There dawned one realisation during the symposium at the Bruce Museum, held towards the end of its Rubens oil sketches show (January 22, 2005), as the great blizzard swept north from New York, and the scholars’ day hosted by the Metropolitan Museum in conjunction with its own exhibition of Rubens drawings, which had just opened (to be reviewed in the next issue). The epiphany was no less than that the views of that great Rubens scholar, Julius Held -revered by so many of us – are coming under increasing scrutiny. The walls of his last monument to Rubens studies, the towering catalogue of the oil sketches, published in 1980, are beginning to crack.
In assembling this fine exhibition of Rubens oil sketches, Peter Sutton not unreasonably took Held as his chief guide. And this goes some way to explain the slightly uneven quality of the exhibits. It should be made clear that divergent opinions concerning authenticity are scrupulously indicated in the excellent catalogue by Sutton and Marjorie Wieseman (as for instance in the Two Figure Studies from Boston; cat. 31).
Held’s catalogue consisted of a little over 450 items. To have assembled just under a tenth of these – many from American museums, others from inaccessible private collections, and adding to the brew, works from public collections in England and Holland – constitutes no mean achievement (it has to be said that not all the exhibits are at all of the venues). That the art of the arch-Catholic Rubens seems not to have sat comfortably with the ethos of the Founding Fathers as prevails in Connecticut should not deter the Bruce Museum from forging ahead with a program of stimulating art-historical exhibitions.
The selection of works is such that most aspects of the artist’s preparatory works in oils are covered following the re-establishment of his practice in Antwerp in 1609. In particular emphasis is memorably placed on the great projects he was called on to undertake: the four tapestry series of Decius Mus, the History of Constantine, the Triumph of the Eucharist, and the Story of Achilles are all represented; so are the great painted cycles for the Jesuit Church, the Luxembourg Palace, the Banqueting Hall and the Torre de la Parada. Featured also are modelli for important single commissions like the Getty’s The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse, or the Metropolitan Museum’s Glorification of the Eucharist. A criticism would centre on the head studies: not least because many believe that the Head of a Negro from Glen Falls (cat. 7) is by Van Dyck, while doubts concerning the Austin Study of a Youth (cat. 1) are surely justified.
The great merit of the Bruce show was to display the seamless, exuberant energy in Rubens’s handling and choice of rich color, from the Cincinnati Samson and Delilah of 1609-1610 (cat. 3) to the National Gallery Aurora and Cephalus of 1636 (cat. 34). In contrast the very late sketches for the hunting scenes (cats. 41-43), also destined for Madrid, are more muted although still vigorously handled. They differ from The Rape of the Sabines and its pendant, last shown in the 2004 Lille exhibition. What was going on in the artist’s very last years still requires analysis.