What prompted Rubens to produce a tapestry series with eight scenes devoted to the life of the Greek hero Achilles? What do we know about Rubens’s working method in producing preparatory works for the series, and what visual and literary sources influenced Rubens in creating it? These questions and more are addressed in the beautiful exhibition, Peter Paul Rubens: The Life of Achilles, organized by the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and the Museo Nacional del Prado. The exhibition brought together seven sketches from Rotterdam and three modelli from Madrid produced for the series, as well as works, including tapestries (full set in Rotterdam, only one in Madrid), from several other public and private collections. The Rotterdam sketches and the Madrid modelli were beautifully restored for the occasion. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue shed new light on Rubens’s working practice in moving from sketch to modello to tapestry and thus present an important contribution to the study of Flemish tapestry during the seventeenth century.
The exhibition catalogue, a collaborative effort among several individuals, includes both essays and technical information about the tapestry series. Three of the articles explore various aspects of its production: the preparation of the sketches and modelli (Friso Lammertse); the cartoons and tapestries woven after them (Guy Delmarcel); and the visual and textual sources for the series (Fiona Healy). A richly illustrated catalogue presents the eight scenes of the Achilles series, including sketches, modelli, and tapestries for each of the designs, many shown in color. Both the exhibition and the catalogue build on the exemplary work of Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, The Achilles Series in the Corpus Rubenianum (1975), and Julius Held, The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens (1980).
In his essay, Lammertse thoroughly reviews what is documented about the initiation of the Achilles series, one of four tapestry programs designed by Rubens, and the works produced for it. He reminds us that Rubens thought of tapestry as a whole, not as individual pieces, and critical components of the creative process included where the tapestries would hang and the size of the room. But, even today, little is known about the commissioning of the series, the patron for it, or how it came into being. Daniel Fourment, Rubens’s father-in-law and a tapestry merchant, is frequently connected with the series since sketches and tapestries were found in his home, and he may have owned the cartoons (full scale models) as well. Given that the editio princeps was woven with expensive silver thread, Delmarcel suggests that the series was most probably produced upon commission. But Fourment’s precise role remains unconfirmed as to whether he was engaged as an agent from the start and commissioned the series for the open market, or had a potential client in mind, or whether the works came to him after the first order was completed. It can be assumed, given Rubens’s other commissions, that he maintained a fair amount of control over which events in the life of the hero to illustrate and that he would have been well versed in Homer’s Iliad and other sources on Achilles known in the seventeenth century.
Lammertse examines in detail the entire process that Rubens and his studio went through to produce designs for a tapestry series. This consisted of work in several stages: first, oil sketches on wood panel were produced by Rubens himself, followed by larger-scale modelli also on panel executed with the help of assistants, and, finally full-scale models or cartoons on paper were produced in the studio. All the Rotterdam panels have been thoroughly studied and analyzed down to the joining of the boards, the panel maker marks on the back, and the type of priming applied. Using research provided by Boersma, Rubens’s painting technique and the imprimatura used for each of the sketches is carefully described. What we learn is that the amount of detailing varies from sketch to sketch, but that all of the sketches have unpainted margins, about a half a centimeter on all four sides, where black chalk marks indicate most probably a grid for enlarging the sketch into a modello. Lammertse suggests that grid lines were actually drawn on the sketches and then erased, since no traces can be detected today. He substantiates this hypothesis by citing several seventeenth-century texts where this approach is recommended, including a manuscript of Theodoor Turquet de Mayerne, a friend of Rubens interested in the technical aspects of painting. Some type of grid system can also be detected on the modelli, based on the presence of small score marks on their edges. Thus, we are provided with new insights about the use of the grid as a technical aid in Rubens’s studio and its importance for transferring designs from one medium and scale into another.
Delmarcel’s essay thoroughly reviews what is documented about the cartoons on paper, which no longer survive, and the various Brussels workshops that produced editions of the tapestries. He explores the different manufactories that wove sets of the tapestries and shows how they often introduced their own interpretation of the original design into their pieces. They also used different border decorations – Rubens had originally designed his own borders for the series – perhaps to suit the tastes of clients. He suggests that further study of the owners of Achilles tapestries might yield additional information about the tapestries and the series itself. The influence of Rubens’s Achilles series on contemporary Flemish artists, like Jacob Jordaens, is examined, as is its legacy in the eighteenth century.
Healy’s essay provides fresh information about the literary and visual sources for the life of Achilles, specifically the iconography for the eight episodes Rubens chose to represent. She stresses that Rubens depended on both original texts and Renaissance handbooks for details of the narrative, but also relied on his own intuition to produce designs that stress both the heroic and human sides of Achilles’s character. She thoroughly investigates the visual and textual sources for the architectonic borders designed by Rubens for the series; these provided the artist with further possibilities to comment on the narrative through the application of illusionism and personification. She is especially interested in the origin of the ‘term’ figures employed by Rubens in his borders, and suggests that the structural scheme used for a series of frescoes in the Chateau d’Oiron in Bonnivet, near Poitiers, may be an important source for the dialogue between narrative and border that Rubens creates in the tapestries. Given the prominence accorded to Achilles’s childhood and education, she tentatively suggests that the patron might have been a woman, specifically a mother, though no name has come to light.
The catalogue presents information on the sketches, modelli, and tapestries connected with the Achilles series. Special attention is given to the technique of the sketches, based on research by Boersma, and the modelli, with careful descriptions of the underdrawing and painting technique. Several color illustrations are included that show cross sections of the paint layers and the imprimatura. Another section is devoted to the provenance of the sketches, modelli, and cartoons. Each catalogue entry includes information about one or two tapestries woven after Rubens’s designs and the unique features of the different editions.
The Life of Achilles is one of Rubens’s smaller projects, but the high quality of the sketches and modelli, as confirmed in the exhibition, place it among his most outstanding works. This publication, with its new findings in the use of technical aids, especially the application of the grid, and the expanded discussion about the sources for the series, makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Rubens’s approach to tapestry and the place of the Achilles series in his vast and rich oeuvre.
University of Cincinnati