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The Rainbow Landscape
  • Date: c. 1636
  • Object Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil on oak panel
  • Image size: 137 x 233.5 cm
  • Object size: 181 x 284 x 17.5 cm
  • Inv: P63
  • Location: Great Gallery
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Further Reading
  • This painting offers a magnificent panoramic view of the countryside of Flemish Brabant surrounding Het Steen, Rubens's manor house and estate, situated between Brussels and Antwerp. Here he spent his summers in semi-retirement, from 1636 until his death in 1640. According to his nephew Philip Rubens, he devoted his time to observing and painting the landscape at different times of day. This view is taken from a bird's eye perspective, described by Philip as 'painted up to the horizon.'

    Rubens presents an idealised view of a working landscape. Haymaking is in progress and dairy cattle are being herded down a track. Ducks dabble on the bank of the stream, while smiling milkmaids and a farmhand greet the driver of a hay wagon. Long shadows suggest that evening is approaching and the day's work will soon be done. A sense of peacefulness and contentment pervades, and is heightened by the appearance of a double-arced rainbow that sweeps across the sky, unifying the composition. The difficulty of capturing this fleeting atmospheric phenomenon presented a great technical challenge to artists. Here it surely also has a profound spiritual significance, evoking a sense of reconciliation, which was particularly poignant for Rubens who had sought in his diplomatic activities to bring peace to the Netherlands.

    The Rainbow Landscape and its pendant A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (National Gallery) are both complex in construction and evolution and were developed together as companion pieces. They were probably painted at Het Steen and displayed there together.

    Briefly separated after Rubens's death, they were together again by the late seventeenth century in an important collection in Madrid before arriving in Genoa in the early eighteenth century. They were brought to London in 1803, when they were offered to the nation unsuccessfully by the dealers Irvine, Champernowne and Buchanan. The pair were separated for good when Het Steen was acquired for Sir George Beaumont, who later left it to the National Gallery. The Rainbow Landscape was sold by Arthur Champernowne to the plantation owner George Watson Taylor (see UCL Department of History, “George Watson Taylor (nee Watson)”, in UCL Department of History (ed.), Legacies of British Slave-ownership, London 2020, (accessed 28 July 2022) whose collection also included Van Dyck P16; ascribed to Rembrandt P229; (probably) Studio of Hyacinthe Rigaud (P130). At his sale (1823) it was acquired by Horatio Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford, and was displayed in the principal dining room at Wolterton Hall, Norfolk. An agent for Sir Charles Eastlake attempted to purchase the painting for the National Gallery at the Orford sale of 1856, with the aim of reuniting the pair, but was decisively outbid by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, for the vast sum of £4,550.