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Masterpiece of the Month:  Charles Gow, Peace and War (c.1870), copy after Rubens

Charles Gow, Peace and War (c.1870), copy after Rubens, oil on canvas, 70.5 x 93.5 cm 

About Masterpiece of the Month 

Reflecting on the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collection this year, distinguished UCT art historian Anna Tietze is presenting an essay each month shining some light on an artwork of her choice from the gallery’s historical collection. Anna Tietze is the author of A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on Art and National Identity (UCT Press, 2017). 

Masterpiece of the Month:  

Charles Gow, Peace and War (c.1870), copy after Rubens 

Introduction 

The idea of ‘originality’ is central to the idea of the masterpiece; this work, however, is a copy of a masterpiece, a work of the same title by the seventeenth-century Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. The original painting of 1629-30 was commissioned as a gift for the English king, Charles I, by King Philip IV of Spain and it now hangs in the National Gallery, London.  

This copy was produced by Charles Gow (c.1809-1886), a member of London’s Royal Academy, but an artist about whom, otherwise, very little is known. It was bought by the Cape-based surveyor and landscape artist Abraham de Smidt, perhaps from one of the annual London Academy exhibitions. It was then submitted by de Smidt to the 1875 exhibition of the South African Fine Arts Association (SAFAA).  

The SAFAA had been founded in 1871 (by de Smidt and others) to promote the cause of a South African art gallery based in Cape Town. Some of the works from its temporary exhibitions – including this one – formed the core of a permanent collection when the South African Gallery was established shortly after, making it one of the first works in the gallery’s collection.   

The fact that the work was a copy rather than an original would not have troubled de Smidt, the SAFAA or the young art gallery. Although views were beginning to change by the late nineteenth century, in many places it was still regarded as perfectly respectable for art galleries to house copies rather than originals, of both paintings and sculptural works. If a gallery could not afford the originals of expensive old masters – and few could – it was thought far preferable to source copies which gave a fair impression of the originals rather than offer no representation of them at all. In an age before colour photography, and when access to any photographic reproductions was limited, a painted reproduction of a famous painting was regarded as an educational asset. Our latter-day qualms about originality and authenticity were rarely voiced. As can be seen from an early photo of the Cape Town art gallery, when it had moved to its second premises in the South African Museum, copies of old master works hang side by side with original works by living artists. Gow’s copy hangs in the top corner of the left-hand wall, while a copy of Guido Reni’s Beatrice Cenci (1600) hangs nearby, and a copy of Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia (1514) on the adjacent wall. 

Gow’s work, and other copies, hang in the main exhibition room of the early ‘South African Art Gallery’, housed in an annexe of the South African Museum, 1910. (Coll. National Library of South Africa).    

Analysis of the work 

As noted, Rubens’ original work was commissioned as a gift for King Charles I of England. Its subject was highly significant: England and Spain were at war at this time and it was hoped that the presentation of this work would be a first step towards a thawing of relations, a token of peace. That it came from one of Europe’s most highly respected artists added to its importance; Charles I was a great art collector and discerning connoisseur so would have been highly impressed by the gift.1  

The work draws on the tradition of expressing important abstract ideas through the use of classical reference and myth. Imaginary figures – pagan gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines from Ancient Greek myths – act out a ‘human’ drama. However we need to be familiar with the myths and the visible attributes of their leading characters in order to decode the image. This is a kind of painting designed very deliberately for a minority public who had received a classical education. It is an erudite art for an elite audience. 

The image is dominated by the figure of a semi-nude woman offering her left breast to a young child.2 Above her, a putto holds an olive wreath, long associated with peace and establishing that the woman herself is intended to represent this abstract idea. The child to whom Peace offers her breast has been identified as Plutus, the god of wealth. Below is a darker-skinned, half man-half goat, a satyr – a woodland god associated with physical pleasures. Accompanied by a little putto with its back to us, the satyr offers an abundance of fruit to a group of children who hurry on to the scene to the right. Peace, we are reminded, is accompanied by plenty.  

Two of the children pictured, the two girls, are portraits of the daughters of Rubens’ distinguished host while he was in London, Sir Balthazar Gerbier. They are two real-life figures in this otherwise imaginary world. A personification of hymen, god of marriage, appears to crown the older girl on the right, suggesting that marriage prospers also in times of peace. Meanwhile, below the satyr is a leopard and to the left of him are two maenads, female spirits of nature associated with sensuous pleasure. These, the satyr and the leopard were all familiar attributes of Bacchus, god of wine and personification of the passions. This entire foreground scene drives home the twin message of the wisdom and pleasures of peace.   

Contrasting with it, behind, are the figures of Minerva and Mars, in dark costume and in shadow. Minerva, originally a goddess of war (hence the helmet), had championed just causes so, in time, she came to be associated primarily with wisdom and the maintenance of order. She pushes away Mars, god of war, who advances from the right in full armour. To the right of Mars, in the sky, are the wraith-like figures of a harpy and a Fury, female deities of storm winds and vengeance respectively. But these war-like forces are eclipsed by the personifications of peace in this arcane image of diplomacy and political negotiation.  

Copies and originals 

Gow’s copy reproduces the essentials of Rubens’ original composition but its tonality is significantly different, lacking the brilliant highlights that make the original sparkle. In Rubens’ work, drapery, flesh and fruit are all lit up by these highlights where in Gow’s copy these are almost entirely absent. But perhaps the most significant difference between the two is their size. Gow’s work is a small reworking (70.5 x 93.5 cm) of a large work (203.5 x 298 cm) that gained much of its impact from its grand scale.  

This difference in scale between the original and Gow’s copy would not have been regarded as a drawback by Gow or his nineteenth-century public. The artist would have viewed the work as an exercise in learning the techniques of the old masters while the public would have seen it as a useful substitute for the original: not a replica but far superior to the alternatives, viz. a poor black and white photo or a hand-produced print. For Gow, who studied at the Royal Academy, copying the old masters was regarded as a vital part of an artist’s training: the emphasis was on learning good practice from great technicians of the past and perpetuating them into the present.  

This idea of copying as a virtue is now almost gone, under pressure from ideas of originality and self-expression – we are inheritors of the modernist idea that a masterpiece is a unique expression of a unique mind. And yet a glance at the working practices of some of the old masters should give us pause – the famous artist often ran a studio filled with apprentices and assistants, men who prepared his materials but who also worked on substantial sections of his commissioned works, under his light supervision. The ‘master’ signed the work at the end but might have only contributed to parts of it. Rubens, with a large and busy studio, many commissions, and a demanding diplomatic/political life in addition, was one such artist. We do not know how much of the ‘original’ Peace and War is the signature work of Rubens, but we can be sure that it is not entirely of his hand.


Footnotes:

[1] Fascinatingly, the artist produced the work while serving in London as an ambassador to King Philip IV of Spain. In addition to his extremely busy artistic career, he frequently served as a high-ranking diplomat on behalf of Philip and other European rulers. He was testament to the elevated social position that some artists had reached by the seventeenth century, a far cry from their lowly, once artisanal, status.

2 Nudity and loose, ‘timeless’, drapery were frequently used as indicators of gods rather than mortals.

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