. Just “one or two pieces” would do the trick. Archduke Albert replied that as far as Neuburg was concerned, he would give due consideration to Duke Wilhelm’s arguments. Being a passionate collector of Massys himself, he diplomatically reacted to the second proposition by stating that works by that master had become very hard to find. By the Summer it had been decided to employ the Army of Flanders in support of Neuburg and Albert duly announced this decision to Duke Wilhelm. To underscore its importance he sent the Duke two paintings. Judging by the Duke’s reply, they were received with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately the sources are silent as to their author or subject, but it is not unreasonable to assume that one of these may have been Jan Brueghel and Hendrik van Balen’s Prophesy of Jeremiah which is now in the Alte Pinakotek.

It was by no means a coincidence that one avid collector received a series of tapestries and the other a number of paintings. The gift to Cardinal Borghese concerned a formal relationship that belonged to the public domain. It was common knowledge that he had agreed to become the cardinal-protector of the Netherlands. The deal that Archduke Albert struck with the House of Bavaria regarding the succession in Jülich and Cleves, was on the contrary kept as secret as possible. If it had become widely known before military action was effectively taken, its chances of success would have diminished considerably. In other words the nature of the present corresponded with the type of the relationship. Tapestries traditionally adorned the more public areas of a palace, paintings, particularly the smaller sizes that could be conveniently transported, were to be found in the more private rooms. Thus the artistic gifts distributed by the archducal diplomacy reflected the nature of the understanding. Tapestries, like the relationships they represented, belonged to the publicity of the presence chamber. Paintings, like the motives for presenting them, belonged to the relative privacy and informality of the closet.

There are several indications that the subject-matter of the paintings had a bearing on the issues that were being considered in the negotiations. A very good example of this is once more provided by the developments in Jülich and Cleves. As a result of the intervention agreed upon in 1614, Wolfgang-Wilhelm of Neuburg had been put in control of the duchies of Jülich and Berg. By the same arrangement, his rivals from the house of Brandenburg had acquired Cleves, Mark and Ravensberg. They however still sought ways to oust Neuburg from the territories he had won. Worn down by the constant confrontation and possibly worried by the turn events were taking in Bohemia, Neuburg made a surprise visit to the Court of Brussels in March 1618. He wanted to reassure himself that the Archdukes and the King of Spain would keep on giving him their unconditional support. He had a more personal request as well. Increasingly concerned about his personal safety, Neuburg sought to secure the future of this three year old son. In order to do so, Neuburg hoped that Archduke Albert would accept to act as ward for the boy in the event of his father’s death. He particularly insisted that the Archduke would take charge of the boy’s education. The request seems to have both surprised and charmed Albert. By the end of the month, Neuburg had all the reassurances he needed. The Spanish army would continue to protect him and his possessions and Albert had formally accepted the wardship. Upon departure Neuburg was presented with a set of five panels, painted by Jan Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens and known as the Allegory of the Five Senses. Representing some of the most-prized possessions of the archducal collections grouped around the themes of touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell, the parallel between the paintings and the education of a young prince must have been plain for all to see.

These elements demonstrate when and how the Court of the Archdukes used paintings as an instrument of diplomacy. Rubens was well acquainted with the practice. He had been appointed court-painter to the Archdukes in 1609 and had already made some discreet contributions to archducal diplomacy. His extensive network of correspondents and his trips to other courts allowed him to gather valuable information which he then passed on to Brussels. It was during one such stay in Paris in 1625 that he had met and painted a portrait of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, the all-powerful favourite of Charles I. Rubens was not particularly impressed by his subject. He held Buckingham largely responsible for the state of war that had just broken out between Britain and Spain. Having learnt that the king’s favourite had subsequently added the burden of an additional war with France, Rubens commented: “When I consider the caprice and arrogance of Buckingham, I pity that young king who, through false counsel, is needlessly throwing himself and his kingdom into such an extremity.” Yet it was Buckingham who approached Rubens through his own painter, Balthazar Gerbier, in January 1627 in an attempt to seek a compromise with Spain.

Buckingham did not live to see Rubens arrive in London. He was murdered in Plymouth on 23 August 1628. Still his endeavours bore fruit, be it not without difficulty. On one particular moment of desperation at the end of June 1629, Rubens wrote Olivares: “If I report matters in such detail, it is not because I think I have succeeded in something that might give Your Excellency some satisfaction, but because I greatly fear the instability of English humours. Rarely in fact, do these people persist in a decision, but on the contrary they change from one moment to the other and always from bad to worse.” (A phrase an historian from the 21st century can only read with some disbelief.) Tensions rose high at times. Yet throughout the negotiations King Charles I proved to be Rubens’s principal ally. Interest played a large part in this. The king was saddled with a war that served the interests of Richelieu admirably, but from which he himself could gain little or nothing. Down to earth power-politics certainly dictated his course of action, but there was more. Here was one of the most talented painters of the age, representing Philip IV, one of the most important collectors of the day and the patron of Velázquez, and negotiating with Charles I, at least as big a collector as Philip IV and soon to be the patron of Van Dyck. In current diplomatic language, it was a unique window of opportunity and it had been the Infanta Isabella, no mean patron of the arts herself, who had spotted it. These actors not only shared their passion for the arts, they shared above all a common European humanist culture. All had been reared with icons such as the relationship between Alexander the Great and his painter Apelles. All knew and aspired to emulate the vignette of the Alexander picking up the brush that Apelles had dropped. Now the positions were reversed. It was the painter who handed the kings the pen with which to sign the treaty by which Britain and the Habsburgs made peace on 15 November 1630.

As they negotiated, their common humanist culture lay under fire. The Thirty Years’ War, of which the Anglo-Spanish conflict could be called a sidekick, polarised Europe along religious lines. Its conclusion in the Treaties of Westphalia of 1648 prepared the grounds for the era of the nation-states. Would it really be a coincidence that the collectors of that era increasingly organised their paintings along national schools? Rubens’s stay in London produced the Allegory of War and Peace. It is a powerful manifesto in favour of peaceful settlement, wrought in the pictorial vocabulary of the age. It took the completely different circumstances of the middle of the 20th century, a completely different vocabulary and the completely different talent of Picasso to produce Guernica, an equally potent manifesto against war. Yet I sincerely doubt whether its maker would have made as good a diplomat