The Holy Family with Saint AnneCa. 1630. Oil on canvas, 116 x 91 cm.
Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish Baroque artist, was also a humanist scholar, art collector, and diplomat. In 1628, Rubens went to Madrid to meet with Philip IV, King of Spain (1621-1665), as part of his efforts to negotiate a peace treaty between Spain and England, and during his stay the Flemish artist painted, among other subjects, portraits of the Spanish royal family. A patron of the arts, Philip IV was impressed with Rubens’ work and purchased more paintings by him than by any other artist, Spanish or non-Spanish.
The Holy Family with Saint Anne was a significant painting in the royal collection, and it drew the attention of the preeminent Spanish artist Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). In addition to his role as court painter to Philip IV, Velázquez was responsible for decorating the royal residences. He selected Holy Family with Saint Anne to hang in the Prior’s Chapter Room in El Escorial, alongside masterpieces by Raphael (1483-1520), Titian (ca.1490-1576), and others, including Rubens’ own Immaculate Conception, which the artist had painted during his stay in Spain in 1628-1629. This painting was included in Philip IV’s inventory after his death in 1665.
In the late seventeenth century, Francisco de los Santos (1617-1692) succinctly described this painting and its effects on the viewer: [Next to the vase on the right, another] painting of the same dimensions, an original by Rubens’ hand. The subject is also Our Lady with the Christ Child, Saint Joseph, and Saint Anne, the whole executed with such joy that it never fails to warm the hearts of those who contemplate it. Our Lady is seated; the Christ Child is nude and standing on her knees, so appealing, so cheerful, and with such tenderness it stirs the soul. Mary’s dress is a vivid scarlet and her mantle is a rich cobalt blue. Mother and Child are emotionally connected through touch rather than the gaze. The Christ Child lovingly touches her bare breast with one hand while the other grasps her neck. She holds the Child close, with one hand on his torso and the other supporting his left foot. He looks toward the heavens while she looks past him into the middle distance. Saint Anne’s arms enfold the Mother and Child as she gazes upon her grandson. A bearded, older Joseph stares at his son with his chin in his hand, a look of wonder on his face at what he sees before him. The close proximity of the figures to each other and to the picture plane draws the viewer into the family circle.
Since Rubens was known for his personal worship of the Madonna, it is likely that this work had personal meaning for him. Indeed, this painting is one of a series of images of the Holy Family that Rubens painted in the late 1620s and early 1630s. In the seventeenth century, Spain and other parts of Europe experienced a Catholic revival, also known as the Counter-Reformation, which was the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation. The function of art in general, and devotional art in particular, was to stir the soul. To this end, Rubens sought a pictorial naturalness, one of the hallmarks of Baroque painting and sculpture. Moreover, in reaction to the artificial style practiced by Mannerist artists of the late sixteenth century, he sought to revive the classical tradition. The Holy Family with Saint Anne presents a synthesis of classical and Christian culture. The figures display harmonious proportions as they are tightly unified in time and space. Rubens employs a classical architectural setting for the figures, each of which expresses the highest Christian values of love and sacrifice.
As Francisco de los Santos observed, in this painting Rubens created a captivating and intimate domestic scene whose emotional appeal derives not only from the figures’ interactions, but also from the physicality and sensuality of the painting.
In the courts of Charles I in London (1625-1649) and Philip IV in Madrid, Rubens had come in contact with works by the Venetian artist Titian, whose paintings are characterized by two notable features: painterly brushwork and a complex layering of colors. Rubens studied Titian’s paintings and made a number of copies. The Holy Family with Saint Anne is an outstanding example of Rubens’ late works, from the 1630s on, which reflect this influence. During this period, Rubens’ figures are softly modeled with fluid, expressive brushwork.
In all of its elements, from the fluent handling of the paint to the compact composition, The Holy Family with Saint Anne displays the High Baroque ideals of spontaneity and directness. In this way, Rubens brings these divine figures down to earth (Lipinski, L.: El Greco to Goya. Masterpieces from the Prado Museum, Museo de Arte de Ponce, 2012, pp. 117-118).