by Peter C. Sutton
la gran prontezza e furia del penello (the great speed and furor of [his] brush)
— Giovanni Pietro Bellori
La vite dei pittori, scultori ed architetti moderni (Rome, 1672)
Rubens would (with his arms crossed) sit musing on his work for some time, and in an instant in the liveliness of spirit, with a nimble hand, would force out his overcharged brain into description so as not to be contained in the compass of ordinary practice, but by a violent driving out of passion. The commotions of the mind could not be cooled by slow performance.
The Use of the Pen and the Pensil (London, 1658)
Il avoit une si grande habitude dans toutes les parties de son Art, qu'il avoit aussi-tost peint
que dessiné; d'où vinet que l'on voit presqu'autant de petits Tableaux de sa main qu'il en faits
de grands, dont ils font les premieres pensées & les Esquisses: Et de ses Esquisses il y en a fort legers & d'autres assez finis, selon qu'il possedoit plus ou moins ce qu'il avoir à faire, ou qu'il
estit en humeur de travailler. Il y en a mesme qui luy servoient comme d'Original, & où il avoit étudié d'aprés Nature les objets qu'il devoit representer dans le grand Ouvrage, où il changeoit seulement selon qu'il le trouvoit à propos. Apres cela ne soyez pas etonné du nombre de presque infini de ces Tableaux, & si je vous dis que nonobstant les grandes affaires ausquelles il estoit oblige de vaquer, jamais Peintre n'a produit tant d'Ouvrages. (He had such great facility in
all aspects of his Art that he would just as soon paint as draw, so that one sees almost
as many little paintings by his hand as large ones, of which they are the first thoughts and sketches. Some of his sketches are very slight and others rather finished, according to whether he knew more or less clearly what he had to do or whether he was in the mood to work. There are even some which served him as originals: for whenever he
had studied from nature the objects that he had to represent in the large work, he
would only make such changes as he found appropriate. As a result, one should not be surprised by the almost infinite number of his paintings, and in light of all the many business dealings that he was obliged to attend to, no other artist ever produced so many works.)
—Roger de Piles
Conversation sur la connoissance de la peinture (Paris, 1667)
The facility with which he invented, the richness of his composition, the luxuriant harmony and brilliance of his coloring, [which] so dazzle the eye, that whilst his works continue before us, we cannot help thinking that all his deficiencies are fully supplied.
—Sir Joshua Reynolds
Discourses on Art (London, 1772)
C'est parce que, dans ce travail si spontané, nous saisissons sur le vif l'acte de création. Parce
que, en tout contemplant, nous semblons prendre part à cet acte, que l'étude de ce esquisses nous intéresse tant. (Thanks to the spontaneity of this work, we grasp the living act of creation. The sketches interest us so because in their contemplation we take part in this act.)
—Leo van Puyvelde
Les Esquisses de Rubens (Basel, 1940)
Never in the history of art does there seem to be so infinitesimal a gap between idea and execution. Whether large or small, the oil sketches take us into the heart and mind of the
painter, and reveal a fluency with the brush that was rightly celebrated in his own time and
has remained so ever since.
"The Hand of Rubens" (in exh. cat. New York 1995)
Peter Paul Rubens's oil sketches have long been celebrated for their spontaneity, verve, and effortless invention, drawing on the painter's seemingly inexhaustible stock of visual imagery and erudite understanding of his subjects, while offering a showplace for his dazzling brushwork. With more than 450 surviving sketches, they not only constitute a sizable and significant portion of the master's production but also document many of his most creative contributions to the history of art. The oil sketches, particularly in his mature career, were an integral feature of Rubens's working methods and studio practices to a degree that was unprecedented in the history of art. They offer a glimpse of the creative process and, notwithstanding their intimate scale, reveal a vast range of emotion and action, condensing the power of designs covering whole walls
into diminutive panels. While he immersed himself in virtually all the creative aspects of his studio's production, the oil sketches consistently embody the most direct and immediate account of his
personal invention. The huge decorative cycles that his workshop produced with such alacrity and proficiency for regents, princes, archdukes, and ecclesiastical leaders throughout Europe still inspire awe and admiration, but it is in the small oil sketches on panel and the drawings that we may best
savor the master's personal brilliance, passion, and pictorial intellect. And in the highly secularized, democratic era in which we live, when Flemish Baroque art's celebration of authority, devout spirituality, and rhetoric may seem as so much proselytizing grandiloquence, the intimacy and immediacy of the oil sketches make the values of that age more accessible and intelligible.
Rubens often seems larger than life, a figure of seemingly boundless talents and indefatigable energy. He was not only the leading painter of his day, producing a huge oeuvre of altarpieces and religious subjects, classical, mythological, and allegorical themes, portraits, genre scenes, and landscapes, but also was a prolific draftsman and designer of tapestries, prints, illustrations and frontispieces, sculpture and architecture. In addition to his artistic endeavors he was an active player in the world of affairs and politics, serving as a diplomat, secret emissary, and intimate of kings and princes. Fluent in five languages, he amassed and administered a personal fortune and became a collector, connoisseur, and expert in classical learning. While his personal letters have not survived, his extensive professional correspondence offers a portrait of the public man. It attests to his renowned erudition and documents his communication with both the most powerful men in Europe and the leading thinkers of his day. His intelligence, wit, and good judgment charmed all who knew him, and his patience, tact, and discretion secured the confidence and commissions of the mighty. Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, a lifelong friend and correspondent, wrote, "Mr. Rubens evidently was born to please and delight in everything
he does or says."1 Yet by all accounts, Rubens was also a man of exceptional spiritual and personal discipline, who at the height of his celebrity still retained his artistic freedom and managed to guard
the joys of family and friends. In his own lifetime repeatedly hailed as the Apelles of his age, Rubens was eulogized by Philippe Chifflet without rhetorical exaggeration as "the most learned painter in
Born to Flemish parents in Siegen, Westphalia, Rubens was raised in Antwerp, where he attended the Latin school. He probably concluded his formal education by age thirteen but remained an avid reader all his life, accumulating an extensive acquaintance with classical and humanist literature. The philologist Gaspar Scioppius wrote as early as 1609, "I do not know what to praise most in my friend Rubens: his mastery of painting . . . or his knowledge of all aspects of belles lettres, or finally, that fine judgment which inevitably attends such fascinating conversation."3 He was apprenticed successively
to three local artists, the landscapist Tobias Verhaecht (1561-1631) and the history painters Adam
van Noordt (1562-1641) and Otto van Veen (Vanius) (1556-1629). In the last mentioned he found a particularly sympathetic mentor who during his apprenticeship (1594-98) fostered his humanistic and literary interests as well as teaching him the artistic tools of the trade and helped shape his first manner. In addition to absorbing his master's particular brand of weighted classicism, Rubens undoubtedly observed the benefits of his practice of executing sketches in oil in brown or gray monochrome on paper preparatory to his religious and allegorical paintings, engravings, or illustrations for hagiographic and emblematic literature.4 Although Rubens was to develop these practices to a much higher degree of sophistication in the complexity of his compositions, resolution of figural detail, and, most dramatically, in his introduction of glorious color, van Veen's sketches provided important precedents for Rubens's own later works.
Rubens became a master in Antwerp in 1598, but as his nephew would later write, he was "seized with a desire to see Italy and to view at first hand the most celebrated works of art, ancient and modern, in that country, and to form his art after these models."5 Embarking in 1600, his first stop in Italy was Venice, where he could study his beloved Titian, an artist who attracted him throughout his life, as well as the other great Venetian masters, Veronese, Bassano, and notably Tintoretto, who produced oil sketches. The latter and even more dubiously, Andrea Schiavone are sometimes cited as important early influences on Rubens's oil sketches. However, as Julius Held, the authority on Rubens's oil sketches, observed, Rubens never sought the impressionistic freedom of Tintoretto, pursuing instead a legibility of design and coherence of figural definition.6 In this regard, Held correctly suggested that Rubens's later oil sketch style comes closer to that of a work like Federico Barocci's St. Dominic de Guzmán Receiving the Rosary. But Barocci employed oil sketches only sparingly, never to the degree or
as systematically as Rubens. Neither he nor any other Italian master ever attempted to compose whole decorative cycles with highly complex compositions, elaborate figural motifs, and a colorful and richly nuanced palette as the Flemish master achieved in his own oil sketches.
While in Italy Rubens found employment in the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga, duke of Mantua, who possessed an outstanding collection of paintings, boasting works by Raphael, Titian, and Correggio. The duke permitted the young painter to travel to Florence and Rome, where he feasted on the achievements of antiquity and the High Renaissance. Rubens also journeyed in the duke's employ to
the royal court in Madrid, a trip that provided not only a firsthand introduction to the sort of political intrigue that he would encounter for the rest of his career but also welcome additional exposure to Italian Renaissance paintings of the first rank. The oil sketches that Rubens executed in conjunction with commissions while in Italy are often relatively large-scale works, mostly on canvas executed on a dark "bolus" ground, in a painterly, tenebrous style with a dark overall tonality, sometimes even depicting night scenes. These differ dramatically from the smaller works on panel painted in a lighter key and with more color that he would execute after returning north. Examples of these early Italian period works are the Martyrdom of St. Ursula of about 1602 (Galleria di Palazzo Ducale, Mantua),
The Circumcision of Christ of about 1605 for the altarpiece in S. Ambrogio in Genoa (Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna), the studies for the Chiesa Nuova project in Rome, 1608-9, and The Adoration of the Shepherds of 1608 for the Constantini chapel of the church
of S. Filippo Neri at Fermo.7 The last mentioned attests to the command of complex designs with free brushwork, dramatic foreshortening, and illumination that Rubens had already achieved in
the oil sketches of his early maturity. The final altarpiece in Fermo reveals many adjustments, but the essence of the project's composition is already captured in the sketch.
With the possible exception of some of the sketchier works, such as the Ursula, most of Rubens's
oil sketches from the Italian period probably functioned as presentation pieces to display the artist's concepts to his patrons. An example of an oil sketch of the type (albeit in grisaille and less fully elaborated) that was used for this purpose in Rome at the time when Rubens first arrived there is Christoforo Roncalli's design of 1599-1603 for his altarpiece for St. Peter's.8 Sketches of this type showed how the proposed final work would look. In the case of Roncalli's sketch there were extensive changes in the final altarpiece, perhaps in part dictated by the patron, which suggests that a second, presumably lost sketch intervened before the final work. They also served to assure the person or body commissioning the work that it would conform both to their aesthetic requirements and to religious and/or courtly standards of decorum and accepted iconography. During his Italian years, Rubens also executed individual head studies, called tronijen (see Head of a Youth), that were often kept for
years in the artist's possession as a repertoire of motifs—essentially creative capital—to be used as models by the master and his assistants.
When Rubens returned to his native Antwerp in 1609, it seemed to be an auspicious moment
in the history of the Spanish Netherlands. Long mired in a debilitating war with the rebellious provinces in the North that had seceded to form the Dutch Protestant Republic, the Southern Netherlands entered into the Twelve Year Truce in April of that year, and the economy and commerce showed signs of recovery. Rubens wrote, "It is believed our country will flourish again."9 On September 23, 1609, he was appointed court painter to the Spanish Hapsburg governors, the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, who maintained a sumptuous and intellectually vibrant court in Brussels. In addition to the honor, Rubens was awarded the privilege to reside in Antwerp rather than Brussels, earned
the sizable annual pension of five hundred florins, and was exempt from all the regulations and duties of the local guild. This last provision was essential for the operation of the large studio that Rubens soon gathered around himself. Although Rubens had executed oil sketches during his years in Italy, with the creation of his burgeoning studio in Antwerp, the oil sketch became an ever more important and central tool in his practice.
The archdukes managed to restore in part the regional economy, instill a nascent sense of nationalism, and raise the morale of the people. The pious couple's primary directive was to reinvigorate the Catholic faith in the region. Unlike their predecessors, they did not attempt to "Hispanicize" Flanders; rather, they sought to forge a new Catholic nation, a citadel or bulwark for
the religious war. Originally the center of the Protestant revolt, Antwerp proved that there are none
so zealous as the recently converted. While Brussels might function as the official seat of power, Antwerp—with all its economic, cultural, social, and intellectual resources—became the new spiritual capital, the Civitas Dei. Her established religious and monastic orders (Capuchins, Franciscans, Augustinians, Carmelites, Norbertians, etc.) as well as lay societies multiplied dramatically, with none more powerful, dynamic, and versatile than the Jesuits. Indeed, the religious orders became so thick on the ground that in 1632 the Catholic monarch, Philip IV, worried to his brother, the Cardinal Infante, that "They will choke and die like too many trees in a garden."10 The resolutions of the Council of Trent (1545-63) were followed scrupulously, and Antwerp became an important center of religious publishing and thought. It is also important to remember that the archdukes' success in reconverting the Spanish Netherlands to Catholicism was part of a trend throughout Europe. At the moment of the newlyweds' entry into Antwerp in 1599, about half of Europe was Protestant; by 1650 only one-fifth
of the Continent remained so. Throughout the lands under strict Hapsburg control, for example in Poland, there were mass conversions back to Catholicism.
Throughout the Flemish region new churches were founded and old ones refurbished, especially those damaged by the recent iconoclasm (Beeldenstorm, beginning in 1566), thus creating an unprecedented demand for religious paintings. With the help of his studio, Rubens produced more
than sixty altarpieces during his career. He worked for virtually every Catholic religious order in
the Spanish Netherlands and many abroad, designing altarpieces and religious paintings, tapestries, sculpture, architectural surrounds for altarpieces, and frontispieces for religious texts. These altarpieces and large-scale and broadcast projects reasserted the connection between political power and spiritual authority that had been undermined by the Protestant revolt and iconoclasm.
Among the major commissions that Rubens executed in his early years in Antwerp was the large triptych of The Raising of the Cross for the high altarpiece of St. Walburga of 1610-11 for which he
again submitted oil sketches to the church authorities for their approval.11 In the final altarpiece he increased the angle of the composition and turned Christ more frontally into the light, so that the cross rises with more assurance and Christ, now the great spiritual athlete, is truly the focus
of the altarpiece and, in turn, of the ritual of the Mass. While refining the composition, Rubens made drawings for the individual figures. He also made compositional drawings for some of these early altarpieces.
For example, a pen and ink drawing in the Hermitage is an early study for the altarpiece The Descent from the Cross that he executed in 1611-14 for the Guild of the Harquebusiers (Kloveniers gilde) for the altarpiece in their chapel in Antwerp Cathedral (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), the final execution of which was again preceded by an oil sketch serving as a presentation piece for the central panel.12 By this point, Rubens's oil sketches exhibit much more color, greater translucency in the paint layers, and the brushwork flows with a new assurance.
Not all sketches for projects met with approval; some patrons required changes.13 For example, Rubens executed a large oil sketch that he described as a dissegno colorito in 1612 for a triptych for the high altar of the cathedral in Ghent depicting the Conversion of St. Bavo (National Gallery, London, no. NG57.1).14 Although the design was accepted by the chapter, when the bishop who had ordered
the triptych died, his successor decided to erect instead a sculpted altarpiece, which in turn became the victim of changes. When yet another bishop was appointed in 1622, Rubens was at last recalled to the project. He had to abandon his original triptych design to accommodate the intervening alterations
to the project but finally produced the altarpiece that still hangs in St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent. In
at least one other case, patrons were presented with options through oil sketches. On April 22, 1611, Rubens submitted to the canons and church wardens of Antwerp Cathedral two different sketches for the Assumption of the Virgin for the high altar. One of these has been identified with a sketch in the Hermitage,15 while the second seems to be lost, but perhaps is recorded in a drawn copy in the print room in Budapest.16 There is some dispute about whether the canons could not make a choice between Rubens's two sketches, or between Rubens and the other competitor for the commission, his teacher Otto van Veen.17 However, it is of interest that Rubens offered two different solutions to the problem, one depicting the Virgin's Assumption with her Coronation by Christ, and the other, as he thereafter would consistently depict the subject, with her soaring heavenward on a cloud surrounded by putti.
The final commission for Antwerp, after Rubens executed several intervening oil sketches for different altarpieces on the same theme, was completed only in 1626.
Details surrounding Rubens's receipt of the commission for the harquebusiers' new altarpiece in 1611 are unknown, but the guild's chairman was Nicolaas Rockox, who had been a crucial patron of Rubens after he returned to Antwerp. Rubens's Samson and Delilah of about 1609-10 was painted for Rockox, who was also instrumental in the artist being awarded the commission for the Adoration of the Magi of 1608-9 for the town hall of Antwerp. Rubens's studio practices in these years are revealed by the Samson and Delilah, which was preceded by a drawing as well as an oil sketch. The sketch is a ravishingly beautiful little study that compacts and condenses all the power and drama as well as the glowing color of the large final version into the intimate confines of a small panel. The large and impressive final version makes only minor adjustments to the composition and format of the scene but offers a virtuoso refinement of surface detail and texture on the grander scale. An illustrative example of Rubens's style during his first years back in Antwerp, the sketch advertises his admiration for his Italian sources, with homage not only to Michelangelo but
also to Caravaggio and Tintoretto, while displaying brilliantly confident brushwork.
Most of the large projects that Rubens designed were executed with the assistance of pupils and collaborators working under the master's supervision guided by his designs.18 With the probable exception of the decorations for the Torre de la Parada (which were produced at high speed under great pressure toward the end of Rubens's career), Rubens took an active interest and role in all stages of the production of his large painted decorative cycles, personally applying the finishing touches. However,
in the case of his designs for illustrations, engravings and woodcuts, sculpture, architecture, decorations for public pageants, and tapestries he naturally turned the final execution over to specialists. In most cases, the oil sketch is the last stage at which we can consistently study the unadulterated essence of Rubens's personal creativity and involvement. The newly reemerged Adoration of the Magi of about 1617-18 is an example of an oil sketch that served as a model for a large religious painting now in Lyon, which was probably executed by Rubens with the assistance of his workshop.
In setting up a large studio of assistants in Antwerp, Rubens followed the precedent of Frans
Floris (c. 1519/20-1570), who had risen to international fame and wealth in the previous century.19
Like Rubens, he had traveled to Italy to study the achievements of the Renaissance and enjoyed the patronage of kings and princes, and was celebrated for his intelligence and industry. Floris also provided a model of an artist who had risen above the menial lot of many of his fellow painters to enjoy wealth and social standing. Karel van Mander recounts his life in detail, noting that he had as many as 120 pupils and engaged his assistants in working from his drawings and designs. "After he had sketched with chalk the subject he had in mind, Floris allowed the pupils to proceed, saying 'Now put such and such faces in here.' He had a number of examples on panel always at hand."20 Some of these head studies,
or tronien as they were called, by Floris have survived. They seem to have functioned as a repertoire of anonymous human types with fairly generic expressions of emotion that could be conveniently inserted into the context of a larger narrative picture as need arose. Rubens's own oil sketches of head studies seem to have been used in a similar fashion (see Head of a Youth and Head of a Young Warrior) and were kept on hand in the studio to be used years later. Most have a generalized mood or expression, but some, such the carefully observed and powerfully conceived Head of a Negro from the Hyde Collection, are more individualized. Van Mander ultimately made his biography of Floris into a morality tale, damning the ruinous effects of drink on painters' careers, so the parallels with Rubens's private life break down. But similarities exist in some of their practices and certainly their magnetic draw for assistants ("Men with the best-equipped minds, who had studied previously with other masters for a long time and who had great experience, came to Floris"). 21
Though in most cases deliberately unrecognizable in the final product as the work of separate hands, the paintings that Rubens's studio produced were executed with the help of some of the greatest Flemish masters of the day, including Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), and the animal specialist Frans Snyders (1579-1657). Rubens's foreign patrons were not only interested in altarpieces but also clamored for hunt scenes to decorate their palaces or lodges, often involving exotic beasts, such as lions, tigers, leopards, wolves, even crocodiles and hippopotamuses. 22 Rubens's oil sketch of about 1615 in the National Gallery, London, may be an early idea for a Lion and Tiger Hunt that Rubens executed by 1617 for Maximilian, duke of Bavaria. It is the type of wonderfully animated sketch capturing all the action and horrific violence of the hunt that the master would then paint on a grand scale with the aid of assistants. 23 Rubens went on executing hunt scenes until the very end of his life (see Bear Hunt, Diana and Nymphs Hunting Fallow Deer, and The Death of Silvia's Stag).
In a few cases we know the names of Rubens's assistants from the contract that survives for
the commission. As we have observed, the Jesuits were a relatively late arrival among the Catholic orders but soon thrived because of their professional versatility, cosmopolitanism, and social mobility. Regarded by the Vatican as the light cavalry in the war against the Protestants, the Jesuits moved swiftly into communities as teachers and mentors. By 1648 there were 680 Jesuit priests in Antwerp alone. Rubens became a member of the Jesuit Sodality in Antwerp and worked on the Jesuits' magnificent new church, providing designs for sculptural details, numerous paintings, and possibly even contributing
to its architecture. In addition to the two large paintings for the high altar depicting the Miracle of
St. Ignatius Loyola, the society's founder, and the Miracles of St. Francis (which, together with the large-scale sketches for the scenes, are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) executed by Rubens in about 1617, he was also commissioned in March 1620 to create thirty-nine designs for ceiling decorations to be completed in scarcely eighteen months. 24 The contract stipulated that the Father Superior was to select the subjects and retain the right to change them as he saw fit. Rubens was to conceive the initial designs, but the final execution could be assigned to van Dyck and his other assistants, provided that Rubens retouched them as necessary. In addition, Rubens agreed to paint another altarpiece for a side altar or turn over the oil sketches, as he had for the two paintings for the high altar. It is a measure of the regard in which Rubens held his oil sketches, which had essentially become the repository of his ideas, that he chose to paint the additional altarpiece rather than relinquish the sketches.
The vast scale and deadline for this commission required that the artist work very quickly, which may account for the fact that only two preparatory drawings for the series are known. However, there are seven small sketches in brunaille and grisaille connected with the project that seem to have been
the artist's premières pensées. These gossamer-thin and summary little works, scarcely more than notations in paint, are called today bozzetti, a term that a recent study of the language of the oil
sketch in the seventeenth century has suggested was only just evolving in Rubens's day. 25 The little sketch of St. Barbara from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford captures in the swiftest and
most economical terms the painter's first thoughts about the design. It depicts St. Barbara viewed like the other scenes from below at a steep 45-degree perspective as she runs from her father toward a tower where she is rescued by angels. The more elaborate colored sketch, today called a modello, of the same theme from the Dulwich Picture Gallery completes the design, which, when approved by the church fathers, was carried out with assistants on the plafonds for the ceiling. The organization of the scenes alternated New Testament scenes and Old Testament prefigurations, following a traditional program of type and antetype. Several of these wonderfully animated modelli are exhibited here, including the Last Supper from the Seattle Art Museum and St. Gregory of Nazianzus from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, for which one of the rare chalk drawings exists in the Fogg Art Museum. By this point Rubens had abandoned the dark tonality of the works
of his first years back in Antwerp and favored lighter-toned works. His sketches now are keyed to the smooth off-white gesso ground with a thin brown or gray layer of priming applied with a broad brush that deliberately leaves a streaky surface. Held evocatively described the latter as providing an "optical vibration" that has a unifying pictorial effect on the whole. 26
An essential role of Rubens's studio in spreading his fame and enriching his business was the production of reproductive prints, primarily woodcuts and engravings after his paintings and designs. 27 An avid protector of what today might be called his "intellectual property," Rubens went to great lengths to patent his designs not only in the Spanish Netherlands but also in France and even in the Dutch Republic. In choosing a printmaker, Rubens may have consulted the great Hendrick Goltzius on his first trip to Holland in 1620. Jacob Matham made an engraving after the Samson and Deliliah of 1609. By 1618 Rubens had settled on a local engraver, Lucas Vorsterman (1595-1675). At first the two worked harmoniously, but the strain of such fastidious work and the master's high standards seem to have driven Vorsterman to a mental breakdown, during which he even was reputed to have threatened Rubens's life. Thereafter Rubens employed different printmakers, including the engravers Paulus Pontius (see The Road to Calvary (Christ Carrying the Cross)), Boëtius à Bolswert (see under Last Supper), Hans Witdoek (The Elevation of the Cross), and the woodcut specialist Christoffel Jegher (c. 1590-1652). Initially Rubens would execute a very exact drawing of the model that the engraver would follow; Bellori reports that van Dyck was employed to do this chore when he was in Rubens's studio. 28 However in his mature career, Rubens preferred
to execute finely detailed oil sketches in grisaille with some small touches of color, as he did in the splendid sketch The Road to Calvary in Berkeley for Pontius's engraving of 1632, or of the sketch the Last Supper in a private collection, which subtly alters the design of his altarpiece
for the church of St. Rombout in Mechelen of 1631 for the print after it by Bolswert. Occasionally many years might pass between the execution of the prototype and the oil sketch for the print after it. Rubens's famous altarpiece The Raising of the Cross of 1610-11 for the Antwerp church of St. Walburga was not engraved until twenty-seven years later. In the large and highly refined sketch that Rubens executed (The Elevation of the Cross) for Hans Witdoek to follow, he unified the three scenes of the original triptych to create a continuous landscape composed of the central scene of the Elevation of the Cross flanked by the group of the Virgin and St. John with mourners on a rocky bluff on the left and the two thieves to be crucified with mounted Roman solders on the right. It is unknown why Rubens or conceivably the church wardens chose to issue the print at this time, but it is dedicated to Cornelis van der Geest, the artist's friend and a great patron of
the arts who helped him secure the commission
so many years before.
After the early 1620s Rubens evidently abandoned or perhaps simply painted over the small monochrome bozzetti of the type prepared for the Jesuit Ceiling. Compositional drawings executed in advance of oil sketches also became
scarce in the 1620s (only three, for example, exist for the entire Médicis cycle), as the increasing size and scale of the decorative projects that Rubens undertook and the painter's own mastery of the technique transformed the oil sketch from one of a battery of compositional devices to the central organizational tool of his workshop. Rubens's oil sketches not only served as the guarantee to patrons
of the authenticity of the final corporate product of the workshop but also became the most efficient means of organizing the efforts of a team of artists and artisans working on a grand scale and on deadline. By 1625 Rubens could opine, "I am the busiest and most harassed man in the world," but
of course he had brought it on himself. 29
Four years earlier, in 1621, a Danish physician, Otto Sperling, had visited Rubens's studio and marveled at his powers of concentration. He found "the great artist at work. While still painting he
was having Tacitus read aloud to him and at the same time was dictating a letter. When we kept silent so as not to disturb him with our talk, he himself began to talk to us while still continuing to work,
to listen to the reading and to dictate the letter, answering our questions and thus displaying his astonishing powers." 30 While the Dane surely exaggerated for effect Rubens's remarkable capacity for "multitasking," he also confirmed the importance of studio assistants to Rubens's productivity. Sperling observed, "a good number of young men each occupied on a different work, for which Rubens had provided a chalk drawing with touches of color added here and there. The young men had to work these up fully in paint, until finally Mr. Rubens would add the last touches with the brush and colors. All this is considered as Rubens's work; thus he has gained a large fortune, and kings and princes have heaped gifts and jewels upon him." 31 While the doctor refers to colored drawings rather than oil sketches, the latter became the central compositional and organizational tool of his studio. With
oil sketches Rubens could work out ideas swiftly, especially in color, and orchestrate the efforts of his assistants with maximum efficiency. Yet it is interesting to observe how his approach to sketching in
oil changed over time, evolving with each new project. Just as Rubens famously studied other artists' works all his life and read assiduously every day to sharpen his mind, so too he constantly sought new approaches to his tested techniques.
As the descendant on his mother's side of a tapestry manufacturer and someone who would
marry the daughter of a tapestry dealer in 1630, Rubens was closely allied with the flourishing
Flemish tapestry industry and had begun designing tapestry cycles as early as 1616. The series of
eight tapestries devoted to the Roman consul Decius Mus, commissioned by a Genoese businessman
in November of that year, was the first in a group of major tapestry series that Rubens would design. 32 The unprecedented subject may have been his own suggestion, since it celebrated values personally important to the artist—heroic stoicism and faith in divine wisdom—while providing an opportunity for Rubens to demonstrate his extensive archaeological knowledge of classical costumes and customs. The modelli for this series (e.g., Decius Mus Relating His Dreams) are on a larger format than many of his subsequent oil sketches, and the large paintings on canvas (rather than on paper, as was his practice thereafter) that served as cartoons to be followed by the weavers are exceptionally resolved and accomplished, suggesting a greater participation by Rubens himself than became his custom.
A later tapestry series that provided Rubens with another opportunity to visualize Roman life in heroic terms was the Life of Emperor Constantine (see Triumphant Entry of Constantine into Rome and The Labarum) designed in about 1622. 33 As the first emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine was an ideal historical figure with whom to flatter a living monarch, and it has often been assumed that Louis XIII of France commissioned the series, although it may have been a speculative venture between the manufacturer and the artist. Once more Rubens adapted motifs from classical art, borrowing the emperor's pose in The Triumphant Entry of Constantine, like the allocutio composition of the Decius Mus, from prototypes on the Arch of Constantine in Rome. The brilliantly assured brushwork, the splendid delicacy of color, and
the subtlety of tones in the Indianapolis sketch are surrendered in the broad forms of the final tapestry.
Rubens had been called to Paris in 1622 by Marie de Médicis, widow of Henry IV of France and mother of Louis XIII, to decorate her new home, the Luxembourg Palace, with two vast decorative cycles, one illustrating her life and the other her late husband's military career—potentially a project comprising forty-eight canvases and the largest undertaking of the artist's career. 34 The former cycle
in its completed state is still preserved in all its impressive magnificence in the Musée du Louvre, while the latter was never completed. The challenges of working for the querulous queen and celebrating
her inglorious life put all Rubens's diplomatic skills and genius for inventive classical allegory to the test. What to do, for example, about The Flight from Paris (a scene wisely suppressed from the final cycle), depicting her ignoble escape from arrest by her own son's forces? Rubens as always rose to the challenge, depicting, for example, her arrival by sea in Marseille in 1600 following her proxy marriage to the king as a event welcomed not only by personifications of France and the city of Marseille but also celebrated by muscular naiads, tritons, even Neptune himself, all writhing and churning the
waters. The patron and her advisors retained creative oversight even after the oil sketches
were delivered, requiring changes to individual scenes and discarding and replacing others. However, the final cycle became a splendid piece of propaganda supporting the divine right of monarchy and praising the heroine-regent in the tradition of Renaissance poetry as a survivor of adversity who is vindicated in triumph.
The cycle on Marie's life was finished by the end of 1624, and Rubens traveled to Paris in March 1625 to apply the final touches. It is a measure of the delicacy of the political situation that, while Louis XIII and his mother were temporarily reconciled, Rubens himself reported, the queen's advisor, the abbé de Saint-Ambroise, had to nimbly prevaricate while explaining the meanings of Rubens's allegories when they were shown to the king. 35 The project devoted to Henry IV's life was more ill-fated, plagued in part by Cardinal Richelieu's attempts to undermine Rubens, who was then secretly working toward a diplomatic alliance between England and Spain. While Rubens reported to be hard at work on images for the project in 1628 (see The Reconciliation of King Henry III and Henry of Navarre) and later produced three sketches for The Triumph of Henry IV to decorate the far wall of his gallery in the Luxembourg Palace, the entire project remained unfinished in February 1631, when the queen mother was banished, to end her days in exile. Rubens was never paid and the sketches and unfinished paintings remained in his possession until his death.
Although Rubens had been court painter to the archdukes in Brussels since 1609, they had awarded him few commissions. With the conclusion of the Twelve Year Truce in 1621 and the death of Albert two years later, Archduchess Isabella increasingly relied on Rubens not only as a personal advisor and diplomatic emissary (especially in dealings with the Dutch) but also as her painter. Since her husband died, Isabella had joined the Order of the Poor Clares and wore their black habit. The order's convent, the Descalzas Reales, was attached to the Franciscan church in Madrid. It had royal connections, and the Infanta had even been educated there. Renowned for their veneration of the Eucharist, the Poor Clares celebrated three feast days in connection with the sacrament, including Good Friday and Corpus Christi. The latter honored the institution of the Eucharist and was celebrated in the convent with great splendor, while the rest of the year the church was conspicuous for its unembellished austerity. Isabella commissioned from Rubens designs for a series of twenty tapestries to be woven on the theme of the Triumph of the Eucharist. 36 The tapestries were to decorate and completely cover the interior walls of the chapel of the convent on feast days and during its octave. Rubens began his work about 1625 with large composite oil sketches depicting the final appearance of the installed tapestries. The sketch in Chicago, depicting the Universal Worship of the Eucharist, is a composite view of how the tapestries would appear on the end altar wall, typically reversed to accommodate the weavers. However, a set of six bozzetti, preserved in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (see, for example, The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek), also exist for the series and are unusual among Rubens's oil sketches for being painted in the same direction as the final tapestries. Unlike the bozzetti for the Jesuit Ceiling but similar to those
for the Médicis cycle, these works are executed with thin veils and accents of color. The individual panels were probably cut from a larger panel that originally resembled the Chicago sketch (save for
the reversal of the designs) and seem to have been used by Rubens to work out the format, lighting,
and perspective of the final decorations.
The complex program probably was largely Rubens's invention but may have had the input of iconographic advisors at Isabella's court. It was conceived, in the Renaissance tradition of Raphael and Giulio Romano, as a series of fictive tapestries organized within an architectural framework, consistent in appearance from ground level, with two tiers, the Tuscan order below and Solomonic columns above. Four Old Testament prefigurations of the Eucharist were depicted, including Abraham and Melchizedek and The Gathering of Manna; no New Testament scenes were included, only allegorical triumphs in traditional processions and victories, since the observance of the sacrament of the Eucharist made the appearance of Christ redundant. The wall devoted to the universal celebration of the Eucharist also depicted the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy Adoring the Eucharist and well as their secular counterparts, and images of celestial musical accompaniment. Finally, the rich program included allegorical celebrations of Christian Charity Enlightening the World and the Succession of the Popes as fulfillment of the apostolic succession—proof of the Catholic Church's legitimacy.
To aid the workshop in transferring the designs of the modelli to the cartoons, Rubens seems to have squared the panel for transfer, as has recently been demonstrated was his practice in the later Achilles tapestry series; 37 remnants of the markings of a grid, subsequently erased on the surface, are visible along the edges of the sketch for Abraham and Melchizedek.38 The final tapestries were woven and delivered in 1627. The thought and effort expended on this complex program and the unprecedented thoroughness with which Rubens executed these fully resolved, relatively thickly brushed, and highly finished modelli suggest an exceptional personal and spiritual commitment. Few artistic programs produced during the Counter-Reformation offer a more forceful illustration of the triumph of the Church and the consummation of its dogma.
Throughout the twenties Rubens met a burgeoning demand for altarpieces both at home and abroad. For example, in about 1623-24 Rubens produced for the Prince-Bishop Veit Adam of Frising
a modello for the high altarpiece depicting the Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse that
was delivered by the beginning of the following year, despite last-minute changes in the canvas's final format. He seems to have won the commission over the aging German painter Hans Rottenhammer, who could not meet the client's accelerated deadlines. The enormous final canvas (553 x 369 cm!) with its complex knot of bodies creatively met the bishop's desire for a work "applicable to
all feast days of the Virgin"; the vision
of the apocalyptic woman was regarded
as a reference both to the Assumption
of the Virgin and to the Immaculate Conception. During this period Rubens also did not neglect his obligations to his own local church patrons. The two large sketches of the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints for the church of the Augustinian fathers in Antwerp were executed in about 1627-28, just before Rubens's departure on a diplomatic mission to Spain. Like the St. Bavo altarpiece from the previous decade,
they suggest the iconographic intervention of the artist's patrons in the design at the modello phase; several saints, including the ever more popular St. Joseph, who now appears at the back of the throne, were added after the initial design was submitted. The lovely sketch for the Glorification of the Eucharist for the high altar of the Carmelite church in Antwerp probably was executed after 1633, although the final altarpiece by Rubens's student Gerard Seghers (1591-1651) was not completed
until 1642. It depicts Christ holding up the eucharistic chalice while trampling death. To one side are Old Testament figures, Melchizedek and Elijah, familiar to us from the Eucharist tapestry series as prefigurations, and to the other side, St. Paul and St. Cyril of Alexandria, who are also associated
with the Eucharist. It is painted in a much lighter and airier painting style than the modelli of the previous decade.
While in Paris installing the Médicis cycle, Rubens had met George Villiers, the duke of Buckingham, who was serving as an escort for Marie de Médicis's daughter, Henrietta Maria. The latter's proxy marriage to King Charles I of England in the newly decorated Luxembourg Palace not only set the deadline for Rubens's completion of his work but also helped secure an alliance between Britain, France, and the Dutch Republic against Spain. Buckingham proved to be an unprincipled intriguer, but he had the king's favor, a substantial fortune, and a connoisseur's eye. Eventually he became an important patron of Rubens, commissioning a ceiling for his London residence, York
House, depicting the Glorification of the Duke of Buckingham,
as well as a large allegorical equestrian portrait of himself, both of which were
completed by 1627 and destroyed by fire in 1949. 39 Rubens also sold Buckingham his collection
of antiquities for the princely sum of 84,000 florins, with which he bought no fewer than eight
houses in Antwerp.
By this point in his career, Rubens had attained international fame, wealth, property, and rank. Philip IV made him a peer in 1624 for his
special dedication to the Infanta Isabella. In
1629 he received a Master of Arts from Cambridge University in England, and the following year Charles I knighted him. The pinnacle of his social ascendancy was reached when he purchased the castle Het Steen in 1635 and assumed the title Lord of Steen. His rare later self-portraits convey a sense of aristocratic bearing. But following the death of his first wife, Isabella Brant, probably from the plague in 1626, Rubens entered into a restless period in his life when he undertook more diplomatic assignments
and political missions. It is a measure of how remarkably well organized and efficient his studio had become that the workshop continued to execute vast altarpieces and decorative projects. Even during his absence for diplomatic sojourns, their production scarcely abated. The oil sketches remained a crucial component in Rubens's managerial and impresarial efficiency and success. When Rubens met with Buckingham's agent, the artist-diplomat Balthasar Gerbier, in Delft in July 1627, ostensibly to discuss the sale of his collection, it provided a perfect pretext for secret discussions of an armistice between Britain, France, and the United Provinces. From September 1628 to 1629 he was in Madrid
as Isabella's ambassador and was later posted by her to London until March 1630. Initially Philip IV thought it unseemly that Isabella should choose a mere artist as her representative ("I am displeased
at your mixing up a painter in affairs of such importance"). 40 But Rubens soon so won over the Spanish monarch that he was chosen to carry out the latter's successful negotiations with England, remarking that "The merit of Rubens, his great devotion during his services, justify everything one can do for him." 41 And Charles I allowed that he, too, was pleased to know a person of such merit.
Rubens's fourth and final venture into tapestry design is the The Life of Achilles series. 42 Consisting
of eight tapestries, it was executed about 1630-35 for an unknown client, possibly Charles I of England, Philip IV of Spain, or some other noble patron, such as Frederik Hendrik, the prince of Orange. There is a remote possibility that they were created as a speculative venture by Rubens and his future father-in-law, the tapestry maker Daniël Fourment, in whose possession a set of the tapestries as well as the
oil sketches (schetsen) appeared in an inventory of 1643. However, since the costs of designing and producing a new set of tapestries were extremely high, it is unlikely that they were made on spec.
The selection of the theme may have been the patron's choice, but the choice of the individual scenes suggests Rubens's learned participation. For example, in the sketch depicted here (Studies for Figures in Larder), the subject
of the return by Agamemnon of Achilles' favorite slave, Briseis, is based, not on the laconic account in Homer, but enriched by the elaborated tale of their relationship in Ovid's love poetry. Given the
literary sources of his later paintings for the Torre de la Parada, Ovid's writings were known in detail
to Rubens and presumably would have been especially fresh in his mind at the moment of conception of the Achilles cycle, when he was courting the young Hélène Fourment. The Detroit sketch is the
only one of the series not preserved in the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. As last year's exhibition in Rotterdam and Madrid devoted to the series revealed, Rubens again revised his system for tapestry production with this project. 43 With no preparatory drawings, we again assume
that the boundlessly inventive Rubens, now the most confident of masters at the height of his powers, worked up his first ideas in oil sketches. Rubens's Achilles sketches are far more finished than the bozzetti for the Jesuit Ceiling or those for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series (see The Triumph of Hope),
yet they are scarcely so resolved as the modelli that Rubens personally executed for the latter series
(The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek). In the Achilles series, he assigned the execution of the modelli (now preserved in the Prado, see for example, Studies for Figures in Larder; the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau; and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London) virtually entirely to his assistants. The modelli are two and half times larger than Rubens's sketches and executed in a far more opaque, less atmospheric style with a more saturated,
less subtle palette. The final cartoons on paper are lost, but they again were undoubtedly executed
by the workshop and, like the final tapestries, were four times the size of the modelli. Thus Rubens continued to vary and refine his production technique with each new major project, apparently
seeking ever more efficient, time-saving practices.
The most beguiling of publicists, Rubens had written a famous letter to William Trumbull, the English agent in Brussels, in 1621, when he completed the decorations for the Jesuit Ceiling in Antwerp. Already brazenly self-promoting, he sought the commission to create the future decorations for the Banqueting House at Whitehall in London, solicitously suggesting that "I shall always be very much pleased to receive the honor of [His Majesty's] commands; and regarding the hall in the new palace, I confess that by natural instinct I am more inclined to execute very large works rather than small curiosities. My talent is such that no undertaking, no matter how large in size, how varied in subject, has ever exceeded my confidence." 44 In the intervening decade he certainly made good on
his boast. The most important part of Whitehall Palace was the Banqueting House, designed in a revolutionary classical style by Inigo Jones and constructed between 1619 and 1622. It was here that
the king received foreign dignitaries, held public audiences, and entertained his guests. In winning the commission to decorate the hall, probably in the late 1620s, Rubens was awarded the most prestigious public commission received by any artist in Britain in his lifetime. The Whitehall Ceiling today
remains the only decorative scheme by Rubens still in its original position.
Little is known about the origins or details of the commission or its development as a theme, but the project seems to have been sought by Rubens for at least a half dozen years and especially cultivated during his period of diplomatic travel in the late 1620s. 45 Although the documents have not been found, the commission had certainly been awarded by the time that he executed the sketches in 1630-32. The ceiling was divided into nine sections, consisting of three major canvases in the center, one oval and
two rectangular, depicting the allegorical glorification of the reigns of James I and his son, the ruling monarch, Charles I. The program extols the divine right of kings and highlights James I's devotion to the cause of peace. Following the model of Veronese's ceiling in S. Sebastiano, the individual canvases are oriented in different directions from one another to enable the spectator to view the ceiling at a
45-degree angle from different positions in the hall. The system was already worked out in part in
a single large preliminary sketch in grisaille from Glynde Place, in which Rubens not only depicted the central scene of The Apotheosis of James I but also made quick visual notations about six
of the other eight scenes in the ceiling. This is one of the most complex and beautiful sketches of his career and, unlike the others for Whitehall, may have been executed in England before he returned to Antwerp. Not unlike the Chicago sketch for The Adoration of the Eucharist, which posited the tapestries' appearance as an ensemble, but executed in a much freer, more summary fashion, the Glynde sketch works out the central plafond's relationship to some of the other scenes in the ceiling and
also seems to document some of the artist's first thoughts about these subsidiary scenes. This type of multiple use of a single oil sketch was a new practice for Rubens and heralds his use in this project of individual sketches for more than one figural motif or viewpoint in a single panel (see Peace Embracing Plenty and Two Figure Studies (Mercury and a Yeoman)).
The first scene that a visitor viewed on entering the Banqueting Hall was The Apotheosis of James I for which there is a beautiful sketch in Vienna. James I is enthroned in the center of the composition amid soaring Solomonic columns (no doubt as a tribute to the new Solomon). Deliberately reminiscent of Christ in scenes of the Last Judgment, he dispatches the forces of revolution and sedition while elevating the powers of good. To the right Mercury and Minerva cast down the personifications of Rebellion and Envy, while well-upholstered figures of Peace and Plenty embrace
at the left. The sketch for the latter in the Yale Center for British Art (Peace Embracing Plenty) depicts in addition to
the two colorful female personifications in each other's arms the architecture above James's throne. However, the latter is executed in a different scale and from a different viewpoint than the figures,
no doubt to guide Rubens's assistants in their execution of this difficult piece of perspective. One continually marvels at Rubens's flexibility and inventiveness in seeking new functions and uses for
his oil sketches. The benefits of peace and prosperity were naturally much on Rubens's mind at this moment, as he had personally negotiated the truce between England and Spain in 1629 and had presented Charles I with the gift of his large painting Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (Peace and War) (The National Gallery, London, inv. 46).
Having decorated whole churches and palaces, Rubens was justified in boasting that no project had ever exceeded his invention or courage. So when the challenge to decorate an entire city arose he was equal to the task. With the appointment of the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand as the incoming governor of the Spanish Netherlands, the new ruler's authority was officially sanctioned in Antwerp in April 1635 by a triumphal entry (Blijde Inkomst). 46 For this momentous event, vast decorations were erected that acknowledged in traditional fashion the oath of allegiance of the governed and recognition by the ruler of the rights and privileges of the citizens. With a complex symbolic program devised together with
his friends Jan Caspar Gevartius and Nicolaas Rockox, Rubens set about orchestrating the efforts of an army of painters, sculptors, and carpenters to construct and decorate a series of large floats, stages, and arches alluding to the Infante's achievements and virtues. While most of the set pieces merely reiterated praise of Ferdinand, Rubens did not fail to make the political point that his country was suffering under the protracted war with the North; in his design for an arch representing the Temple of Janus, the doors of which were traditionally shut in Rome during times of peace, the personification of the Fury of War violently throws the doors open in his design (The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, inv. GE 500). As time was short, Rubens had to forego preparatory drawings, bozzetti, and even oil sketches for most of the individual paintings, working instead on large panels that served as modelli
for his collaborators. The latter included virtually all the painters in Antwerp, as well as such sculptors as Hans van Mildert and Erasmus Quellinus the Elder. As an added time-saving device, he did not complete some parts of his sketches that were to be repeated; for example, in the sketch for the Stage
of Welcome the pilasters and the sculpture at the top and on the far right were omitted. Only
in the case of the portraits of the Hapsburg emperors, which were to be sculpted in stone for the colossal Portico of Emperors, would Rubens execute individual monochrome sketches. It is a measure
of the painter's professionalism and devotion to his city that he expended such energy and creativity
on a project that was to stand only for six weeks before being dismantled.
But for some years Rubens had been retreating from public service to enjoy his private life. In December 1630 he married Hélène Fourment, the daughter of a local tapestry merchant. The bride
was sixteen, the groom fifty-three. He wrote to his friend Pieresc about his decision to remarry: "since
I was not yet inclined to live the abstinent life of a celibate, thinking that, if we must give the first place to continence, we may enjoy licit pleasures with thankfulness." 47 In explaining his choice of a young middle-class woman rather than one of the many mature ladies he met at the various courts of Europe, he plainly wrote, "I chose one who would not blush to see me take my brushes in hand. And to tell the truth, it would be hard for me to exchange the priceless treasure of liberty for the embraces of an old woman." 48 On his return home from London to Antwerp, he also begged the Infanta, "as the sole reward for so many efforts, exemption from such assignments, and permission to serve her in my
own home. Now . . . by divine grace, I have found peace of mind, having renounced every sort of employment outside my blessed profession. Destiny and I have become acquainted . . . and I cut through ambition's golden knots in order to reclaim my freedom." 49 Hélène and Peter Paul would
have five children, and their growing new family would serve as regular models for his works; family portraits also recur (see Sketch for Portrait of a Family (Peter Paul Rubens and Hélène Fourment, with Nicolaas and Clara Johanna Rubens)). With the acquisition in 1635 of his country estate, castle Het Steen, situated between Mechelen and Brussels, landscape also had a renewed appeal for Rubens. Some of these works are executed as oil sketches, which, while probably not painted en plein air, convey all the painterly freshness and immediacy of a careful study of the land, its lighting, and atmosphere.
Rubens's primary patron in his later years was Philip IV. Even before his brother, the Cardinal Infante, arrived in Antwerp, the king owned twenty-five paintings by Rubens and over the next five years ordered eighty-two more for the Spanish royal collection. The largest of these commissions
was for the decorations for the king's hunting lodge outside Madrid known as the Torre de la Parada. 50 About sixty paintings of animals were to be produced by Frans Snyders and slightly more were assigned to Rubens illustrating mythological themes from Ovid's Metamorphoses and other classical sources. He received the commission in November 1638 and in over just a two-month period produced no fewer than sixty modelli. The final paintings were executed almost entirely by studio assistants working at breakneck speed for the most impatient of royal patrons, who scarcely could wait for the paint to dry before having them shipped to Madrid. Today the final products of all this haste make a disappointing impression in the Prado. But the brilliance of invention, the dynamism, and the passionate humanity
of the oil sketches are a true delight. Even when executed on the tiniest scale with a few deft strokes
of paint, they capture the human dimension of Ovid's stories (see Aurora and Cephalus, Clytie Grieving, The Abduction of Dejanira by Nessus, and Nereid and Triton). Rubens is known to have bought another edition of the Metamorphoses in January 1637 from his colleagues at the Plantin Press, and one can imagine him carefully rereading Ovid's poetry to bring it so vividly to life.
Yet another decorative scheme for Philip IV was begun in mid-1639 for the upper chambers,
Bóveda del Palacio, of the royal palace in Madrid. Once again the subject was to be hunting, and the modelli were to be produced by Rubens and Snyders, although the final canvases could be executed with assistants. 51 In addition to mythological hunt scenes, such as Diana and Her Nymphs Hunting Fallow Deer and The Death of Silvia's Stag, Rubens also represented modern secular hunt scenes, such as the Bear Hunt. He seems to have made rapid sketches on some of the panels in black chalk before applying the graceful outlines of pigment, accenting strokes, and his wispy veils of color. For all their delicacy and transparency, these sketches again convey the drama and action of the hunt while providing with inspired economy all the compositional underpinnings and artistic guidance
that his assistants required to carry out the final, grandly scaled canvases.
Rubens was still considering commissions for major decorations in the final year of his life; for example, discussions were under way with Charles I for the decoration of Henrietta Maria's "Cabinet" in the Queen's House in Greenwich, recently completed by Inigo Jones. In the end, Rubens's time ran out and the commission went to Jordaens. It is a measure of the painter's fame that when he retired to his deathbed, the kings of both England and Spain requested bulletins on his health. Rubens expired
on May 30, 1640. In his last years, the painter had lived in semi-retirement at Steen, rarely visiting Antwerp. In a revealing letter from Steen addressed in August 1638 to his favorite pupil and assistant, the sculptor Lucas Fayd'herbe, who was looking after the studio in his home in Antwerp, he wrote,
"I have urgent need of a panel on which there are three heads in life size, painted by my own hand, namely: one of a furious soldier with black cap on his head, one of a man crying, and one laughing.
You will do me a great favor by sending this panel to me at once, or, if you are ready to come yourself, by bringing it with you." 52 This evidently was a panel with three tronijen by Rubens that he wished
to consult, probably in composing a picture in which one or more of the studies would have been appropriate to the narrative. Although it depicted three different men, it may have resembled the studies of the head of a black man in Brussels, which depicts the same model who posed for the sketch from the Hyde Collection (Head of a Negro). Be this as it may, the practice of recycling dramatic head studies from a repertoire recorded in his oil sketches clearly remained Rubens's practice until
the end of his life.
The postscript that he added to the letter to Fayd'herbe admonished, "Take good care when you leave, that everything is well locked up, and that no originals remain upstairs in the studio, or any
of the sketches . . . I hope you have taken good care of the gold chain, following my orders, so that, God willing, we shall find it again." 53 The sequestered chain to which the letter alludes was probably
the courtier's chain presented to him in gratitude by Charles I earlier that year. It is telling that he regarded among his true valuables, along with the chain, the "originals" by his own hand and the "sketches," which probably refer to his oil sketches, most of which seem to have remained in his possession until his death. The sketches were probably among those works included in his estate
sale. One unnumbered lot refers, for example, to a "tresgrande quantité des desseins des plus notables pieces, faictes par feu Mons. Rubens." 54 These "dessins" are not drawings because Rubens requested in his will that his drawings be held intact until all of his children reached majority; when none followed him into an artistic career or married an artist, the drawings were finally dispersed in 1657. Mercifully Rubens does not seem to have destroyed large parts of his preparatory work as Michelangelo did to disguise all the hard work that went into his creations. Rather, he appreciated the importance of his drawings and oil sketches as visual capital for the next generation, as the primary repositories of everything that he had learned, observed, and created in his prolific career.
Rubens followers also made oil sketches. Anthony van Dyck usually composed in ink on paper
with brush and wash but also painted some very fluid oil sketches. 55 Jordaens preferred paper, working with ink and body color, but Gaspar de Crayer, Abraham van Diepenbeeck, Cornelis Schut, Thomas Willeboirts Bosschaert, Erasmus Quellinus, Jan Boeckhorst, and others produced competent oil sketches on panel and canvas. 56 A document of 1655 records that Frans Snyders left all of his painted studies on paper of "Italian Fruit" to his nephew, Hendrick de Rasiers. 57 Although none of these sketches have survived, repeated motifs in his still lifes prove that they existed. Jan Breughel the
Elder regularly copied from Rubens's stock of drawings of animal studies but also produced his own
oil sketches so as to have a repertoire of animal studies on hand that he could recycle into his pictures as needed. 58 However, none of these artists made the oil sketch on panel such a central feature of his studio's design technology.
The Rubens legacy, "Rubenism," and the taste for Rubens's oil sketches (see Wieseman's essay in
this catalogue) have endured to the present day. 59 Thirty years after his death, Rubens's art epitomized for Charles le Brun, the director of the French Academy, all that was sensual, emotional, colorful, and painterly in art. Rubens was juxtaposed in academic debates with Nicolas Poussin, whose severe and classical art, stressing contour and drawing, spoke to the intellect. In the tradition of Vasari, they
posited that color (colorito) appealed primarily to the eye, while design (disegno) satisfied the mind and spirit. Joanna Woodall has astutely observed that such thinking, which long preceded the founding of the French Academy, probably informed Rubens's use in 1614 of the term disegno colorito to describe
his oil sketch for the triptych of St. Bavo (The National Gallery, London). 60 The term implies that
oil sketches could express and unite both artistic concepts, combining the intellectual and the sensual.
The relationship between disegno and colorito was not a minor point of art theoretical punditry in these years but a topical religious issue. Protestant iconoclasts had recently assaulted religious images because of their potential for obscuring the difference between the material product of man and its divine prototype. The Protestants argued that the inevitable tendency of humans in their weakness to confuse matter and spirit encouraged idolatry, which appealed to the lower, animal side of humanity at the expense of mankind's divine potential. The Roman Catholics countered that a divine design could be humanly reproduced in art; in honoring a devotional image one worshiped the concept of divinity within, not the image itself. Material images did not engage base instincts but appealed through the senses to the mind and spirit. Indeed, visual images could move the heart more powerfully than the words of a sermon, thus serving to unite men with God. The material, humanly produced object, associated with colorito, thus was united with the divine design and concept, which disegno sought to reveal. By his novel coinage, Rubens implied that his spontaneous oil sketches provided the perfect example of the efficacy of images to reveal divinely inspired ideas made tangible by the mediation
of the artist. Thus, they were uniquely suited to fulfill Counter-Reformation doctrine defending
and promoting the validity of images, and became a potent new weapon in the battle over religious
imagery that had raged only a few decades earlier and remained such a vivid memory in Rubens's day.
Sketches and sketchiness have been valued throughout the history of art. Since the time of Pliny the Elder unfinished works were cherished because they seemed to reveal the thoughts of the artist. In the Renaissance, Leonardo honored the sketch as capturing the very instant of inspiration. Vasari even went so far as to suggest that drawings and sketches were preferable to finished paintings, citing the case of Giulio Romano, because they conveyed the fire of creativity that could wane in intensity with the labor of final execution. For the academics, Rubens's "errors"—his occasional lapses in drawing and lack of finish—were evidence of the proximity of the sketch to the moment of inspiration and therefore might be pardoned because of his infinite creativity and brilliant brushwork. As David Freedberg has recently observed in a discussion of these values, Giovanni Pietro Bellori's often quoted praise in 1672 of the "furia del pinello" (the fury of [Rubens's] brush), recalls the ancients' celebration of inspiration as the furor poeticus, or even the furor divinus. 61 Inspiration thus was valued as something even more urgent
and vital than the conceptual planning of a work of art.
Roger de Piles's Conversations sur la connoissance de la peinture, published in 1677, reiterated the notion of the potential superiority of the sketch over the finished work of art and observed that an
artist making a drawing "abandons himself to his genius, and reveals himself exactly as he is," faults
and all. De Piles further defended Rubens's lack of finish by arguing that more fully finished works denied the viewer the pleasure of exercising his own imagination in supplying what the artist had left undefined. Rubens's admirers were legion in the eighteenth century, and he even won over harsh critics such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, who seems to have owned copies of his oil sketches, and allowed that the artist's sheer brilliance compensated for all his "deficiencies." The famous Romantic era painter, Eugène Delacroix, not only paraphrased Rubens's art and borrowed individual motifs, especially in his own hunt scenes, but confessed in his personal journal that his admiration for the painter was so complete that he "cared to be Rubens." A fervid believer in the power of the sketch, he championed its ability to ignite the imagination of both the painter and the observer as an active participant in supplying details only adumbrated by the artist. Recalling the praise of de Piles and many earlier and subsequent admirers, Delacroix called Rubens "That Homer of painting, the father of warmth and enthusiasm in art, where he puts all others in the shade, not perhaps because of his perfection in any one direction, but because of that hidden force—that life and spirit—which he put into everything he did." 62