Rubens: the man, the brand and the stolen art

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by Tieja MacLaughlin

If you've seen the Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens, you can attest to its power.

And its morbidness. 

The rich, velvety earth tones. The satins and silks. The horror and intensity. The slain babies and exposed flesh.

You feel like you could almost step right into the painting.

The whole piece evokes an emotion that makes you feel sort of ill. And while this is a scene of war, it also has a surprising sexual undertone. Despite the gruesome contents of the painting, you can't help but get sucked into exploring its intricacies. A photograph just doesn't do it justice. The original is a must-see. In the flesh (no pun intended). 

But despite Peter Paul Rubens' being credited for this masterpiece, was he actually responsible for it?

Art historians have grappled over the identity of the artist for years. And they still do

It wasn't until 2001 that a definitive decision was made that this was, in fact, a Rubens. Or so the experts say.

THE POWER OF A BRAND

What's interesting is that it wasn't until after this piece was deemed a Rubens, that it garnered any value in the marketplace. 

The Rubens brand is well known. It's extreme. It's passionate, violent and erotic.

Ruebens was commissioned by the wealthy and lived a life of fame, covering churches and castles aplenty with his brush stroke. Which no doubt raised his credibility and demand in the marketplace. 

Just as Influencers craft their own brands in the 20th century of social media.

The Massacre of the Innocents became the most expensive painting ever sold, when it was purchased at a Sotheby's auction for 49.5 million pounds (87.7 million CAD).

This is a lot of money for a painting that was once donated to a monastery.

But with the name of a famed artist tagged to the painting, it suddenly had public appeal. 

And just as the Influencers of today attach their name to the Nike's and Pepsi's of the world, so too does their public appeal, and bottom line, grow.

SUPPLY AND DEMAND

To further the tale of an artist shrewd in mystery, Ruebens also has the only piece in history stolen from the Art Gallery of Ontario twice.

As told by Sasha Suda in her brilliant Curator's Talk: Highlights of the AGO’s European Collection

Once in 1954, and again in 1959. 

On one occasion it was recovered in a trash can in Parkdale. The second, at Queen's Park.

So is the Massacre of the Innocents a true Rubens?

We'll never be sure.

But one thing goes without a doubt, there is power in a brand.

Tieja MacLaughlin