Problematizing Rubens’ Winter



Our paper will be dedicated to the study of a rectangular object of 121.4 on 223.1 cm bought by George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, subsequently acquired by Frederick, Prince of Wales and now belonging to the Queen’s Gallery of Buckingham Palace. The particularity of this object is to be displayed to the attention of the public. The main reason of such a public interest is that this rectangular object is covered on one of its surface by colors shaping some forms that have the quality of attracting human attention for cultural as well as physiological reasons. In other words, this object is called a painting. It is named “Winter. The interior of a Barn” (though this information is nowhere present at the surface of the painting, we know it because the painter explicitly referred to this painting by these words) and it was painted by Rubens (1577–1640), a Flemish painter of the first half of the seventeenth century. Accordingly to its descriptive title, the painting represents the warm interior of a barn, open to a snowy outside, with three main groups of characters: on the right, three horses, a dog and a man leaning on a hay fork; in the middle, gathered around a fire, two aged peasants, a beggar and an idle woman with her two young sons (the older one blowing over the fire); on the left, seven cows, two women carrying a basket and a jar, two women occupied by the milking of a cow, and a bearded man observing the scene over a distance.

According to Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures since 2004, and Jennifer Scott, Assistant Curator of Painting in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace, Rubens’ Winter celebrating rural life, should be interpreted with reference to the pictorial and religious context of a Nativity: “In a general way a depiction of a barn in winter is reminiscent of the Nativity [...] The subject of a woman tending several children, with an exposed breast, would remind a seventeenth-century viewer (at least one educated enough to be visiting Rubens) of an allegory of Charity, a virtue also suggested by the crippled beggar (shoeless with a crutch) who has been invited to join the family by the fireside. The message of the Nativity is thus conveyed without depicting Bethlehem.”Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Jennifer Scott | Bruegel to Rubens: masterpieces of Flemish painting | Royal Collection Publications | 2007

The problem we would like to ask is simple: considering that a Nativity implies necessarily the pictorial depiction of a mother and a newborn, does it still make sense to convey this notion of Nativity with a painting that is deprived of its more conventional features? What can be a Nativity without the depiction of Bethlehem except, precisely, not a Nativity? If not a Nativity, then what are the painter’s aims and the object of this painting? The purpose of this paper is to propose a different and rather unconventional interpretation of Rubens’ Winter, based on a Foucaldian framework of analysis and supported by visual and textual evidences.


For Michel Foucault the intellectual history of Humanity is not a History of Linear and Continuous Progress toward the Realization of Truth; conversely, it is discontinuous. Each period of Humanity is confronted to different “problems” addressed through different frameworks of interpretation. For him, there is a close relation between the different practices and discourses emerging in one period. In Foucault’s archeology, the notion of problematization and the notion of episteme are closely connected. Problematizing means to identify the knot of problems shared by artists, scientists or philosophers of the same historical period. Despite the fact that their answers to this epochal problem are extremely various and often contradictory, since they belong to a single moment of collective thought, they all address the same issue:

To one single set of difficulties, several responses can be made. And most of the time different responses actually are proposed. [...] But the work of a history of thought would be to rediscover at the root of these diverse solutions the general form of problematization that has made them possible— even in their very opposition; or what has made possible the transformation of the difficulties and obstacles of a practice into a general problem for which one proposes diverse practical solutions.Michel Foucault | Polemics, Politics, and Problematization | In: Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. The Essential Works of Foucault 1954- 1984, vol. 1 | ed. Paul Rabinow | The New Press | 1997

Rubens’ Winter is the unique and genial answer proposed to a different host of problems shared by many artists of the time. Saying that “Winter. The interior of a Barn” (1618–19) was painted by Rubens, a Flemish Baroque painter of the first half of the seventeenth century, means that this object is not simply one actual piece of wood, canvas and oil, situated in a room of a royal palace located in London vicinity, it is also, and in the first place, the sum of many virtual and actual layers of reality. The luxuriant imagination of Rubens’ virtuous brush, the prosaicism, comicality and vitality of Flemish Baroque paintings, and the intensity and sense of drama of Baroque artists, all these elements participated to the creation of the painting and constituted the very conditions of its emergence.

Cultural, moral, aesthetical and economic constraints shape the form of the answer Rubens gave to the problem of continuing the aesthetic achievement of Renaissance while answering to the cultural problem of conciliating Reformation and Counter-Reformation in his specific North-Euro- pean Flemish environment, in line with its own sense of beauty and expressiveness. A work of art is always the result of the conciliation between different constraints: the task of the critics, we contend, is to explain a painting by assessing the originality of the solutions given by a painter to multiple problems.

  1. How to satisfy the endogenous necessity of creative painting while taking into account the exogenous expectations of buyers?

  2. How to challenge the productions of past and contemporary painters?

  3. How to propose something audacious and new that could not only be suitable for the public taste but also change it and that will be still acceptable for moral authorities?

In order to propose a global elucidation of the forces at work in the making of Rubens’ Winter, we will propose to evaluate the different constraints (creative constraints, cultural constraints, artistic constraints, and economic constraints) shaping its production. Indeed, the more creative is a work of art, the less it is simply determined by its geo-historical conditions of possibilities and the more it itself contributes to shape the complex network of the conditions of its own emergence. Thus “Winter. The interior of a Barn” is one part of the creative answers given by Rubens to the questions to which he was confronted as an original artist living in the geo-historical context of Southern Netherlands European Baroque painting.


Culturally speaking, as an artist and a man of culture, Rubens struggled to conciliate three different heritages: the heritage of the Renaissance aiming at rejuvenating European Art by going back to its Greek-Latin sources while overcoming the Byzantine hieratic iconic model; the heritage of Reformation aiming at rejuvenating Christian faith by going back to the Holy Bible and overcoming the institutional power of the Catholic Church; the heritage of Counter-Reformation aiming at refunding Catholicism by disseminating it to new places (America and Asia) and by displaying a new form of mysticism, combining grace and exuberance. As noted by Horst Woldemar Janson and Anthony F. Janson in their recent historical review of Western art, Rubens’ original answer to synthetize these different intellectual trends contributed eminently to shape the aesthetic and cultural movement named Baroque:

“Rubens resolves the contradiction of the era through humanism, the union of faith and learning that was attacked that was attacked by both Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In his paintings as well, Rubens reconciled seemingly incompatible forces. His enormous intellect and vitality enables him to unite the natural and supernatural, reality and fantasy, learning and spirituality. Thus his canvases defined the scopes and style of High Baroque painting.”Horst Woldemar Janson & Anthony F. Janson | History of art: the Western tradition | Pearson Education | 2004


Aesthetically speaking, Rubens belongs to Flemish painting dedicated to realism[4], alongside with neighboring Dutch painting.Wessel Krul | Realism, Renaissance and Nationalism | Early Netherlandish paintings: rediscovery, reception, and research | Bernhard Ridderbos, Anne van Buren, Henk van Veen ed. | University of Amsterdam Press | 2005 By opposition to the Hegelian antinomy between Italian Renaissance paintings dedicated to serious religious subjects and Northern-Europe painting dedicated to the depiction of scenes of rural life, Rubens’ originality was to use the grand late Venetian style to paintless noble topics and to combine trivial realistic description, classic rigorous composition and mannerist luxuriance of colors in his mythological paintings.Gilles Néret | Peter Paul Rubens: 1577-1640. The Homer of painting | Taschen | 2004

As already noted by Delen, in his classic monograph on Flemish drawings, Rubens achieved a creative synthesis between Southern Renaissance and Northern Flemish styles: “He was the first to create a unity in which the spirit of the North and that of the South, the traditional Flemish love of color and the Romanists’ decorative style, were fused in a new entity. The Baroque replaces the classical ideal of the Renaissance with eloquent pathos, passionate ecstasy, and gorgeous splendor. The forms burst through the restraining bonds of line into violent movements; the colors become radiant with luminous harmonies.”A. J. J. Delen | Flemish Master Drawings of the Seventeenth Century (1950) | Kessinger Publishing | 2007


Regarding economic constraints, it should be reminded that Rubens’ painting activity took place at a time of war and highly destructive conflicts: Dutch War of Independence between 1568 and 1648 and Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648. Moreover, it was situated in the economically declining environment of Catholic Flemish provinces contrasting with the flourishing and rather liberal neighboring of Dutch Golden AgePeter C. Sutton | Dutch & Flemish paintings: the collection of Willem Baron van Dedem | Frances Lincoln | 2002. However the romantic image of the solitary artist solely devoted to his lonely quest of beauty and truth and opposed to the conservative stance of the bourgeois society is particularly not suited to understand Rubens’ works. Rubens’ ancestors were respectable burghers settled in Antwerp. His father was a secretary of the princess Anna of Saxony, wife of William of Orange (the main leader of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish and the founder of Netherlands). After a rigorous education, Rubens (1577–1640), started his artistic education at the age of fourteen, being apprentice to the painter Adam van Noort and then to the painter Otto von Veen, before becoming its assistant until around 1600. He then travelled to Italy and Spain until 1608 when the news of his mother grave illness took him back to Antwerp. Then, according to the biography (hagiography) of H. Knackfuss (published one century ago), he started his rapidly flourishing career and achieved both artistic and grand economic success.Peter C. Sutton | Dutch & Flemish paintings: the collection of Willem Baron van Dedem | Frances Lincoln | 2002 Moreover, as Maartje Beekma told us about The Prodigal Son, painting the same year and illustrating a similar setting of the interior of a barn, “Rubens painted the scene for his own enjoyment, so that its iconography was not influenced by any customer or patron.”Maartje Beekman | Rubens Bulletin | Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen | 2007 This also seems to be true for the diptych formed by Winter and Summer according to Desmond Shawe- Taylor and Jennifer Scott: “This landscape and another entitled Summer (Royal Collection) seem to have been a pair in the collection of the Duke of Buckingham, but may not have been when Rubens originally executed them for his own amusement and delight.”Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Jennifer Scott | Bruegel to Rubens: masterpieces of Flemish painting | Royal Collection Publications | 2007 Thus, despite the degraded economic background of Flemish Baroque, due to the high social position of Rubens at this moment and the fact that the work was not answering to a command, economic constraints didn’t seem to have weight negatively on the painting.


For the artist, as we figure he should be, a painting is not a goal in itself but a mean to pursue its aesthetical quest. For each artist, there is a subtle balance between the dilution of a style in an industrial brand and the concentration of a style in a hermetic unique chef-d’oeuvre. At one part of the spectrum stands Leonard de Vinci credited of about twenty to thirty paintings over some forty years, which means less than a painting per year. In the case of Leonard de Vinci thus, the slightest details can become crucial since we expect a total concentration of the artist on any details of his creations. At the other part of the spectrum stands Rubens, accredited of having paint about 1600 paintings over 32 years of artistic production which means creating about one painting per week—which is impossible without a division of work inside his atelier involving numerous assistantsArnout Balis | Rubens and his studio: defining the problem | In Rubens: a genius at work, Joost vander Auwera and Sabine van Sprang ed. | Lannoo Publishers | 2008.

Consequently, Leonard de Vinci is one of the painters about which it is possible to find the most numerous, various and contradictory interpretations. In the case of Rubens, on the contrary, artistic prolixity makes it more difficult to assess the intentionality of the artist at work, and to assume that everything in painting is intentional, i.e. coming from Rubens himself. Not only because of the huge quantity of paintings produced or the extensive use of assistants, but also, additionally, because Rubens, following the local tradition of Flemish painters, worked in close collaboration with other main artists of his time: like Frank Snyders (regarding Rubens and Snyders collaboration, it has been said that “it is difficult to determine whether the contribution of one begins and the other ends”)Anne Woolett (ed.) | Rubens & Brueghel: A Working Friendship | Getty Publications | 2006 or Jan Brueghel the Elder (joining their hands in various paintings despite the difference of their styles).

Put it simply, Rubens’ prolixity seems to be an obstacle to assess Rubens’ artistic intentionality. This difficulty to evaluate Rubens presence in a single work could lead the critics to consider that the valid unit of interpretation of Rubens’ work is not one painting but a cluster of paintings reunited by similarities of topics and contemporaneity of production. During the years 1616-1620, the agenda of Rubens’ artistic production was heavily loaded with religious paintings: in 1616, “Adoration of the Magi” for Saint Paul Church at Antwerp; in 1617, “Flagellation of the Christ” for Saint John Church at Antwerp; in 1618, “Martyrdom of St. Lavinus” for the Church of the Jesuits at Ghent; in 1619, “St. Francis of Assisi receiving Extreme Unction” for Caspar Charles; in 1620, “Christ crucified between the two Thieves”; etc. Standing apart, three paintings: “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1618), “Winter” (1618) and “Summer” (1619/1620) constitute a kind of pictorial cluster.

Uniting these three painting is the presence of a woman with a basket in all of them (wearing a blue robe in Winter and Summer, and wearing a blue robe and a red jacket in the Prodigal Son like another woman carrying a jar in the Winter). All of them are dedicated to the realistic description of farming life, and were painted as a kind of break from more austere works. Moreover, regarding the fact that Rubens adapted with virtuosity his paintings to different buyersWalter Liedtke | Rubens, his patrons and style | In: Rembrandt, Rubens, and the art of their time: recent perspectives, Papers in Art History | Pennsylvania State University | vol. XI | Roland E. Fleischer ed | 1997, knowing that he painted these works of art for his own delight could mean that something more personal was involved in their production. In order to understand better this personal tone, it could be interesting to know more about Rubens’ “aesthetic psychology”.
About Rubens’ personal life and its links to his painting, previous historian of art often marked a contrast between Rubens’ libertine painting and his almost ascetic style of lifeH. Knackfuss | Monograph on Artists | t. IX Rubens | H. Crevel & Co. | 1904 and Anthony van Dick dignified art of portrait and his rather libertine way of livingPhilippe Gilbert-Hamerton | The Old Dutch and Flemish Masters | International Review, 4 (4) | July 1877. Though Rubens appeared not to have been a libertine, in the moral sense of the term, recent critics pointed out his interest for the libertine ideas (claiming that the old religious hermeneutics of nature should cede to a new naturalistic understanding of the world) that become widespread in the seventieth century:

“He was, of course, fervently committed to the Catholic Counter-Reformation. But he also showed interest in writings about other religious and philosophical creeds, the libertinism of Théophile Viau, the Arminians or the Rosicrucians, the Mémoires of the Huguenot Duplessy du Mornay. Rational and sensible, a man who knew how to keep things in perspective and charming in conversation, Rubens was conscious of his worth.”Frans Baudouin and C. van de Velde | Rubens in context: selected studies: liber memorialis | Centrum voor de Vlaamse Kunst van de 16e en de 17e eeuw, Bai | 2005

Rubens’ paintings arbitrate the cultural and artistic debate between puritan, rationalist lines and libertine, expressive colors by embracing the latter over the former: “Rubens [paintings] are characterized by pageantry, vitality and joyful exuberance.”James Patrick | Renaissance and Reformation | Marshall Cavendish | 2007


According to Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Jennifer Scott, Rubens’ Winter is the metaphorical depiction of a Nativity. However, starting with the premise that without the presence of a newborn, the reference to Nativity is difficult to prove and after having disclosed Rubens’ way to resolve the cultural, artistic, economical and personal constraints of his time, we are lead to propose a different interpretation supported by a close study of “details” of the painting.

According to the principle of the division between two worlds in Baroque ArtGilles Deleuze | The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque| The Athlone Press | 2006, Rubens’ description of the interior of a barn is divided in two qualitatively different compartments: the “cold” part of the painting depicts a snowy rural landscape deprived of human presence; the “warm” part of the painting depicts human scenery conformed to genre painting. Interestingly enough, a cockerel and a hen standing on a perch, at the exact geometric center of the canvas, mark the transition between the two spaces, like a vigilant guard on the fragile threshold of two worlds. Such a central presence of the rooster in the painting calls for a symbolic interpretation. Conventionally, the rooster is associated to the episode of the Repudiation of the Christ by Peter.The Holy Bible | The Gospel according to St. Matthew | 26, §§34-35, §§ 69-75 | King James version. This association between the repudiation of Peter and the cock seems at odds with its interpretation as depicting a Nativity.

Let us consider another important element of the painting: the group of people gathering around the fire. The action of the young boy blowing at a dying fire gives movement and activity to this rather contemplative scene. According to Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Jennifer Scott: “The boy blowing on a coal refers to a lost antique painting by Lycius, pupil of Myron, and made famous through Pliny’s description of a ‘boy blowing a dying fire’.” However, the boy blowing on the fire appears to us as a quotation of one of the most famous Renaissance painting, Botticelli’s “Allegory of Spring” (ca. 1482). According to a legend told by Ovid, Chloris is the Greek equivalent of the Roman Flora, both of them associated to spring.Ovid | Fasti | Book V | translation James Georges Frazer | Harvard University Press | 1989 We contend that the image of the boy blowing towards the fire in Rubens’ Winter is pictorially reminiscent from Zephyr capturing the nymph Chloris in Botticelli’s Spring. Furthermore, if we compare Rubens’ Winter and Summer, we can note that the central presence of the rooster in the Winter echoes the central presence of the woman with a basket in the Summer. The central presence of the woman with a basket full of flowers and carried by a cow in the Summer evokes again the mythological character of Flora, goddess of the Spring. Actually, what the rooster is claiming for and the boy is trying to maintain by the vigor of his breath is precisely the warmth of the Spring, coming out in full effect during the Summer but still virtually present in the dead of Winter.

If we turn now to the other main scene of the painting, composed by the group of people around the cows, three details can retain our attention and support this interpretation: the bearded head of the man behind the cows, the udder of the cow being milked, and the bare foot of the person milking, whose face is hidden and flanked by an older character. Focusing at this bare foot, emerging like a claw from a dark, black gown, and isolating it from the rest of the painting, it bears a disturbing resemblance with something very different: the hand of God announcing to Mary the good news of the birth of the divine child in two versions of the Annunciation by Pietro Lorenzetti and Filippo Lippi. To the difference of the hand of God pointing towards Mary, the bare foot is now pointing towards the fire: could it be that what is announced in the painting is the “holy” rebirth of the pagan forces of the Spring?

The male character peering over the cow to the milking is another disturbing detail. The oblique light of the candle besides gives a fierce aspect to his looking: his bearded face bears some vague resemblance with that of a satyr. Furthermore, he can be related to another character seating right to the cow being milked: both of them are looking at the milking scene. These two characters intensively looking at the udder, commonly interpreted as a symbol of fertility, are like the two old men peering at the young and fresh Susanna in the story Susanna and the Elders represented many times by Rubens (in 1607, 1610, 1614, and 1636). This impression can be corroborated by another association: the milk spreading from the udder of the cow evokes the drops of the milk spurting from the breast of Venus, and nourishing Cupid or Amor, in the allegory of Mars and Venus represented by different painters: Veronese, Luca Giordano and Rubens himself. In case we accept to interpret a painting not only according as the intention of the artist but also the unconscious of the work,Lisa Rosenthal | Gender, Politics, and Allegory in the Art of Rubens | Cambridge University Press | 2005 it can be added that such a parallel can be supported by the Freudian’s interpretation of the meaning of the udder.Sigmund Freud | Dora: an analysis of a case of hysteria | First Touchstone Edition | 1997 Moreover, in Homer’s “Odyssey”, the love between Mars and Venus is an allegory of illicit desires (as well as the desire of the Elders for Susanna); it is Helios, the Sun, who, surprising them, will announce the infamous event to Hephaestus.Homer | The Odyssey | Book 8 | §§ 267-272 | translation by A.T. Murray | Harvard University Press | 1919 Thus the central presence of the rooster can also be understood as an equivalent of the Sun in the legend: announcing the dawn, it will spread out the pagan Gospel of Nature seasonal rebirth.

We started by a naïve question: if it is true that usually Nativity takes place in a barn, how to speak of a Nativity in the absence of its main referent, i.e. Jesus Christ himself? We wondered about the meaning of a painting whose conventional context is given (the Nativity context of a barn in winter) whereas its necessary correlated object (Jesus Christ and his Holy Mother) is absent. Instead of replacing by the hermeneutical act of interpretation the absent object of the painting by naming it a Nativity, it could be more appropriate to find an alternative, non-orthodox interpretation. According to the cultural context, to Rubens’ interest about Libertine thinking in line with the libertine features of his sensuous paintings, and after the analysis of various details (the rooster at the center, the blowing boy associated to Zephyr, the milkmaid of Winter associated to Flora in Summer, the spreading milk of the udder of the cow), we propose to envisage Rubens’ Winter as the Baroque allegory of a pagan annunciation celebrating the coming surge of natural forces and dormant desires. In Benjamin’s understanding, the use of allegory is typical of Baroque Art: Man acknowledges his guilty passion for this world in the moment of its decay.Walter Benjamin | The origin of German tragic drama | Verso | 2003 Similarly this allegory of spring forces, unleashed in summer, appeared in a painting dedicated to winter, i.e. in the moment of their exhaustion. Moreover, as Benjamin noted, the function of allegory in Baroque Art is to announce the death of the mythical. Here, the pagan annunciation of summer coming in the dormant fire of winter could mean the end of the Christian myth of a divine parturient that could bypass the living body: it announces the beginning of the materialist age of warmth and fire, industrial revolution and global warming.