While this latest addition to the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard may initially seem like a comparatively modest undertaking vis-à-vis other studies of aspects of Rubens’s oeuvre published in this series to date, that impression is quickly dispelled as one delves into it and considers its intriguing contents and the broader questions it raises about Rubens’s approach to the human body.
The importance of this volume is implicit in the author’s statement that unlike some of the most acclaimed masters of anatomy of the early modern period, Rubens rarely studied from live models, let alone from dissections he may have witnessed or taken part in. That does not mean that the Flemish master was less interested in this subject, quite the contrary. Both of his early biographers, Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1672) and Roger de Piles (1677), write about a no-longer extant notebook in which he compiled observations on anatomy. He also made anatomical drawings on single sheets, which he probably kept in an album. A number of these drawings were copied by one of his students, Willem Panneels (ca. 1600/05-1634) and later engraved by Paulus Pontius (1603-1658). While many of the originals have been shown in exhibitions over the years, they were published as a set only in 2021, in Volume 1 of the complete catalogue of Rubens’s drawings by Anne-Marie Logan, in collaboration with Kristin Lohse Belkin.
The volume under review, which appeared during the same year, is the first monographic treatment of the anatomical drawings as a distinct corpus. In addition to preparing the catalogue of these images, Kwakkelstein has made an effort to identify their sources and reconstruct the way in which these drawings may have been organized into the “anatomy book” mentioned by Panneels. In the course of this discussion, he is also shedding additional light on Rubens’s approach to verisimilitude in general.
The catalogue raisonné comprises twenty-seven entries written with the kind of rigor and attention to detail we have learned to expect from the authors and editors of this multi-volume series. The introductory essay (pp. 13-65) reviews the current knowledge regarding these drawings, placing them in the broader contexts of the study of the human body in the early modern period. One of the author’s most interesting points concerns the degree to which Rubens relied on sculptural models – specifically, an écorché figure by Willem van Tetrode (ca. 1525-1580) – which he drew repeatedly from different angles and perspectives. The resulting images would become part of his formal vocabulary, ready figural motifs to be included in a variety of pictorial narratives. Another important model that Kwakkelstein mentions here are the anatomical illustrations by Juan Valverde de Amusco (ca. 1525-c. 1587), the follower (sometimes described as a plagiarist) of Andreas Vesalius.
Rubens’s reliance on anatomical imagery – rather than on actual nude models – raises an intriguing question concerning the relationship between naturalism and idealization in his work. It has long been recognized that the artist used his drawings after classical sculptures as exemplary models for figures in diverse compositions – from mythological scenes to those deriving from the Bible. Kwakkelstein shows that the same pattern applies to his use of anatomical drawings, with the same interest in dynamic poses and gestures. Indeed, proposes that Rubens may have actually avoided the practice common in Italian drawing schools at the time of using nude male models, and that he certainly never drew from nude women (p. 39, 42). This may well be true, especially regarding female models. However, one should also keep in mind that Rubens did draw after female figures from life. Though the models in those drawings are dressed, he conveyed the sense of corporeality and movement as convincingly as if they had posed in the nude.
Another interesting point concerns the difference between Rubens’s representations of these écorché figures and those made by his contemporaries. As Kwakkelstein observes, while Italian artists almost invariably record lateral, dorsal, or frontal views, Rubens draws écorché figures from multiple angles, or from unusually high or low vantage points. In this way, he assembles an array of dramatic expressions that can serve a variety of purposes in his pictorial narratives. One can easily see this difference as an aspect of Rubens’s fascination with that vital force that animates the human body – but also, of his tendency towards idealization. In this context, Kwakkelstein invokes the oft-cited statement from Rubens’s theoretical notebook De imitatione statuarum about the need to “imbibe” the spirit of ancient statues in order to re-create that lost world, superior to his age of decline. As the artist significantly adds in that same essay, in copying those models, one has to strive to turn them into living flesh.
His anatomical drawings are clearly informed by similar goals. Taken in isolation, his studies after écorché sculptures often feel like extreme Mannerist exercises. However, when we see them next to the actual painted figures modelled on them, we gain an even deeper appreciation for the artist’s ability to convey that sense of energy (energeia) he is so praised for. The copious illustrations in this volume provide plenty of opportunities for analyzing the pathways of those transformations.
The essay by Nils Büttner, Elizabeth McGrath, and Bert Schepers at the end of the catalogue is a fitting addendum to this volume. Its subject is the collection of twenty engravings by Paulus Pontius published under the title ‘Petrus Paulus Rubbens delineavit’ (Peter Paul Rubens drew [this]), more often referred to as Livre à dessiner. Though the date of this miscellany is not known, it was likely issued shortly after Rubens’s death, presumably to capitalize on his fame. Most of the extant copies are not bound, and the plates are not numbered, which suggests that they may have also been distributed as individual sheets. The images are, by and large, derived from Rubens’s works: either known drawings, or figures from some of his paintings. Some of the plates reproduce single works of art, while others are conceived as sets focusing on a particular motif – body parts such as heads, faces, hands or feet, or even animals. Despite the many open questions about the Livre à dessiner, its publication was certainly an homage to Rubens, attesting to his importance as a model for other artists.
The inclusion of this essay in this volume dedicated to anatomical drawings makes perfect sense and takes us full circle from the ways in which Rubens learned about the human body from specific models such as the écorché sculpture by Tetrode, to the artists from his circle, who were encouraged to seek examples in his works in order to use them for their own creations; as always, art giving birth to art, but aiming for that all-important illusion of lifelikeness.
University of Maryland
 Anne-Marie Logan and Kristin Lohse Belkin, The Drawings of Peter Paul Rubens. A Critical Catalogue, I (1590-1608), (Pictura Nova, XXII), I-II, Turnhout, 2021.  Juan Valvedre de Amusco, Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano (Rome, 1556).  Some examples include Study of Saint Catherine for the “Martyrdom of Saint Catherine,” ca. 1615-17, the Young Woman holding a Bowl, ca. 1616, and Woman Bending Forward, with a Laurel Wreath, 1628, all of them in the Albertina, Vienna. Inv. 8293, 8297 and 8301.