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« James Spader | Main | Free Reads -- "Theory" in crisis »

April 18, 2003

What I Owe to Peter Paul Rubens


Art of whatever stripe (paintings, music, movies, etc., etc.) can and often does infuriate, frustrate, bore and generally make me wonder why I bother, but I have to acknowledge that it has also saved my ass on at least one occasion.

In my 20’s, broke, broken-hearted and generally feeling crumpled up and thrown away, I stupidly enrolled in law school. While the law may be some people’s catnip, I found the whole legal world to be completely soul-killing, an absolute wrong turn and, for me anyway, a dead end. But I felt so disempowered at that moment (being, among other things, utterly without dough) that I had no confidence in my ability to seize any realistic alternative. I was going to school at Wayne State University in Detroit, and my law school was a few blocks walk away from the Detroit Public Library. I wandered over one day out of boredom, and walked up a marble staircase to a room full of art history books. That room must have had a thousand art books in it. I soon started spending more time in that room than in the law library. Well, as you can easily guess, eventually this led to an emotional crisis.

What brought this crisis to a head was a drawing, oddly enough. It was a study by Peter Paul Rubens of a single figure from an Andrea del Sarto fresco entitled “The Dance of Salome.” It was not a study of either Salome or Herod, but rather of a serving man seen from the back. Here is a thumbnail of it:

P. Rubens, A Figure From 'The Dance of Salome' by Andrea Del Sarto, 1604

What intrigued me at the time, having done a small amount of figure drawing, was how Rubens could have simultaneously emphasized the rhythmic energy of the pose (it was more emphatic, in fact, in Ruben’s drawing than in the original fresco, which I had also looked up) while also pushing the three-dimensional volume of the figure up a notch. I was scratching my head over this conundrum when I looked at my watch and realized I had to go to lecture.

As I walked through the halls of the law school, my spirits were at their lowest point. I was going to take notes in a subject I had zero interest in. For the first and only time in my life, I seriously thought, “I’ll have to kill myself—it’s my only escape.” After a few seconds of despair, I suddenly heard another voice in my head: “Ah, screw that—I’m going to live a long time and study Rubens!”

I knew then that I was on my way out of that place and onto a more congenial life. A few weeks later I got the check for my second semester law school student loan and promptly signed it over—but not to the law school. Instead it went as a down payment on a very small car. I drove my new wheels to the law school’s administration office and with a delighted flourish filled out the paperwork withdrawing from school. A day later and, with my tiny clutch of belongings and about a hundred dollars in cash, I was on my way to the Golden State.

And I owe it all to, well, Mr. Rubens. Despite his having been dead over 300 years at that point, I still feel like he performed some kind of angelic intervention for me that day.

R. Rubens, Self Portrait, 1639 (Detail & Full)

Who says art is nothing but a high end consumer good?



posted by Friedrich at April 18, 2003


What an inspiring story! To think that we owe this wonderful blog to the effect of a drawing of a chap in improbably tight pants on a young and depressed Friedrich... Michael? Have you ever been similarly inspired by revealing clothing on servant boys?

Posted by: Felix on April 18, 2003 6:59 PM

Really, Felix, cracking homophobic jokes like a schoolboy. It just doesn't go with the rest of your political persona.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 18, 2003 7:33 PM

What a great story.

But I don't think you owe it all to Rubens. Many people who find things that give them joy never take up the story themselves, but just forget and move passively onto the next apparent imperative. You decided to pursue it.

We could probably all decide to do more about the things we love.

Posted by: Alice Bachini on April 18, 2003 7:56 PM

That is, without a doubt, the most muscular waiter I've ever seen in my life. Guess they grow 'em big in Italia.

Interesting counterpoint to the sci-fi book covers that are coming out of The Iraq Love Shack these days, though. Weird.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on April 18, 2003 8:43 PM

Great piece, Friedrich. A bit overdone and too generalized about the law and being a lawyer, especially from a first semester law student, at least from the perspective of this lawyer. However, your piece strikes a real chord with me, at least based on alot of the lawyers I know. There are many, many unhappy and frustrated lawyers who crave more creativity and joy in their lives. But this is also true about so many people I know that work for large corporations, even more so. Ultimately, for me this post is about following your heart and what feels right, wherever that may lead. Kudos for sharing this on your website.

Posted by: Bill on April 22, 2003 7:21 PM

That IS one muscular waiter. I guess I can understand him providing a life-changing experience!! Although perhaps not in the library. I'm sure Rubens would, quite literally, have been thrilled to know his work could create such impact so many decades later. Another good exmple of what 'art' should mean.

Posted by: annette on April 24, 2003 10:41 AM

Yeah, this waiter is pretty muscular, but he's hardly in the running for Rubens' most powerfully built "underlings." Note these two, er, solid servitors.

Rubens took enormous pains to master the heroic male figure. (He clearly saw himself as competing with Michelangelo for the top honors in this field.) I suspect with these (nontrivial) skills in hand, he would have found no good reason to avoid "bulking up" whatever male figures he drew.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 25, 2003 2:16 PM

Dear Freidrich,

Enjoyed your story about encountering Rubens. Last year my wife and I were travelling in Austria and went to the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. After seeing one spectacular canvas after another by Rubens, a love of his work was kindled in my heart as it was in yours. Earlier this month we had the great pleasure of visiting Antwerp--where Rubens lived most of his life. What an incredible joy and blessing it was to attend Mass in the Cathedral of Our Lady with the 'The Raising of the Cross' on the left, 'The Assumption of the Virgin' before us over the high altar, and to our right 'The Descent from the Cross'!!
I have often wondered this last year how to hook up with others that share a passion for Rubens. Would you or anyone know of a blog dedicated to Rubens?
With best wishes,

Posted by: john on April 24, 2004 12:45 PM

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