In 1959 Julius Held concluded the section on Rubens’s inscriptions on drawings in his authoritative and stimulating discussion of the artist’s graphic work (Rubens. Selected Drawings, 1959, rev. edition 1986) with the recommendation that the topic should be studied further (“The whole question of Rubens’ inscriptions, both on drawings and on sketches, evidently deserves to be taken up in a special study”). More than fifty years later, Veronika Kopecky took him up on it. Generally clearly constructed and easy to recognize, Rubens’s handwriting varies depending on whether he wrote in Latin, Italian, his lingua franca (in cursive), or Flemish (in Gothic script). Through early signatures such as the one Rubens added to the Album Amicorum of Philips van Valckenisse of c. 1598-1600, accompanied by a perfect circle, Kopecky intends to familiarize the reader with the artist’s handwriting. These are followed by excerpts from a selection of his letters from Italy and his extended correspondence with Duke Wolfgang Wilhelm of Pfalz-Neuburg, Franciscus Junius, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc and others. As a sample of the handwriting the eleven-year old boy would have been taught in the Latin school in Antwerp the author includes a page from Balthasar Moretus’s home work (fig. 24). Rubens’s own handwriting from only a couple of years later can be seen in his Latin inscriptions underneath some of his copies after Holbein’s woodcuts of the Dance of Death (No. 59).
In most cases, the inscriptions are meant for the artist himself, as aide-mémoire, but on designs for title-pages (Nos. 10-17) or sculptures (No. 31) they are intended for the respective person executing the design. On at least two occasions Rubens’s instructions were directed to potential clients. In a letter to a ‘Monse Felix’ of January 18, 1618, the artist explains briefly that his enclosed ‘pale’ pen sketch of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes was all he had time for at the moment and that Mr. Felix had to change the composition himself according to his own needs (No. 7). In two further drawings of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and King David Playing the Harp (Louvre; Nos. 5, 6) Rubens provided initial ideas for an oil sketch or painting. In the former the inscriptions referring to the three Old Testament patriarchs were cut from a larger sheet and carefully pasted beneath the framing line, presumably by Mariette who once owned the drawing. As in The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, Rubens excuses these quick drafts with the pen, alerting his correspondent that the final work will be rather different.
Listing no less than 32 different types of inscriptions on a selection of 74 drawings, Kopecky arranges them by function rather than chronologically. These range from simple notations on colours or materials of garments, most notably in the sketchbook in the British Museum known as the Costume Book (Nos. 18-21), or on the drawing of the Jesuit missionary Nicolas Trigault wearing the exotic gown of a Chinese scholar (Metropolitan Museum of Art; No. 67), to identifications of objects, persons or personifications and their actions, as in some of the copies after antique sculptures, gems and cameos (e.g. Claudius and Agrippina, Berlin; No. 25), or in a few compositional sketches, as in Louis XIII Coming of Age for the Medici series (Louvre; No. 38) or the oil sketch The Triumphal Chariot of Calloo of 1638 (Antwerp; No. 44), where the identifications of figures and symbols are written in black chalk into the thinly applied imprimatura. In some cases, for lack of time or space on the paper, Rubens jotted down in words elements of the composition either vaguely or not at all indicated, such as “more space” on the drawing of the Feast of Herod in Cleveland (No. 50), or “Here are missing beggars with women, men and children” on the famous sheet with Studies for a Kermesse in the British Museum (No. 54). In other instances he went back to ancient authors to describe certain actions, as in the drawing of the She-Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus (Ambrosiana; No. 63), where he added lines from Virgil’s Aeneid to describe the tender efforts of the wolf. On the same drawing he also noted the damaged condition of the sculpture of the personification of the river Tiber from which he had copied the scene.
Of special interest are Rubens’s notations on optical phenomena, dating back as early as 1601-03 to a drawing of the Battle between Greeks and Amazons in Edinburgh (No. 51, verso) where he observes the effects of light, specifically the interplay of light and dust. Towards the end of his life he returned to the subject on the beautiful sheet Trees at Sunset in the British Museum (No. 56) where he describes the play of shadows on trees reflected in the water. Surprisingly few of Rubens’s inscriptions are of a personal nature. The most touching is the note on his drawing of the twin heads of Cupid and Psyche in the Bitish Museum, a vignette from c. 1617-18 that reads “Cupid is based on my young Albert” (No. 15).
A side benefit, as it were, of autograph inscriptions is the aid they may provide in attributing the work. In two cases drawings previously assigned to Rubens are now given to other artists on the basis of the handwriting: Joost Vander Auwera recognized the writing of Abraham Janssen on the Study of a River God in Boston (p. 22, fig. 14), and Martin Royalton-Kisch that of Anthony van Dyck on the sheet with a Dead Tree Overgrown with Brambles in Chatsworth (p. 27, fig. 18).
Each drawing in the publication is illustrated, for the most part in color, including the related paintings, oil sketches or gems; they are discussed in a general text at the beginning and catalogued individually with the exhibition history and bibliography at the end. All inscriptions are translated into German.