Installation of Early Rubens at the Legion of Honor (photo by Gary Sexton Photography, image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

SAN FRANCISCO — Early Rubens at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum offers a rare opportunity to see Baroque paintings of a quality and quantity not usually found in the Bay Area. Peter Paul Rubens might be considered the Andy Warhol of his day, with his own factory churning out art in 17th-century Antwerp. But unlike European museums overflowing with Rubens (or Rubens-adjacent) paintings, such Baroque abundance on the West Coast is uncommon.

On the whole, visitors might be predictably more interested in the actual Warhol show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) across town, but as the San Jose Mercury News points out, “If the prospect of five galleries filled with Old Master paintings sounds as exciting as a mandatory field trip, you’re in for a surprise.” The surprise being that rather than the visual equivalent of eating your spinach, Early Rubens is a feast of sex and violence on a grand scale. Exciting, upsetting, and even shockingly current.

Visitors to the show are greeted by three massive paintings: “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (c. 1614–1616) in the center, flanked by “The Boar Hunt” (ca. 1615–1617) to the right, and “The Flight of Lot and His Family from Sodom” (ca. 1613–1615) on the left. As paintings go, they are as immersive and engaging as movie screens. In the Legion’s low-ceilinged lower galleries, they fill the wall.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (c. 1614/1616), oil on canvas (Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund)

“Daniel in the Lions’ Den” is probably the most reproduced work in the show — on posters all over town, in advertisements for Early Rubens, and in articles about it. The lion’s share of the press, you might say. Who can resist sharing a great cat picture? These big cats are fabulously observed, painted with Rubens’s trademark pulse of blood beneath the skin and filled with individual personality and character.

Peter Paul Rubens, “Boar Hunt” (ca. 1615/1617), oil on canvas, 98 7/16 X 126 inches (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille, France, Inv. BA103, photo by Jean Bernard, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY image provided, courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

“The Boar Hunt” beside it is likewise filled with animal grandeur, this one complete with blood and fangs, tooth and claw, spear and sword, in a maelstrom of energetic assault between man and beast while pale ladies tucked into the upper right of the canvas look passively on.

Given such obvious excitement as lions and boars, it’s maybe no surprise that the painting overlooked has been the quietest of the three, “The Flight of Lot and His Family from Sodom,” on the left. As depicted by Rubens, Lot is not so much fleeing (per title) but reluctantly moving on. Lot looks back, casting sad eyes at his daughters, who carry family treasures, and unlike the Bible story, it’s his wife who looks ahead, in the direction an angel is leading them, away from a doomed city.

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Flight of Lot and His Family from Sodom” (1613–15) (via Wikimedia Commons)

If museum goers of all ages who were around me are any litmus test, most people don’t know the story of Lot from the Bible, so a thumbnail: Lot is a “righteous man” in the wicked city of Sodom, where two angels disguised as travelers find shelter in his home. When a mob threatens to rape his visitors, the good host Lot offers his virgin daughters to the crowd instead. The gathered Sodomites refuse his offer and rush Lot’s home, at which the angels strike them blind and tell Lot to flee because God is going to destroy the evil city. The angels warn the family not to look back, but Lot’s wife casts a single backward glance and is instantly turned into a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters go on, finding shelter in a cave, where the daughters, fearing their father is the last man on earth, get him drunk to have their way with him and become pregnant, which they do.

It is, obviously, a disturbing story, though that’s not so apparent here, where Lot’s family group with angels is a vision of plump drapery, shimmering reflets, fat bare feet, and a centrally held basket of gold vessels. It all feels far less dramatic and dangerous than the wild animals of the adjacent paintings.

Similarly, while sex and violence course through Early Rubens like a ridable wave, an early room of Rubens portraits might be the very thing reluctant exhibition-goers fear — solemn burghers in black — with the notable exception of his “Portrait of Isabella Brant” (ca. 1620–25), Rubens’s first wife, who he depicts with enough saucy vitality as to be downright suggestive. His depiction of Isabella feels fresh and forward-looking, both in his swift, sure brushwork and in the way her frank gaze takes on ours.

Even Rubens’s most, well, Rubenesque works in the show — large, dramatic, multi-figure canvases — feel surprisingly current. Maybe because he also lived in a time of repeated wars, with names reflecting their tenaciousness: the Thirty Years’ War and the Eighty Years’ War. Rubens’s family fled Antwerp when it became Catholic under Spain, and returned after the death of his father. The young artist left again to study in Italy for years before returning home to a country on the brink of the Twelve Years’ Truce. The economic prosperity in his homeland fed Rubens’s thriving career, but religious warfare was always a grim reality.

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Massacre of the Innocents” (ca. 1610), oil on panel, 55 7/8 × 72 1/16 inches (the Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, photo by Sean Weaver, Art Gallery of Ontario image provided, courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Even more than other Baroque artists who revel in scenes of high drama, Rubens is unflinching in holding our gaze on horror. His “The Massacre of the Innocents” (ca. 1611–1612) is as gory and terrifying as a horror movie, with graphic depictions of bloody, dead and dying children, and their mothers under assault. You want to look away, but palpable human anguish draws you in. Rubens’s riveting details of unthinkable violence — blue skin, a bloody pool, hear-tearing grief — feel less like dramatic indulgence than a sincere willingness to witness the terrible.

Peter Paul Rubens, “Lot and His Daughters” (ca. 1613–1614), oil on canvas 74 3/4 x 88 1/2 inches (Private Collection / Photo © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images, image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Near the end of the show, Lot appears again. Unlike “The Flight of Lot and His Family from Sodom,” here the scene is plenty sensational — “Lot and His Daughters” (ca. 1613–14) stopped me cold. Lot being plied with alcohol to facilitate incestuous relations isn’t uncommon in Baroque art, but Rubens’s boozy, leering Lot is uncommonly shocking. Unlike most depictions of this scene, Rubens implicates Lot in the sexual exchange. Lot has his eyes fixed on one naked daughter as she pours him wine, while the other, clothed, seems to urge him on. Compare his version to Artemisia Gentileschi’s, for example, or a version by her father Orazio, a follower of Caravaggio. While the Gentileschi paintings are suggestive, allusive to the sex within the story, Rubens leads with it. With Rubens, flesh feels like flesh: pulsing and alive. In this context, it’s disturbing.

Much of Rubens’s Baroque bravura feels timely in its grappling with violence, terror, power, sex, and coercion. So Early Rubens requires zero interest in Old Masters to appreciate what it has to offer. Not because it’s yet more spectacle for us to ogle, but because Rubens drills down on human horror and makes us look. It’s uncomfortable to linger there, but that’s still what art is for.

Early Rubens continues at the Legion of Honor (100 34th Ave, San Francisco) through September 8.

Bridget Quinn is a writer, critic and art historian living in San Francisco. She’s the author of She Votes: How U.S. Women Won Suffrage, and What Happened Next, illustrated by 100 women artists, and Broad...

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