For those too young to have seen the great round of Rubens exhibitions staged in the 400th anniversary year of 1977, the remarkable 2004-05 exhibition, shown in Vienna and New York, was the first opportunity to see a full display of the artist’s achievements as a draughtsman. There have, of course, been other Rubens drawings exhibitions since 1977, but these have tended to concentrate on specific aspects of his work or career, or have been drawn from a limited range of sources, so this was the first time in a generation that a truly comprehensive picture had been presented of the processes by which Rubens worked towards his finished paintings, and the other uses to which he put the media of drawing, and sketching in oil on paper.
Underpinning our understanding of these aspects of Rubens’s art is the work done by the late Julius Held, and in particular his Rubens, Selected Drawings (in its first edition of 1959, and the extensively revised 1986 edition), and The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens(1980). Current scholars have, however, made significant further contributions to our understanding of Rubens’s drawings, and none more so than Anne-Marie Logan, the primary organiser of this exhibition; the selection of drawings and sketches seen here, and also the analysis and discussion in the admirable catalogue, reflected and presented a distillation of all the most recent scholarship in the field. It also demonstrated most effectively (for anyone who might have doubted it …) that Rubens was a truly great draughtsman, who could harness astonishing power and remarkable subtlety to create immensely profound drawings in a wide range of media and techniques, and on an equally wide variety of scales, reflecting the various functions of his drawings.
At this point I have to confess that I was not able to see the exhibition in its Vienna incarnation, so my comments are based only on study of the New York exhibition, and the Vienna catalogue; but apart from the obvious added dimension provided by the inclusion of paintings, oil sketches as well as drawings in the Vienna showing (which had its own, separate German language catalogue*), the overall account given of Rubens as a draughtsman would seem to have been very similar in both exhibitions. The following comments do, however, refer to the arrangement and catalogue of the New York exhibition.
The rooms in the New York exhibition, containing drawings grouped sometimes by theme or technique, sometimes by chronological association, told the story of Rubens’s use of drawings with great clarity. In some cases, this was by omission: as Anne-Marie Logan pointed out in her very clear introductory essay, from the 1620s on, Rubens used oil sketches far more than drawings in preparing his paintings, and astonishingly only two preparatory drawings survive for all the numerous paintings in the Decius Mus, Constantine, Marie de’ Medici, and Achilles cycles. Prior to this, however, Rubens often seems to have worked towards his final composition by making a rapid oil sketch, followed by detailed drawn studies of individual figures or groups, and there are also a considerable number of compositional studies dating from his earlier career. Taken together with the many designs for prints, copies, portraits and other drawings made as works in their own right, this leaves no shortage of splendid and illuminating drawings to exhibit, but it is important to articulate clearly (as Anne-Marie Logan did) where these various drawings fit into Rubens’s work as a whole, and also the aspects and periods of his career for which we do not have a drawn record of his creative process.
The exhibition opened, appropriately enough, with some of the copies that Rubens made, throughout his career, after works (many of them prints), by other artists. Even in the earliest of these copies, we immediately see the originality of mind and technique, and also the self-confidence, that marks Rubens out as one of the great draughtsmen. Whereas most young artists would simply copy the earlier composition faithfully, hoping to learn something in the process, right from the start Rubens imposed his own artistic personality, altering details, making striking changes of scale, and in some cases taking figure groups from different prints and combining them into totally new compositions.
Entering the second room at the Met, one was confronted with the magisterial Munich pen and wash study (cat. 13) for the 1603Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma (now in the Prado), one of the great highlights of the entire exhibition, and a spectacular way to begin the ‘main course.’ Equally impressive was the St. PetersburgDescent from the Cross, mounted on the back of the same stand (Cat. 9) for which Logan’s preferred dating of c. 1601-02 seems on balance justified. The room was devoted to Rubens’s activities in Italy, and contained everything from copies after classical and Renaissance works, to some of the most elaborate compositional studies that the artist ever made. The themes explored by this part of the exhibition were various: how Rubens looked at earlier prototypes (his drawing after Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl alongside Michelangelo’s own drawing of the subject – a remarkable, if initially rather unexpected comparison); how the work of Renaissance masters influenced not only his drawing style but the very way he used the medium of drawing (the very Leonardesque, sketchy study sheet, cat. 10, the immensely elaborate compositional study sheets, cats. 14, 17); how his style could vary between different drawings of the same type, and even the same subject.
Here we also saw some of the many new discoveries in the show. As Logan pointed out, since the last Rubens extravaganzas of 1977, many drawings that were previously totally unknown, or were thought to be lost, have come to light, and of the 113 drawings entirely or partially by Rubens in the exhibition, no fewer than 13 fell into this category. (It is also worth noting that a significant number of these recent discoveries have been acquired over the last few years by the Met.) In this second room alone, we had the important, recently discovered Cologne study after the classical sculpture, Centaur Tormented by Cupid,fascinatingly different in degree of finish from Rubens’s other known study after the same sculpture, in Moscow (cats. 20-21), as well as the study of the so-called Dying Seneca seen from behind (cat. 23, private collection). Again, the difference not only in finish but also in finesse between this Seneca and the drawing of the same sculpture from the other side, in the Hermitage, is immensely striking – so much so that one has to doubt whether the St. Petersburg drawing can really be by the master himself.
In the following room, the emphasis was on the artist’s subsequent compositional drawings, and in contrast with the works from the early Italian period, it was striking that many of these studies were relatively small, executed in pen and ink and wash. Perhaps because of the contrast in scale with the drawings in the previous room, these pen and wash studies seemed particularly refined and beautiful: the Metropolitan Museum’s Susanna (cat. 25 – another recent discovery) was the most moving of the group, but the others (cats. 26-7, 29-30) were hardly less exquisite. In the same room, the juxtaposition of the small compositional study (cat. 28) for the famous London Samson and Delilah, and the spectacularly Michelangelesque Rotterdam chalk study of a Kneeling Male Nude Seen from Behind (cat. 35) told us an enormous amount about the relationship between composition studies and individual figure studies in Rubens’s work.
The fourth room, dedicated to the artist’s early Antwerp period of 1608-15, was a theatrical performance of the first order. To the left, we had a staggering wall with three superb, monumental figure studies for the Antwerp Raising of the Cross (cats. 37-39), and on the far wall were the key studies of Daniel and of various lions for the WashingtonDaniel in the Lions’ Den (cats. 45-48). The drawings in this room were of such extraordinary quality and power that no viewer could fail to understand why Rubens was the most widely acclaimed and respected European artist of his time.
If there were any lingering doubts on this front, walking into the next room would surely have dispelled them. Here, we were presented with Rubens the portraitist. The astonishing Albertina series of red and black chalk drawings of his family; the two wonderful, technically innovative, and very different, drawings of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (cats. 79-80), the two versions of the portrait of the Jesuit Nicolas Trigault (cats. 73-73), and the splendid so-called Korean man (cat. 75; apparently once exhibited in Seoul, where experts said the costume was certainly not Korean). Whereas the largely black chalk figure studies of the previous room showed a perhaps slightly self-consciously monumental side of Rubens’s drawing style, the portraits are entirely different. In most of them, he combined black and red, and sometimes also white, chalk in rather variable permutations, and also used pen and ink for highly distinctive points of emphasis in the eyes and eyelashes. Technically, this approach to the use of chalk, though vaguely Zuccaresque, has no real parallels before the drawings of Watteau, and in terms of the freedom with which Rubens combined the various media, these portrait drawings have absolutely no equivalents in the art of his own time. There is also a superb feeling of personal contact and intimacy, which to my mind makes these some of the artist’s greatest works; there are few, if any, drawings by Rubens which are more profoundly beautiful than the Albertina portraits of his cherubic son Nicolaas in a coral necklace (cat. 81) and the slightly heavy-lidded young girl, probably his daughter Clara Serena, who was a lady-in-waiting to the Infanta Isabella in Brussels (cat. 84). And as an Englishman, I must also say that my heart was warmed by the contrast between on the one hand the massively distinguished portraits of the Earl of Arundel and the achingly refined and elegant chalk study of the Duke of Buckingham (cat. 77), and on the other the thoroughly lumpen depiction of Marie de’ Medici (cat.76).
In the following room, we found a rather heterogeneous selection of drawings from Rubens’s later Antwerp years. The impact of this room suffered from the inclusion of rather too many medium quality figure studies from the Albertina (e.g cats. 65, 69), and the result was an impression – which may or may not be justified – that Rubens used drawings less passionately in his later career. In any case, there is no doubt that the drawings in this room included few if any masterpieces to compare with those in the previous two. But perhaps this was just a reflection of how differently Rubens used drawings in preparing his later works. There were, however, certain revelations here too, such as the surprising technical similarity between the Albertina Study of anOx (cat. 99) and the Oxford Portrait of the Earl of Arundel (cat. 79); in both drawings, we see an otherwise very unusual combination of ink washes and red and black chalk, and a degree of personal engagement that makes the drawing of the ox (and also the study of a horse, cat. 97) feel for all the world like one of the artist’s great series of portraits. They even share the touches of pen and ink in the eyes and eyelashes, which are otherwise never found outside of Rubens’s portrait drawings. Apart from these drawings, the highlights of the room were probably the lovely Albertina study of A Young Woman Holding a Bowl (cat. 60), eerily anticipatory of Ingres, and the three figure studies for theSaint Ildefonso Altarpiece (cats. 70-72); yet although the latter studies are very freely drawn in a striking combination of red and black chalk, they suffer in comparison with the superbly sensitive portrait drawings in the previous room.
In the last two rooms of the exhibition, where the focus was on Rubens’s late works, on his retouching of copies by others, and on his drawings for prints, we found ourselves more in the territory covered by other exhibitions of recent years. Particularly in the field of the retouched works, Anne-Marie Logan has been in the vanguard of a school of thought with which I am not totally in agreement (see my review in April 2003 Newsletter of Jeremy Wood’s Edinburgh and Nottingham exhibition of 2002), but with the few exceptions mentioned in the specific notes below, the works of this type exhibited here were not particularly controversial, and gave a good and fair picture of how Rubens adapted anonymous copies after earlier (largely Italian) prototypes. The monumental figure studies of the earlier rooms were, for the reasons outlined above, absent, but there were still various interesting compositional sketches and modelli for printmakers, as well as the fine series of studies related to Jegher’s print after The Garden of Love (cats. 90-96). But it was nonetheless slightly disappointing that an exhibition which had contained, in its middle rooms, some of the greatest and most moving drawings of the early years of the seventeenth century, should end in this slightly academic and functional way. This is not, I hasten to emphasize, the fault of the organizers, but rather the natural outcome of the evolution in the way that Rubens used drawings during the course of his career. Quite simply, he grew out of the sort of drawings that he made in his early and middle career, turning instead to oil sketches, and this means that even the greatest exhibition of the artist’s drawings, of which this was undoubtedly one, could never represent all aspects of his genius.
In the realm of landscape, the disappointments were, perhaps, more avoidable. It was sad to see Rubens’s amazing abilities as a landscape draughtsman represented in New York only by the British Museum’s incredibly beautiful, but untypical, Trees Reflected in Water at Sunset(cat. 104), and another study from the Ashmolean (Cat. 105). The Vienna exhibition was stronger in this regard, including the extraordinary Landscape with a Fallen Tree from the Louvre, although that drawing has been the subject of one of the most significant attribution debates in recent Rubens scholarship. In 1999, Martin Royalton-Kisch reattributed it to Van Dyck,** but I remain unconvinced by his arguments, and see in the Louvre drawing and in the related study at Chatsworth a scale and breadth of conception and execution which are untypical of Van Dyck’s landscapes, and entirely consistent with my understanding of Rubens’s landscape drawings.
These last, qualifying comments should not in any way overshadow the two key achievements of this extraordinary exhibition, which were to present the discoveries and scholarly advances of the last thirty years of Rubens drawings studies, and to show to a new generation Rubens’s capabilities as a draughtsman. In the modern museum world there will inevitably be compromises in terms of what can and cannot be exhibited, but there can be no question that this show succeeded handsomely on both fronts, and presented very successfully the astonishing range, variety, quality, confidence and power of Rubens’s drawings. His skills were so much in demand, and he was so successful a teacher, that the area of overlap between his own works and those of his pupils will always be the subject of debate, but it is a testament to the success of this exhibition that these issues of attribution, so crucial to much of recent Rubens scholarship, seemed here peripheral, in the context of such a definitive picture of the spirit and achievements of the master in this medium.
The following are notes on selected individual drawings, by catalogue number:
16 The attribution of this unique group of anatomical drawings has understandably been debated, but their power and unorthodoxy, as well as the existence of the related Pontius prints, in my view adds up to a persuasive argument for Rubens’s authorship.
20-21 Comparative illustrations here of the other drawings discovered in Cologne in 2000 would have been helpful.
34 It was rather unsatisfactory to show only the recto of this drawing, and the verso in facsimile, rather than both sides in the original. (The same comment goes for cat. 96).
38 It is ironic that Rubens, the great reworker of drawings by others, should in turn have had one his finest figure studies reworked by Jacob de Wit.
42 As for 34, it was a shame not to show both sides of the drawing, and the condition of the exhibited side is so poor that its inclusion in the exhibition served little purpose.
43 As I believe David Freedberg has independently suggested, I am convinced this drawing is actually by Cornelis Schut.
52 It is inconsistent that the early history of this drawing, as described in the catalogue entry, is not given under provenance.
53-55 It would have been helpful to have had the related prints exhibited alongside these drawings.
65 The handling in this drawing does not seem to fit very well with that of the surrounding works, and I wonder if it might not perhaps be by Van Dyck, rather than Rubens.
66 Although only ever published as Rubens, some scholars have proposed that this drawing is actually by Van Dyck, a suggestion that I find implausible, particularly in the light of the juxtaposition of this drawing with cat. 67, which is certainly by Van Dyck.
79 The extraordinarily unorthodox and adventurous technique seen in this drawing has apparently led some to question the attribution to Rubens, but I see this drawing as a magnificent affirmation of the artist’s originality and inventiveness as a draughtsman, and as one of his greatest portraits.
84 The analysis in the catalogue entry is somewhat undermined by the lack of a comparative illustration of the related Met painting.
92 It is interesting to note that rapid, functional figure studies such as this were usually drawn on low-grade, cheap packing paper, whereas Rubens’s portraits are always drawn on much higher quality, white paper.
93-4 Logan’s proposal that the penwork in these drawings is by Christoffel Jegher, rather than Rubens, is controversial, and I remain unsure as to whether or not I find it convincing. It was, however, extremely interesting to have the infrared reflectograms, and also the prints, exhibited beside the drawings, and the overall analysis and discussion of the genesis and development of this crucial work in Rubens’s oeuvre is magnificent.
100-101 Surely these are both copies of a lost original (probably an oil sketch or painting, rather than a drawing).
106 The handling and use of color in this drawing have led to suggestions that it is by Jan Boeckhorst, rather than Rubens. My instinct is that it is by Rubens, but is perhaps a little earlier in date than Logan suggests.
107 Some have doubted the attribution of this drawing, with its very unusual watercolor, but having studied it closely over a number of years, I firmly believe it is by Rubens.
110 It is puzzling that neither the label nor the catalogue entry for this drawing mention the well-known relationship between Rubens’s various treatments of this subject and the woodcuts by Vicentino and Boldrini, after Raphael.
111 The attribution to Rubens of this drawing has been much debated, and I number amongst the doubters. Though Martin Royalton-Kisch has proposed that it is by Van Dyck, I am inclined to classify it more cautiously, as School of Rubens.
114 This must be entirely by Rubens, rather than a reworked anonymous drawing.
115 It was surprising that this drawing, which was catalogued – correctly, I believe – as a straightforward copy by Rubens after Michelangelo, was hung not with Rubens’s copies, but with the retouched works.
116 I believe this is entirely by Rubens.
* Peter Paul Rubens. Exh. cat. Vienna (Albertina), 2004. Eds. Klaus Albrecht Schröder and Heinz Widauer. With contributions by Anne-Marie Logan, Michiel C. Plomp, Klaus Albrecht Schröder, Heinz Widauer. Pp. 531, ISBN: 3-7757-1514-2.
** The Light of Nature. Landscape Drawings and Watercolours by Van Dyck and his Contemporaries, exh. cat. London & Antwerp, 1999.