At the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, in a room nestled amidst two rooms filled with Rubens, the “Van Eyke room”, and the “Pieter Breugel the Elder room,” this large painting by the lesser-known Flemish painter, Jodocus de Winghe, could be overlooked. As I dubiously remember, on the other side of the wall on which de Winghe’s painting hangs, Peter Paul Rubens’ The Miracles of Saint Francis Xavier commands a similar space. On the wall opposite, Rubens’ The Miracles of Saint Ignatius of Loyola faces The Miracles of Saint Francis Xavier, creating a clear dialogue in which Loyola seems to one-up Saint Francis in the ghastly drama of his miracles.
Reflecting on the relationship between Rubens’ depictions of saintly miracles, the imagination wanders back to de Winghe’s more earthly miracle, which falls like a shadow cast from Rubens’s canvas, backward, through the wall, and into the adjoining room. The Miracles paintings bear comparison to de Winghe’s Apelles Paints Campaspe in their placement, size (they are, however, a bit larger and more vertical), and to an extent, their composition. Like Rubens’s paintings, de Winghe’s bristles with activity; the canvas seems hardly able to contain the figures which fill every interval and whose centrifugal energy spills off the frame. De Winghe’s painting demonstrates a strong, centered, elliptical organization of the figures, anchored by cupid and recapitulated by the brass dish in the center foreground.
While I began by pointing out a few superficial similarities between the de Winghe and the Rubens paintings, I end in emphasizing their radical difference: Rubens uses negative space to mark clear visual paths through his paintings (In both paintings, the path of the negative space is identical, moving from the bottom center point, up the steps on a right-to-left diagonal, then switching-back left-to-right past the group of figures huddled on the left, and then switching-back once more and heading right-to-left cutting between the body of the saint and the angels above him). De Winghe’s painting lacks this dramatic negative space and the figures and props appear awkwardly cluttered. Whereas Rubens’ composition is clearly defined—almost outlined—by the negative space of the ground, de Winghe’s is constituted through the overlapping of an improbable number of figures in a shallow, compressed space. In this respect—though Rubens is clearly still an exemplary “painterly” painter—in comparison to de Winghe, the composition of the Miracles evinces a starker architecture, one we might associate with the rational planning of the draughtsman (though, as an aesthetic, it is constantly interrupted by soft edges and dramatic brushwork). De Winghe’s painting lacks this distanced, critical perspective; it seems to have been composed by someone who was physically too close to the scene, someone who couldn’t quite grasp its contours.
The organizing geometric figures that emerge through the arrangement of individual figures in Apelles Paints Campaspe are the ellipsis and the sphere. On the right, Campaspe stands with her back to the viewer and her face in profile, gazing left. To her right and below, a model dressed as Poseidon faces forward, turning against Campaspe’s contrapposto, and behind him, a female attendant gazes modestly downward while holding a mirror to light the face and body of the nude Campaspe. Both of these figures create a turn, as in an ellipsis, which moves across the horizontal axis of the painting and recedes back into illusionistic space.
The second female attendant carries the trajectory from right to left as she looks left at the figures in the painting. The representation of Campaspe-as-Venus on the canvas looks straight forward, arresting the movement momentarily, and allowing it to be picked up and turned again by the painted figure of Alexander-as-Poseidon who looks to the right, pinning the figure of Campaspe with a gaze that is symmetrical to the gaze of the second female attendant. Actually, it’s slightly unclear whether their gazes cross and meet on Venus, or whether the female attendant looks just past the painting at the actual Alexander in far left corner. Alexander the Great, who stands in the far left corner and looks down and to the left, moves the ellipsis back around to the figure of Apelles the painter. The circle is completed by the dog in the lower left corner while Cupid or Eros stands just off center. The angel figure who arches over the painting creates the sense of a dome over the ellipsis, or a spherical composition with Venus at the center.
If at this point you are feeling confused as to what’s happening in this painting, so am I. The wall text at the Kunshistorisches helps to clarify some, though it complicates, too. It reads:
“De Winghe painted this version for the Hanau architect, still life painter and merchant Daniel Soreau. Apelles was the most famous painter in antiquity and court painter to Alexander the Great. Passionately inflamed with Amor’s help, here he sits—in the guise of Soreau—in front of the easel, painting Alexander’s lover as Venus Anadyomene. In the background Alexander is depicted as an oriental ruler—generously, he will make a gift of Campaspe to the painter.”
So, here we have a 17th-Century Dutch painter, de Winghe, painting his friend, Daniel Soreau as the classical painter Apelles. The story referenced in the painting comes from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. In Pliny’s account, Alexander the Great commissioned Apelles, who was the greatest painter of antiquity, to paint his lover, Campaspe. As the story goes, Apelles painted Campaspe with such skill, and rendered her image so erotically charged that Alexander was forced to admit that Apelles held a greater admiration for Campaspe than the emperor himself. Out of his appreciation for the arts and the artist, he bequeathed Campaspe to Apelles in an act of magnanimity that proved him a patron equal to the greatness of the artist.
In De Winghe’s composition, the German architect Soreau appears as Apelles. Campaspe poses as Venus. A vassal to Alexander poses as Venus’s lover, Poseidon. Alexander hides nearly off-stage, dressed, without any apparent reason, as an “oriental ruler.” Nothing has not been doubled and re-doubled within the frame of the painting. The emblematic architect’s tools which rest on the pedestal at bottom are the hitch of the composition: the autophagous, excessive mirroring of allegory has been signaled. The composition emerges as a closed, spherical one because the painting constitutes a world. Representation and the Real are all here, and there is no need for a path through, out, or beyond the painting. Perhaps the one thing that tempts the viewer to think of an “outside” the frame is the mirror held by the first female attendant, which she directs—almost directs, that is—towards the position of the viewer. The viewer who stands before the composition might expect to see her reflection there, in the bottom left corner of the mirror, partially obscured by the arm of Campaspe. In this hallucinatory vision, the viewer, like Apelles, becomes an observer observed; the audience becomes subject; a doubling enacts a displacement. Peering out from within this compact drama, what would the viewer’s reflected expression register?