In the past eleven years the Rubenianum has been forcing the pace. It managed to bring out no less than five volumes of the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, whereas only two had been published in the previous decade. That all three tomes (in six physical volumes) by Jeremy Wood were published within the past 18 months must be another proud moment for the editors. And what excellent volumes they are, indeed, because the subject of this book set is a difficult and often elusive one.
As the title reveals, Wood’s volumes are devoted to Rubens’s copies, adaptations and retouchings on canvas or paper of various works by Italian Renaissance artists. The first volume, reviewed here, concentrates on Raphael and his school, the second on Titian and North Italian artists (reviewed below) and the third on Michelangelo and Central Italy (to be reviewed in the next issue). A separate volume on Rubens’s relationship with French artists or those Italian artists, like Primaticcio, who worked at the French court, would have meant squandering and is therefore included in Part III.
Of course, Wood did not write these volumes in 18 months. That Rubens drew heavily on Italy is not only a fitting pun (referring to the artist’s debt to Italy as well as his practice of literally drawing on other artists’ works) but also a reminder that the author has long been working towards these volumes. He has been publishing on the subject since the 1980s and considerable preliminary work was done in preparation for the exhibition Rubens. Drawing on Italy (Edinburgh and Nottingham 2002) which Wood curated and which first demonstrated this peculiar aspect of Rubens’s art. Most texts from this exhibition have been incorporated into the present Corpus volumes in expanded versions. Further publications by Wood are updated and corrected here. His article on Rubens and Raphael ( Munuscula Amicorum. Contributions on Rubens and his Colleagues in Honour of Hans Vlieghe, ed. by Katlijne Van der Stighelen, Turnhout 2006, I, pp. 259-282) constitutes the core of the entries on Rubens’s copies after Raphael’s cartoons for the Sistine Chapel (Nos. 22-28) which is yet again a revision of his Mucius Scaevola article of 1989 (Mercury, No. 10, 1989, pp. 26-40).
The 100-page strong introduction precedes the catalogue entries (Raphael 1-47, Giulio Romano 48-80, Polidoro da Caravaggio 81-97, Perino del Vaga 98-102, rejected attributions R1-R35), to which one has to return when reading Parts II and III. Wood moves, always chronologically, from the smaller section of painted copies (with a special subdivision on works after Titian in vol. II) to the drawn and retouched drawings. His text is complex yet lucid, instructive, never condescending in his corrections, written with a good deal of humour, especially when grappling with Renaissance astronomy. He gives detailed descriptions of Rubens’s technique, beautifully describing the characteristics of his style, his manner of copying and retouching, guiding us through the works of and literature on Raphael et al. along the way. Due diligence was exercised to record the lost art works, and the extensively researched provenances and literature will most certainly be up to date for some time.
Rubens owned a great many drawings of top to bottom quality by or after Italian artists and he was not afraid to lay hands on pedestrian copies as well as original compositions. Over the past fifty years it has increasingly become the understanding of the Rubenianum and the authors of the CRLB that Rubens copied and retouched in copious amounts. This is underlined by the fact that no less than five parts (twelve physical volumes to date) are devoted to copies and adaptations of the antique and other art (see also the review of Rubens’s copies after northern art above). The method of appropriating the skill to paint like an Italian artist of the past, to emulate a style and the wish to correct and even to improve the works of others have long been accepted phenomena exercised by Rubens. Accounts of this go back as far as Giovanni Pietro Bellori’s life of the artist (1672) and have had many reiterations since (pp. 27-30). Collectors were aware of it. The Dutch collector Valerius Röver (1686-1739), for example (p. 201), owned a grisaille on paper of a border scene after one of Raphael’s tapestry cartoons which was reworked by Rubens (now lost), and Pierre Jean Mariette (1694-1774) identified Rubens’s intervening touches in an inscription on a mount of a drawing of the Vision of Ezekiel (No. 31).
Rubens was heavily prejudiced towards sixteenth-century Italian artists and with few exceptions showed little interest in fifteenth-century or contemporary artists. His inventory lists a great number of paintings after Raphael and Titian, most of which he had copied himself. Raphael’s influence on Rubens is particularly palpable in the paintings of his large cycles (Decius Mus, Constantine and Achilles), although Rubens refrained from copying the Italian master too closely (p. 202). He had an obvious interest in Giulio Romano to whose work he was exposed in Mantua every day.
Rubens’s motivation to copy paintings was mainly to understand the genesis of compositions and the techniques employed (p. 27ff), but the methods acquired during the process made it possible for him to develop his unique style and to become one of the most sought-after artists in Europe at the time. His drawn copies after antique works were all done in Rome, at least partly the result of his frustration with the poor quality of the existing obtainable drawings and prints after classical works of art (pp. 63-77). In contrast to his copies after paintings and frescoes seen in Italy, which are varied in size, medium and technique, the copies after antique works represent a fairly homogenous group as they were all done in black chalk.
As mentioned above, the largest group of copies after Italian Renaissance works, however, are not copies in the strict sense but works by other artists retouched by Rubens. These drawings are certainly the most difficult group to assess. Grounded on the style of the retouchings, Wood’s introduction convincingly establishes a baseline for the arguments brought forward in the catalogue entries. Rubens’s incentives to retouch, enlarge or modify drawings are diverse and he did so, as Wood argues, throughout his entire career (p. 77ff). Although Rubens was not always consistent in when and why he retouched drawings by other artists, his distinct manner and style can be paralleled with his development as a draughtsman (p. 82). The earlier examples show an interest in adding greater clarity of detail, expression or texture to an arrangement. Positioning a figure in space and making it livelier through correcting facial expressions were important features to him. Towards the end of his life he would quite heavily modify copies of lesser quality to make them his own: impatiently and with a broad brush he applied changes to satisfy his urge to correct draperies, limbs or outlines (p. 83). However, before moving on to the retouched drawings which constitute the largest group of works in the book, it should be noted that of the painted copies after Italian models, Wood eliminates two of four early works from the 1590s, the Bacchanal with Silenus after Andrea Mantegna and Adam and Eve after Marcantonio Raimondi (after Raphael), now both attributed more firmly to Otto van Veen (p. 31ff).
As Christopher White notes in his review of the second volume of Wood’s trilogy (Titian and North Italian Art, see below), the trend in the 1960s of attributing copies after other artists’ works to Rubens was counter-balanced in the late 1970s by Anne-Marie Logan and Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann who recognized that many of the drawings were indeed by other artists – often anonymous copies after Italian works – retouched by Rubens. This was an important discovery, duly acknowledged by Wood (p. 82). Logan’s and Haverkamp-Begemann’s preliminary efforts are here carried further with considerable rigour and meticulousness. Besides recognizing many sheets previously published as entirely by Rubens – a drawing after Raphael’s Psyche offering the Vase Containing Water from the River Styx to Venus (No. 43) being a prominent example – as retouched works, Wood seriously reconsiders the dating of these retouched drawings, which (if recognized as reworked sheets at all) generally had been dated in the past to the artist’s Italian years, 1600-1608.
Some of the revised dates of Rubens’s interventions seem particularly striking: the retouchings on a copy after Raphael’s The Prophets David and Daniel with an Angel (No. 32) were dated to the artist’s first visit to Rome (1601-02) by Anne-Marie Logan (Logan – Plomp, Rubens. The Drawings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005, pp. 16, 305-306, No. 114), whereas Wood places them to the beginning of the 1630s by means of stylistic comparison. The three drawings after Raphael’s Transfiguration (Nos. 36-38) have previously been dated to Rubens’s second stay in Rome (1604-1605, or more generally 1600-1608), but are here dated to different periods: No. 36 to the artist’s late Italian years or shortly after his return to Antwerp in 1609; No. 37 between 1617 and 1628, and No. 38 ca. 1620. Ingeniously, Wood arrives at these dates by comparing the retouches on drawings with those found on modelli for engravings after Rubens’s own compositions which can be dated.
I would have liked to disagree with Jeremy Wood once in a while, but really there is little reason to do so. In general his datings are sensible and convincing, although it does not always become entirely clear why Rubens would have introduced retouchings at certain points in time. There are only minor comments to make. A drawing by Polidoro da Caravaggio (sometimes attributed to Peter de Kempener) of Saint Paul the Apostle, retouched by Rubens (No. 97), bears an inscription of the artist’s name. Elsewhere (Die Beischriften auf den Handzeichungen des Peter Paul Rubens, dissertation, Hamburg 2008, p. 88, no. 3; forthcoming) I have argued that the inscription is not by Rubens, an opinion I still hold. On a drawing of Two Trophies of Arms (No. 85) after Polidoro, also retouched and annotated by Rubens, the inscription is clearly by the artist. The letters on the Saint Paul sheet simply do not match the latter inscription. The ‘o’s in ‘Polidoro’ are handled rather feebly and other letters are too crooked for Rubens’s usually very smooth and beautiful script. Placing the inscription beside a contemporary letter from 1618 – a good example is Rubens’s letter to Frans Sweerts in the British Museum – and assuming the inscription on the Saint Paul would have been done at the time of the retouchings (1617-1623), it becomes hard to defend that the two annotations should be by the same hand. I am happy to agree that the retouchings were done by Rubens, but the inscription was not.
On a more general note it still has to be lamented that there could not have been more colour images in this tome. Black and white illustrations are the standard in all CRLB volumes and colour images were only introduced recently. Like all others, this book set has eight pages (16 plates) of color images each. Rubens’s (more subtle) retouchings on drawings as well as on paintings do not lend themselves well to the black and white medium. The corrections blend in too well with the original, which is, of course, what Rubens wanted in the first place. Digital imagery was well employed here to increase the contrast on many images to make the retouchings on drawings more legible. It is, however, impossible to discover reworked areas in painted copies. Wood is cautious enough not to insist that such corrective work has taken place on a series of painted copies by Pietro Facchetti after Raphael and accepts claims from literary sources, but therefore ends up with around fifteen catalogue entries as weighty ballast (Nos. 7-21, 35).
Jeremy Wood will in future be notoriously known as the man who contributed three quarters of a million words to the CorpusRubenianum and moreover for turning this large number of words into such a pleasant and inspiring text to read. Arnout Balis and his colleagues on the editorial board are determined to complete the 29 volume series in the next nine years until 2020. It will need major group effort to achieve this, as the (partly) remaining 15 subjects are divided into yet another 20 volumes.