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Drawn by The Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens

The Jesuit Church in Antwerp

Peter Paul Rubens: St. Gregory of Nazianzus, 1620-21; oil on panel; 19 3/4 x 25 3/4 in.; courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

Small oil sketches were an integral part of Peter Paul Rubens's (1577–1640) working process. He used the medium the way other painters use drawing: to work out the bare bones of an idea and composition; to study anatomical details and differentiate subtle physical gestures. And Rubens relied on oil sketches—ranging from a few swift strokes of pigment on a prepared panel (bozzetto), to more fully worked–up panels often intended as formal presentation pieces (modelli)—to facilitate the operation of a large workshop of pupils and assistants. Using the master's bozzetto or modello as a guide, assistants would rough out a painting, which Rubens then touched up before it left the studio. Tapestry weavers, printmakers, and sculptors used Rubens's oil sketches to translate his designs into various media.

Among Rubens's earliest commissions was a series of paintings and designs for the Jesuit Church in Antwerp. Seventeenth–century Antwerp was the most important center of Catholicism in northern Europe. In 1615, the Jesuit community there began constructing a magnificent new church to spread the theology of the Counter–Reformation, which sought to strengthen the doctrine and structure of the Catholic Church in reaction to the growth of Protestantism. Rubens provided designs for the building's façade and two major altarpieces for the interior, but his most significant contribution was a series of thirty–nine ceiling paintings for the church's sanctuary. Paintings in the upper–level galleries depicted the mysteries of salvation through a series of comparisons between Old and New Testament scenes. Below were depictions of saints noted for their defense of Catholic doctrine.

Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329–c. 390), bishop of Constantinople, was one of the four Greek Fathers of the Catholic Church. His eloquent writings in defense of Church doctrine earned him the title “the Theologian.” In St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 1620–21, Albright–Knox Art Gallery) Rubens vividly portrays the saint as a passionate warrior battling the demon of heresy. As in all his designs for the Jesuit ceiling, Rubens composed the scene as if seen from below (di sotto in sú), creating the illusion of a space extending beyond the structural confines of the church.

The ceiling paintings were installed in 1621, but were destroyed by fire less than a century later. Rubens's commission had required him to supply small sketches of the designs for the paintings, which were to be executed by his chief assistant Anthony van Dyck and other artists in his studio, and touched up as necessary by the master himself. In many instances Rubens's small oil sketches, such as St. Gregory of Nazianzus and The Last Supper (1620-21, Seattle Art Museum), also on view in the exhibition, are the only autograph record remaining of this important commission.

Drawn by the Brush, on view in Gallery 2, has been co–organized by the Berkeley Art Museum, the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, and the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Marjorie E. Wieseman
Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, Cincinnati Art Museum

Lucinda Barnes
Associate Director for Art, Film, and Programs

Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and The Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

Support for the Berkeley presentation of Drawn by the Brush has been provided by the Consortium for the Arts at UC Berkeley, Carmel and Howard Friesen, Ginger and Moshe Alafi, Jane and Jeff Green, and anonymous donors.

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