In times past I spent many happy hours in front of Rubens’s magnificent Fall of Phaeton. I made a bunch of drawings of this one horse alone, which are scattered throughout several notebooks.
Sometimes I just stood and looked without a notebook. Phaeton is a mesmerizing tour de force. Once I stood for forty-five minutes in front of the painting, looking, staring, pondering — sometimes getting up close to marvel at details, sometimes standing back to admire the sublimity of the whole.
A museum guard stood nearby, aware of my marathon watching, and deep into my session he finally ventured forward to help me (I must have seemed to need it), saying vaguely, “um, er, if you have a question about the painting, there’s a plaque here with some information.”
That’s when I decided perhaps it was time to go, that I had bewildered the guard for long enough. But I could have stood there a fortnight. Rubens is better than the most gripping movie.
“I should be happy to give 10 years of my life,” said Vincent van Gogh while gazing at Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride in Amsterdam in 1885, “if I could go on sitting here in front of this painting for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.”
That’s kind of how I feel about Rubens.