Trading Places: The Translation and Transformation of Culture in The J. Paul Getty Museum’s "Looking East: Rubens’s Encounter with Asia"

By Jessica KeatingMay 26, 2013

Trading Places: The Translation and Transformation of Culture in The J. Paul Getty Museum’s "Looking East: Rubens’s Encounter with Asia"

Looking East by Stephanie Schrader

Image: Peter Paul Rubens. "Man in Korean Costume," c. 1617. Chalk.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.

PETER PAUL RUBENS, born in 1577 along the river Sieg in the quaint village of Siegen, is chiefly remembered as a Flemish painter of staggeringly extravagant and dynamic pictures — altarpieces, hunt scenes, portraits, allegories, and mythologies — who completed over 300 works in his lifetime. “My talent is such,” he is recorded as saying, “that no undertaking, however vast in size, has ever surpassed my courage.” Rubens’s undertakings were numerous. In addition to managing a thriving studio, he studied the classical world, collected art and antiquities, and traveled widely as a diplomat. Dutch, French, Latin, and Italian were among the languages he spoke and wrote while working as an artist and an emissary at courts in Mantua, Rome, Madrid, and Genoa. Rubens was a man of consequence who kept the company of men and women of serious consequence. His patrons included the Duke of Mantua, the Duke of Lerma, the Count of Palatine of Neuberg, the Duke of Bavaria, the Archduke and Duchess of Austria, and the Burgomaster of Antwerp.

Given that the majority of Rubens’s noble patrons aligned themselves with the church in Rome, some may be surprised to learn that the artist was born a Calvinist, not a Catholic. He became a member of the Roman Church when his parents converted to Catholicism in 1587. Although there is a general agreement among scholars that the family’s conversion was not one of conviction but of expedience (to avoid religious persecution), Rubens took to his adopted faith and is now considered to be the exemplary Northern European artist of the Counter-Reformation or, as some would have it, the Catholic Reformation. Works like his ambitious and monumental altarpiece (the painting measures 21 feet by 15 feet) Raising of the Cross, from 1610, attest to this identification. The central panel is a chaotic scene: nine men hoist up the cross upon which Christ is nailed, their bodies overlapping and intertwined. Amid their struggle hangs Christ, who looks not to his abusers but to the heavens, in full awareness that he will overcome this torment.

Peter Paul Rubens. Modello of the Miracles of St. Francis Xavier Altarpiece, 1617-1618. Oil on Canvas.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemaldegalerie.

This triumphalism of Christ and the Church also suffuses the many commissions the artist received from the order most closely associated with the Counter-Reformation, the Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the Jesuits. Most notable among Rubens’s work for the Jesuits were two altarpieces and designs for the ceiling decorations, in the new Jesuit church in Antwerp (now St. Carlo Borromeo). In one of these altars, The Miracles of St. Francis Xavier (1617–1618), Rubens recreated the miracles of Xavier, who traveled to India, Japan, Borneo, and the Moluccas to “harvest the heathen.” Here, standing on a plinth before a pagan temple and beneath the Virgin and a group of weightless angels, Francis preaches to a motley collection of foreign idolaters. As Francis delivers his sermon, idols are broken, the sick are healed, the dead are resurrected, and the people are converted. This is a painting about alien lands, exotic people, and the supposedly successful grafting of European ways of praying onto both of them. Victory is conveyed by the figure that stands before Francis, a dark-skinned convert donning a transparent headdress and robed in gold, who, like Christ in the Raising of the Cross, directs his eyes away from the commotion and toward his savior.

Looking East: Rubens’s Encounter with Asia at the J. Paul Getty Museum, centers on a drawing of 1617 on which Rubens based this exotic convert. Since the 18th century, an array of identities has been imposed on the figure and his impeccably rendered robe — a mass of drapery bunched, gathered, folded, tied, and hung — in this large black and red chalk drawing, now owned by the Getty; identities that derive, almost entirely, from the voluminous garment shrouding him. When the drawing sold at auction in England in 1746, it, along with another drawing by Rubens, was inventoried as a “Two, Rubens, Siamese priests.” A reproductive print of the drawing, dated to 1774, labeled the figure “the Siamese Ambassador Who Attended the Court of K. Charles the 1st”; it goes on, “Rubens made the above described Drawing, just before he left England in anno 1636.” This characterization held fast until the third decade of the 20th century. Since 1935, the year in which the art historian Claire Stuart Wortley pointed out that a Siamese embassy never arrived on English soil during Charles’s reign, the figure, following Wortley’s suggestion that the robe was Korean, has been known as “a Korean man.” Building on Wortley’s proposal, several scholars theorized that the figure is “Antonio Corea” — a Korean prisoner of war, sold by the Japanese as a slave to Italian merchants and the first Korean recorded on the European continent, in the year of 1602. According to this view, Rubens executed the drawing between 1605 and 1608, while residing in Rome. Unconvinced, another scholar has suggested that Rubens depicted an anonymous Korean who traveled to Zeeland (a Dutch province at the edge of Europe only 40 miles from Rubens’s home in Antwerp) under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company around 1615. There is more. Given that Rubens based the convert in his Altarpiece of the Miracles of Saint Francis Xavier on the Getty’s drawing, the figure has also been considered a mere costume study, eclipsing his identity all together.

One of the many contributions of Looking East, and the accompanying book by the same title edited by its curator, Stephanie Schrader, lies in the way they weigh all of these options, while at once alerting us to a more plausible and more robust identification of the disoriented robed man. Enter Nicolas Trigault (1577–1628), the Flemish Jesuit, scholar, and procurator of the Jesuit China Mission, who between 1613 and 1618 traveled to Catholic courts throughout Europe, hailing the Jesuits’ triumphs in the east, relaying the sophistication of Chinese culture, claiming the Chinese’s eagerness to convert, and requesting money and gifts to keep the mission afloat. Trigault had voyaged back to Europe after spending two years in China, where he had swiftly mastered speaking and writing in Mandarin and joined the other Jesuits on the mission in dressing as Confucian scholars or literati, in order to, in the words of Matteo Ricci, the leader of the China Mission, “proceed confidently as though we were in fact men of China.” In addition to lauding the Jesuits’ success and the worthiness of the mission in his famous translation of Ricci’s Christian Expedition in China of 1610, Trigault also brought exotic goods from the East, and he readily displayed them on his many stops in Italy, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain. Considering that trade between China and Korea took place in Beijing and that we know Trigault visited Beijing in 1611, Schrader suspects that a Korean costume was among this collection of exotica.

Peter Paul Rubens. Portrait of Nicolas Trigault in Chinese Costume, January 17, 1617. Chalk, pastel, pen and brown ink.
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1617 Trigault visited Antwerp with his retinue of Jesuits, anxious, like Francis Xavier, to save millions of souls. And it is in Antwerp where Rubens executed portraits of the Jesuit missionaries. Rubens’s Portrait of Nicolas Trigault in Chinese Costume, which is included in the exhibition, was very likely done at this juncture. In this portrait, Rubens delights in registering the ways light was reflected and absorbed by folds of black silk spilling down Trigault’s body. “During this time,” Schrader writes, “[Rubens] clearly had access to [the Jesuits’s] cache of exotic-costumes — a collection that may very well have included Korean robes and headdresses.” Yet, even though the artist, in all likelihood, had access to the Korean costume, the drawing makes clear this is not a simple record of that costume. Schrader, in her essay “Implicit Understanding: Rubens and the Representation of the Jesuit Missions in Asia,” alerts us to Rubens’s fascination with certain aspects of the costume at the expense of others. For instance, the artist cropped the drawing off mid-calf, betraying no interest in what was worn beneath the robe, or in the figure’s footwear. Schrader’s research and observations change the conversation. No longer is the enigmatic figure in Rubens’s drawing a particular historical actor. No longer can we view this drawing as a costume study or a portrait, but instead it is Rubens’s fantasy of an individual from the distant east.

Looking East presents variations on a single theme — how did Europeans and non-Europeans alike respond to contact with foreign ideas, cultures, religions, and people? It seems the answer is that, paradoxically, they at once incorporated aspects of those foreign things into their own culture while still ensuring that those foreign elements remained, to a certain extent, foreign or exotic. When we talk about exoticism in artistic production during the early phase of globalization (1500–1700), then, we are talking increasingly not about a straightforward “Othering” or the general mechanism that allowed individuals and cultures to define themselves in opposition to foreign or different individuals and cultures, but the reverse: a specialized mechanism that fostered the blurring of boundaries and the transformation of culture.

In this way the exhibition and the accompanying book have much in common with recent scholarly work on early modern globalization, by the visual anthropologist Christopher Pinney, the art historian Claudia Swan, the historian of science Daniela Bleichmar, the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and the philologist Sheldon Pollock, among others. All of these scholars have consistently questioned assumptions pertaining to the existence of homogeneous, monological, and stable cultures that, due to differences in religion, social norms, and social values, are incommensurable. Instead, by way of scrutinizing the global circulation of people, images, objects, and goods, and the adaption and appropriation of these people, images, objects, and goods beyond their point of origin, this work has signaled the always-already hybrid nature of culture. Culture, in other words, is not a thing with an essence; it is continuously in the process of becoming something else.

Rubens’s drawing "Man in Korean Costume" references the crucial early modern conduit of this cultural metamorphosis — a merchant ship, faintly rendered, appears in the background on the left. In the late 16th and early 17th century, ships like this one sailed in and out of Antwerp’s harbor like pistons in an engine. They brought with them ceramic vessels from China; gems, spices, and coconuts from India; turbo, triton, and cowrie shells from Indo-Pacific waters; monkeys from Africa; glass from Venice; crocodiles and armadillos from the New World; and rugs from Persia. In Antwerp these objects filled the markets, cluttered people’s homes, and appeared in works of art. From Christine Göttler’s essay “The Place of the ‘Exotic’ in Early-Seventeenth-Century Antwerp,” we learn that Rubens’s incorporation of a turban adorned with large gemstones and the feather of a bird of paradise in his Adoration of the Magi of 1609 did not just signal the Magi’s eastern origin, nor did it simply convey a deep appreciation of the “ingenuity and material resources invested in its design and creation.” Rather, the inclusion of these details reveals a commitment to heralding Antwerp’s identity as “world city” — a “storehouse” of goods, commodities, and persons from all around the world.

Did the effects of the circulation of people and goods between the East and the West flow in both directions? Simply put: yes it did. But the cultural translation of elements of European culture, particularly in Korea, differed. In her essay in Looking East, “Korean Contacts with Europeans in Beijing, and European Inspiration in Early Modern Korean Art,” Burglind Jungmann mines the channels — diplomatic and mercantile — that fostered the movement of elements of European culture to Korea. She finds, most significantly, that this transfer of elements occurred at a different pace and later in time than they did in the inverse, beginning slowly in the mid-17th century, with the establishment of diplomatic contact with European Jesuits in Beijing. Korean art itself does not reveal the effects of this contact until the 18th century, when Korean painters began to selectively employ European techniques of illusionism. An astonishing example of this adaptation is on view in the exhibition. Yi Myeong-gi’s and Kim Hong-do’s Portrait of Seo Jik-Su of 1796, shows a careful delineation of the lines of the sitter’s face and the strands of his hair, as well as attention to capturing the effects of light on his skin and conveying space and volume, witnessed in the rendering of his white stockings.

Yi Myeong-gi and Kim Hong-do. Portrait of Seo Jik-su, 1796. Paint on Silk.
Image © National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

Looking East stands as an excellent example of the ways in which museums can engage academic and public interest simultaneously and seamlessly. And while part of the purpose of the exhibition and book is to show that cultural exchange between Korea and Europe occurred, and that it can be witnessed in both cultures’ artistic production, the deeper point, it seems to me, is that early modern artists, across the globe, were intent on making clear their familiarity with a world where their own culture was only one small part of a larger whole. In Rubens’s drawing, the man in Korean costume peers out at us as if he is in this moment of recognition — as the merchant ship sails off against the current, into the horizon.


Jessica Keating is the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Early Modern Visual Culture. 

LARB Contributor

Jessica Keating is the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Early Modern Visual Culture. Recently she served as co-editor and contributor to a special issue of the Journal of the History of Collections entitled Captured Objects: Inventories of Early Modern Collections.


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