Peter Paul Rubens dominates Baroque art to a degree rivaled only by his Italian counterpart in sculpture, Bernini. This exhibition catalogue of oil sketches, presented and authored by Friso Lammertse at the Boijmans Van Beuningen and Alejandro Vergara at the Prado, illuminates his genius of invention and versatility. The most comprehensive of its kind since the 1953 Boijmans exhibition, it represents a welcome European successor to its magnificent American 2004-05 counterpart, Drawn by the Brush, by Peter Sutton and Marjorie E. Wieseman.
Rubens was a master of collaboration with studio assistants, engravers, sculptors, and fellow painters such as Snyders and Brueghel. The authors here prove themselves equally adept in collaboration. Following Julius Held’s definition of Rubens’s oil sketches – in his magisterial 1980 catalogue raisonné – as formulations in oil in preparation for another artwork, these sketches are thus defined by function, not by size or degree of finish. The superb introductory essays place Rubens within Italian and Netherlandish traditions of oil sketches – by Titian, Tintoretto, Polidoro, Barocci, Veronese, Floris and Rubens’s teacher Van Veen – while justly claiming that no artist before or after so fully explored and exploited its potential as Rubens the ‘pioneer’ (11). Rubens’s 450 oil sketches represent a third of the master’s extant paintings. Explaining their power to captivate us, Vergara quotes Byron: “An outline is the best – lively reader’s fancy does the rest” (Don Juan, canto VI). “Even though they are finished,” he notes, “they give the impression of a work in progress and appear spontaneous and swift. Viewing Rubens’s oil sketches, we are cast in the role of creators and we instinctively strive to finish them.” The authors in turn engage us to a degree worthy of Rubens himself. Never before have I visited an exhibition five times in four days. This feast of a catalogue is worthy of the brilliant paintings on display, rich in content and nourishing of ongoing dialogue. My few points of disagreement follow.
The Head of a Youth (cat. 1; Blanton Museum, Austin) does not to my eyes represent an original painted by Rubens but a copy by another hand either from a lost original study or from The Mocking of Christ for Santa Croce, Rome (1601-2, today in Grasse), which Rubens adapted a decade later as the head of St. Matthew. Highly finished, it lacks Rubens’s nuanced brushwork and immediacy, his unique ‘handwriting’ in such studies as the Head of a Bearded Man (cat. 2; Liechtenstein collection).
In The Circumcision of Christ (cat. 3), I question the identification (first proposed by Held) of the “eternal” infant Christ suspended within the angelic cluster above the baby Jesus undergoing circumcision. There is no theological basis for such a reading; that infant angel’s wings are simply concealed behind fellow angels, as in the later oil sketch for The Assumption of the Virgin (Buckingham Palace). No ornithologist, Rubens declined to insert a tangle of wings into his celestial rhythms of interlocking bodies. Nor do I accept as “more likely” (62) the identification of this preparatory modello as a ricordo of Rubens’s finished altarpiece for the Jesuit church in Genoa. Among the 450 extant oil sketches there are no autograph ricordi: Rubens never made slavish copies of his own works in oil. A master of recycling – like Handel and Mozart – he always introduced variations in his revivals of themes, as in the sketch for the 1608 Fermo Adoration of the Shepherds (cat. 4), which Rubens later reprised for the Sint-Pauluskerk in Antwerp, but now with a 90-degree rotation of the Christ Child (63).
There can be no doubt that the luminous and impressionistic sketch for All Saints (cat. 12), wherein Rubens explored the effects of light on the heavenly host, served as a study for the engraving of that theme in the 1614 Breviarium Romanum and not, pace Lammertse, “for a painting that in the end never came about” (86). Noting that the sketch is in mirror image (confirming its intended reversal in a print), he concludes that Rubens “does not appear to be entirely consistent.” Rubens was a master of consistency. For all their sketchiness, the figures correspond to the subsequent drawing, with no reason to assume that Rubens placed the Son at the wrong side of the Father! Its size is due to compositional complexity: heaven requires a larger field in paint. Apropos of reversals, I must add to the Whitehall Ceiling entries (cat. nos. 30-33) a footnote to the diagrammatic sketch (cat. 30): the inverted pairs of oval allegories led Held to recognize that the London ceiling paintings had been incorrectly installed. Instead of reading them as in their engraving, they were to be viewed from two vantage points – at the entrance and from the throne, following the Venetian ceilings of Titian and Veronese, which I maintain prefigure the iconographic sequence of Rubens’s ceiling (Held, Oil Sketches, 1980, 188).
The large modello for The Death of Decius Mus (cat. 34) was not painted by an unidentified studio collaborator and then retouched by Rubens. Its size and finish reflect its compositional complexity, to be enlarged into the canvas for the weavers. Its bravura explains why no candidate fits the bill as anonymous assistant: none was capable of such technique. (The comparison between cat. nos. 43 and 44, Rubens’s autograph sketch for The Discovery of Achilles and the studio modello retouched by Rubens underscores the qualitative gap between master and assistants.)
Rubens’s Triumph of the Eucharist represents his grandest tapestry commission. The recently restored Prado modelli (cat. nos. 36-41) underscore Rubens’s architectural precision – in lighting, angle of view – before their enlargement into cartoons. Designing his illusionistic two-tiered architecture as the new Holy of Holies within the convent chapel, Rubens planned the huge woven pieces to fit together seamlessly both iconographically and illusionistically. The revisionist theory (146) that the five Adoration tapestries in the Chicago sketch (cat. 35) were designed to cover not the high altar but rather the rear wall of the chapel (invisible to the cloistered royal nuns to whom they were donated!) is as unacceptable as Zeffirelli designing his climactic backdrop to hang on the rear wall of the opera house. Likewise, the placement of the largest tapestry, The Triumph of the Church (cat. 39), alone above the high altar rather than with its companion triumphs of Faith and Charity along the New Testament (liturgical ‘south’) wall of the chapel as I proposed in my reconstruction (Scribner, Triumph of the Eucharist, rev. ed. 2014, 225-238), requires the banishment of the first and largest Old Testament prefiguration, Abraham and Melchizedek, to the cloister outside the chapel. That inconsistent arrangement may indeed be one way the tapestries were eventually hung, but it cannot reflect the original design of an artist who, like Mies three centuries later, both believed and demonstrated that “God is in the details.”
After rooms (and pages) of sketches for altarpieces, tapestries, prints, a triumphal entry, and Ovidian mythologies, the catalogue concludes with a sole “non-sketch”: the sketchy but complete portrait of Rubens’s daughter Clara Serena (cat. 81), a brilliant example of “crossing the boundaries between drawing and painting,” here to record what Shakespeare called “the constant image” of the beloved. Vergara’s concluding sentence captures the magic of the exhibition: “What is extraordinary is Rubens’s ability to transform that love into paint and to share it with us” (226). This model catalogue may best be described by Berenson’s ultimate compliment: “life enhancing.”
Charles Scribner III
New York, NY