Rubens paints Daniel in the Lions’ Den

“Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (c. 1614/1616, oil on canvas, 88 1/4 x 130 1/8 in) by Peter Paul Rubens.

In the mid-1600s the Flemish artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish; 1577-1640) spent quite a bit of time in the royal menagerie at Brussels, making careful studies of North African lions.   His drawings are so accurate that we know these particular lions were a Moroccan species which is now extinct in the wild (a few of these lions can be seen at Washington’s National Zoo.)

Rubens was preparing to paint a large canvas (approximately 7 x 10 feet) depicting the Biblical story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den.  In this Old Testament story the prophet Daniel, chief counselor and friend to the Persian king Darius, aroused the envy of the kings’ other ministers.  They conspired against Daniel, forcing Darius to throw the young man into a den of lions.  The next morning Darius, concerned about his friend, had the stone that sealed the den’s entrance removed.  To his great joy he discovered that Daniel had been miraculously unharmed.

This painting is done in baroque style.  Baroque is a style of European art dating from the late 16th to early 18th century, and Rubens is classified as a “high baroque” painter.  The style is flamboyant and highly decorative, full of drama and movement.

In this painting Rubens shows the moment when early morning light first streams into the cave.  The lions squint and yawn in the brilliant sunlight as Daniel gives thanks to his God for surviving the night.  The ten enormous lions (two are almost hidden in the shadows) are placed close to the viewer, giving a feeling of intimacy and danger.  These are not tame lions.  The bones of former victims and the ferociously snarling lion in the right foreground tell us that the young man’s survival is truly miraculous.

Daniel is the focal point of the painting.  His pale flesh and red and white robes contrast strongly with the dark tones of the animals, shadows and rocks.  A brilliant blue sky and green vines overhead draw our eye to his face.  Daniel’s body language, with legs crossed and arms close together, show us that he is frightened — how could he not be, in such a situation? — but his hands clasped in prayer show his continued faith.  A lion standing very close to the young man bares frighteningly long, sharp teeth — but only in a mighty yawn.  The yawning lion and Daniel lean away from one another, symbolizing deliverance from danger.

In 1618, Rubens traded this painting, along with eight other paintings and some cash, for a collection of over 100 ancient Roman busts and statues — a great prize for any art gallery of that time.  During the transaction, Rubens described the canvas as “Daniel among many lions, taken from life.  Original, entirely by my hand.”

Study of a lion in the royal menagerie at Brussels, by Peter Paul Rubens.

Rubens was the most well-born and well-educated Western artist of his time, as well as the greatest talent, and is now recognized as one of the foremost painters in Western art history.  His talent was recognized early and his family encouraged it.  As a young man in Antwerp he went through three successive apprenticeships with local artists.  By the age of 21 he was a master painter.

He traveled to Italy in 1600 and worked as court painter to the duke of Mantua.  In 1603-04 he went to Spain, where his work had a great impact on the development of Spanish Baroque art. He returned to Italy and spent a considerable amount of time in Rome before returning to Antwerp.

The artist was a charming, handsome man.  He spoke French, German, Italian, Latin and Spanish fluently.  He was also a shrewd judge of character.  This made him well suited to be an ambassador during his stints as court painter to both the Infanta and Ferdinand and Isabella.  In addition, his status as court painter freed him from paying taxes, registering assistants with the guild, and following guild rules, all of which contributed to his prosperity.

Like most master painters of the time, he had a huge workshop full of apprentices (many of whom went on to become famous artists themselves).  His Antwerp townhouse was like a little palace, with the studio being the center of activity.  Rubens either personally executed or supervised the creation of an enormous body of works that spanned all areas of painting and drawing.  For the latter, the artist would produce a design which his apprentices brought to a certain point under his guidance; then Rubens himself finished the painting.  Other paintings, like “Daniel” were painted entirely by the master.

Rubens is known for the exuberance and energy of his paintings.  Every inch of the picture is full of action and swirling brushstrokes.  Glowing color and light flicker throughout, and clothing and draperies add the swirling movement and strength for which his paintings are recognized.  “Daniel” shows Rubens at the height of his considerable powers.

cc SOURCE: Art-to-Art Palette Journal print edition

Published by on October 2016. Filed under Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed