Almost thirty years ago I sat looking at a drawing of the Adoration of the Shepherds in the Morgan Library. Attributed to Hans Süss von Kulmbach, the sketch unmistakably betrayed Albrecht Dürer’s influence in its architectural setting and figures. Yet several faces surprisingly recalled the style of Rubens rather than any sixteenth-century German master. The Virgin Mary’s face was wholly redrawn and the upper half of her torso was stained with body color. I was rather startled to learn that it was Rubens himself who had reworked this century-old drawing (cat. no. 61). The experience made me wonder what attracted Rubens to this Nuremberg master’s sketch and why he seemed unconcerned about disfiguring another artist’s creation.
Kristin Belkin’s latest contribution to the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard series provides answers through her assessment of Rubens’s practice of both copying and touching up the drawings and paintings by older and contemporary masters. She addresses the German and Netherlandish artists while Jeremy Wood’s related study treats Italians (6 vols., 2010-11; see the reviews below). Rubens’s practice even inspired Valerius Röver, an eighteenth-century Dutch collector, to coin the term “Rubenisato” (p. 69) or Rubenized to describe this phenomenon. Belkin and Wood, who often visited collections together, faced the daunting task of tracking down the copies and adaptations (their term for his alterations to existing works of art), and addressing questions of attribution and sources. Then they had to make sense of the vast body of material, of Rubens’s techniques, and of issues of function. Part of their initial challenge was determining where to place certain works, such as Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s drawing of Adam Accusing Eve before God (no. 103; Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinet).*Although the original composition was by Baldassare Peruzzi, it was Coecke’s replica that Rubens retouched so the entry is in the present volume. Some of Rubens’s copies after designs by other masters are treated in separate Corpus volumes, such as Belkin’s The Costume Book (1978) or future tomes on portraiture or the Theoretical Notebook.
This study consists of a lengthy introduction (pp. 25-70) followed by 147 often highly detailed entries as well as a briefer section on 29 rejected attributions. Belkin discusses how Rubens’s practice of copying works by older and more contemporary artists began already around 1590 when he was just thirteen and still a student at the local Latin school. As a youth he meticulously replicated the minute woodcuts of Hans Holbein the Younger’s Les Images de la Mort(Lyons, 1562 edition; nos. 14-57; Antwerp, Museum Plantin-Moretus/Stedelijk Prentenkabinet). Rubens’s early practice of copying entire compositions, as here, will soon give way to his more focused attention on just a few figures or details that interested him. Prior to his departure for Italy in 1600, Rubens’s sources were illustrated books and, less often, individual prints by Albrecht Dürer, Jost Amman, Tobias Stimmer, Hans Weiditz, Hendrick Goltzius, Barthel Beham, and Johannes Stradanus, among others, works that he had access to either at home or through his teachers. Like many apprentices, he learned by copying the style and compositions of approved masters while building up his own corpus of models for future reference. While in Italy from 1600 to 1608, Rubens frequently purchased Italian copies of Renaissance and more contemporary art, which freed him to concentrate on figures, poses, and other details that captured his interest rather than replicating whole compositions. This more selective approach continued throughout his subsequent career.
Belkin distinguishes four types of copies: documents of works of art; visual sources for poses, gestures, expressions, or drapery motifs; copies made for commercial reasons, such as a commission; and creative or interpretive replicas, which served as a “source of inspiration or solution to formal problems, as a challenge or act of competition with another master” (p. 31). Rubens’s retouching of other artists’ drawings and paintings forms a somewhat separate category. His copies and adaptations of German and Netherlandish art mostly date before 1616 though a few were made after the mid-1630s. What reasons, besides having established a well-stocked collection of images, might explain why he virtually halted this practice for almost twenty years? Was this true too for his copies and adaptations of Italian art? A few comparative remarks would have been welcomed.
Rubens’s “intervention,” Belkin’s deft term for his retouching of drawings and paintings by other masters, represents the largest group of drawings after the many sketches of his own invention. Most of the roughly 250 retouched sheets are by Italian, not German and Netherlandish, artists. The Northern European examples are mainly originals while the Italian drawings are usually anonymous copies after famous monuments. Typically, Rubens employed the point of a brush and brown or red wash. Body color or oils were added for “strengthening forms or contrasts of dark and light, emphasizing the properties of textures or covering up unwanted details” (p. 42). Belkin notes the difficulties in determining authorship since occasionally Rubens’s additions mask the original composition so thoroughly. In a few cases (eg. nos. 121, 141, 1442, 144), Rubens (or an assistant) repaired torn or otherwise damaged drawings and sketched in the missing parts or what he thought could be lacking. Ultimately, Belkin concludes, “It seems that Rubens had an irresistible urge to touch up what came under his hands: to put his stamp on it, to make it his own” (p. 49). She stresses his practical use of such drawings as teaching and studio props rather than as collector’s items. Yet, as she notes, there is little evidence that Rubens taught his assistants to retouch the works of others. Belkin mentions Jacob Jordaens and Erasmus Quellinus occasionally did it; however, how widespread was this practice? I wondered too how often Rubens strengthened or corrected drawings by his pupils as a teaching exercise, much as Rembrandt did to the sketches of Constantijn van Renesse. The idea of aemulatio or artistic competition rarely seems to have been a prime motivation in Rubens’s relation to other earlier northern masters. This sense of competition, however, might explain why Rubens transformed the hermit in a landscape by Paul Brill into a voluptuous Psyche (no. 252; Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado), an act changing the picture’s subject.
The catalogue of works is impressively thorough. Each entry includes title, materials, measurements, current ownership, provenance, past exhibitions (if any), literature, discussion, date, and notes. The author’s remarks are often quite lengthy, as in the case of Rubens’s copy after Hans Holbein the Younger’s Portrait of Sir Thomas More (no. 58, pp. 136-43; Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado). Belkin excels as a sleuth. She ferrets out information, old and new, as she explains Rubens’s sources, techniques, and, generally, intentions. A sheet with several animal studies (no. 2; Paris, Musée du Louvre) copies details from two woodcuts by Jost Amman illustrating Flavius Josephus’s De Antiquitatibus iudaicis (Frankfurt: Sigmund Feyerabend, 1580). The drawing, dating around 1595, shows young Rubens focusing on just a few creatures out of the many that populate the foregrounds of these two prints. We can only speculate why he settled on these animals rather than others in the same book. Belkin’s wide-ranging knowledge and lucid writing style make these entries a pleasure to read.
Belkin remarks (p. 39) that Rubens’s copies and drawings of his own invention were probably kept in the cantoor, a storage area in one or two small rooms on the first upper floor situated off the studio. The issue of how Rubens organized this collection is treated only briefly here (p. 38) though Belkin has discussed this more fully in her essay “Rubens as Collector of Drawings” in Belkin and Fiona Healy, A House of Art: Rubens as Collector (Antwerp, Rubenshuis, 2004). He apparently adopted a thematic system of filing rather than one arranged by artists or schools. The drawings and retouched sheets were housed in a locked cabinet, which permitted him to control who had access to this corpus and presumably also to his orginal drawings. One wonders how functional this system proved especially as the number of works expanded over the years.
When and where did Rubens acquire or gain access to the originals that he copied or retouched? Belkin mentions that some of the German books, including Holbein’s Les Images de la Mort, which as of 1570 was on the Catholic Church’s index of condemned books in Belgium, were likely already in the family’s possession in Cologne. While some illustrated books, prints, and drawings were available on the market in Antwerp or Italy, other items were more difficult to see. Rubens made two drawings after miniatures in René of Anjou’s Le Livre des Tournois, a manuscript today in Paris (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ms. fr. 2692). Following Hans Mielke’s suggestion, Belkin argues that Rubens must have seen the copy ordered by Lodewijk van Gruuthuse in 1489 as a gift for King Charles VIII of France. This encounter must have occurred only in c. 1622-25 in Paris while Rubens was employed by Marie de’ Medici. If correct, these are exceptions since Rubens’s northern copies typically date before 1616 or after c. 1635. Late medieval costumes and tournament scenes continued to fascinate the artist. Belkin is to be congratulated for bringing order and sensible scholarship to this challenging corpus of Rubens’s copies and adaptations.
Jeffrey Chipps Smith
University of Texas, Austin
* Editor’s note: the drawing was recently attributed to Jan Gossart by Stijn Alsteens, see Maryan Ainsworth, Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance: The Complete Works, 2010, no. 66v.