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Rubens Paints Rape: A Feminist to the Core event with Margaret Carroll

December 15, 2015

by Victoria Wiet, English and Comparative Literature, PhD ’17 and 2015 – 16 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

On December 7, 2015, the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality hosted its final “Feminist to the Core” lecture of the semester. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Department of Art History. In her presentation “Rubens Paints Rape,” Margaret Carroll -- Professor of Art at Wellesley College and a specialist in 16th and 17th century Dutch painting – focused on both the political and artistic contexts of Peter Paul Rubens’ painting The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1615-17).

Carroll started her lecture by discussing her personal history of viewing this painting. Her gradually shifting response to Rubens’ painting was inspired by a 1985 lecture on late Titian which never touched upon the “problematic depiction of rape” in paintings such as the Rape of Europa. During this moment in the history of art criticism, evaluations of Renaissance painters such as Titian and Rubens continued the tradition of raising questions about style and form, while largely ignoring content. Carroll mentioned how the innovative work of feminist art historians in the 1980s helped her reevaluate the initial enthusiasm which she, first viewing the painting as a teenager, had for Rubens’ vivid colors and the “dynamic contradictions” organizing the painting. Inspired by these feminist critics, Carroll sought to develop a new method for interpreting visual art, which would allow her to address the “painting as a problematic cultural phenomenon.”

According to Carroll, what mattered most to Rubens’ contemporaries in connection to rape was not so much the genital act itself but rather the ‘use of force” and the presence of an “unwilling partner.” This emphasis on force structured not just understandings of the relationship between men and women, but also a series of hierarchical binaries: force establishes sovereignty the same way that “form dominates matter, soul dominates body, man his wife, master his slave, king his subject.” Many classical and Renaissance thinkers saw the use of force as pleasurable not just for the sovereign but, problematically, for the dominated subject as well; it’s no wonder, then, that the erotic charge rippling across the painting’s surface might make 21st century readers uncomfortable.

Carroll argued that Rubens’ painting is an allegory for the double marriage between France and Spain’s royal families, which was often compared to the myth of the Leucippus daughters.  She emphasized that this double marriage consolidated the political strength of both countries by conjoining the two kings in a “fraternal bond.” That they both symbolically “acquired their wives in a joint sexual adventure” vividly literalizes what Carroll had said about same assumptions about power undergirding both political sovereignty and relations between men and women.

In her lecture, Carroll didn’t vilify Rubens for eroticizing the forced abduction of women and for “misrepresenting the lived experiences” of actual women. Rather, she turned to a later painting, Rubens’ 1622-25 The Exchange of Princesses at the Border, which renders the future queens’ conquering husbands invisible and thereby suggesting, for Carroll, “Rubens’ own process of maturation,” his attempt to “accommodate the wishes and fantasies of female patrons” by “try[ing] to understand what a woman could not bear to watch.”