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An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (probably 1636)
by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)

Medium: oil on oak
Dimensions: H 131.2 by W 229.2 cm

Rubens painted this panoramic landscape to hang proudly above the grand fireplace at his house, Het Steen. This painting is a personal celebration of the artist's life: Het Steen, on the left, and its sprawling estate, seen all around, were purchased on his retirement from diplomatic duties. This work, and its companion painting – The Rainbow Landscape, c.1636 – were painted for sheer pleasure. How do we know how Rubens felt about his newly acquired land? What devices did he employ to show us how vast his territory was? Notice how we view the scene from an elevated position in order to take it all in as though our lens is wide-angled.

People seem to be working in harmony with nature and the whole scene enjoys the warmth of the early morning sun. There may not be a physical rainbow present in this work, but do you think it borrows from a rainbow's prismatic colour? How many different types of activity can you spot in the painting? If you look very carefully, you will see the artist with his new wife, Helena Fourment, far left. Perhaps the two magpies in the middle of the sky symbolically allude to the happy couple. Imagine you were a farm labourer in this landscape, how many different kinds of sounds could you distinguish?

 

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the figures and their surrounding landscape.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views.  

Tip: use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version on The National Gallery's website.

 

 

Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • How does the painter help us journey through this landscape, and what do we encounter on the way?
  • How would you feel if you were transported into this scene? Would it matter where you landed?
  • What’s the weather like in this scene? What kind of clothes would you choose to wear? How do you know?
  • How would you describe the mood of this painting? What elements are helping to create the mood in this scene?

Suggested activity: 'I spy...' sketches

Split your students into pairs. Ask them to take turns looking at the picture and saying 'I spy something beginning with the letter...'. The other student should then do a quick sketch of what they think their partner is looking at.

After a few rounds of the game, come together again as a class and make a circle around a clear space in the room. Ask your students to take turns laying down one of their sketches on the ground, placing it in relation to the other sketches and where the figure or object is located in View of Het Steen. If there are a lot of the same object, such as a tree, try and arrange them as they appear in the picture.

Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):

Space

Colour

Figures – Gesture

Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.

 


Comparison activity

Compare View of Het Steen with Caspar David Friedrich's 1811 oil painting, Winter Landscape.

In order to support the discussion, you may wish to focus on the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Composition, Space and Light.

 

Winter Landscape

Winter Landscape

The National Gallery, London

 


Cross-curricular activity: Science and Art & Design

Extend into a Science and Art & Design lesson by exploring the light spectrum. Firstly, look back at Ruben's painting with your class and ask them to describe the placement of colour:

  • where are the most blues?
  • where are the most reds?
  • what about green and yellow?

Hopefully, they spot that warmer colours like red and yellow are in the foreground at the front of the painting, while there is a movement through various greens into blues – colder colours – in the background. This is an example of a prismatic use of colour with subtle movement from warm to colder colours like in a rainbow.

The arrangement of the colours in the painting is also in line with how we perceive different colours in the light spectrum, with red (long wavelength) appearing close, and blue, indigo and violet (shorter wavelengths) appearing further away. To see this in action, ask your students to decide which colour appears closer in the following two paintings – red or blue?

 

You may wish to show the following BBC Earth Lab video which explores how Sir Isaac Newton studied separate colours in the light spectrum.

 

Can you create prisms of colour in your classroom through glass objects? Or maybe explore the different colours of the light spectrum through an artwork such as a rainbow painting or a colour sculpture?

New Stones – Newton's Tones

New Stones – Newton's Tones

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre




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