Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Triumph of Hope, ca. 1625
Oil on panel, 16 x 19 cm
Collection Richard L. Feigen

Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

In a fictive tapestry suspended from rusticated Tuscan columns, a two-masted ship with billowing sails and oars travels a dark and choppy blue-green sea. In the stern a winged female figure in white with a gold nimbus about her head turns to look back at the viewer. She holds the tiller in one hand and a white flower, probably a lily, in the other. Four winged figures, presumably angels, strain at the oars on the starboard side of the boat that is decorated below the gunnel with four oval shields. Three putti clamber about the mast and attend to the sail. In the bow is a golden lantern atop the figurehead. Originally Rubens painted two columns on the right. Only their capitals now emerge above the tapestry; however, the shafts of the overpainted columns and the horizontal architrave at the top are plainly visible in pentimenti. The master's light and delicate touch is especially effective in intimating the atmosphere of the sea and the freshness of the breeze. Despite the panel's diminutive dimensions, the scene achieves a monumental and dramatic effect.

Although the meaning of the painting is not altogether clear, in the two sales in which it appeared in 1967 and 1974 as well as in the inventory of Thomas Kerrich's collection, the subject was identified as the Triumph of Hope. It is generally accepted to be an allegory of Hope originally conceived but never executed on a large scale for The Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series commissioned in 1625-26 by Archduchess Isabella for the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid. However, opinions vary on the specific iconography. While winged female figures could represent many concepts (Fortune, Victory, Time, Peace, and Memory, to name but a few), in conjunction with the ship and the lily, the present scene conforms to traditional personifications of Hope (see Müller Hofstede 1969, p. 203; Scribner 1975, p. 193; de Poorter 1978, p. 403). In a tapestry depicting the Triumph of Hope from a series of Seven Virtues, Hope was seated in a ship with the accompanying inscription: "Spes est certa expectation futurae beatitudinis ex meritis et gratia proveniens," thus stressing the need for good works as well as divine grace for salvation (see Scribner 1975, p. 193). De Poorter observed (1978, p. 404) that sixteenth-century tapestry series on the theme of the Triumph of Virtues often featured a maritime or amphibious variant of the terrestrial chariot of Triumph specifically in scenes of the triumph of Hope (see the anonymous design for a tapestry of c. 1550-60 in the collection of the Société de Crédit à l'Industrie, Brussels, de Poorter, fig. 78). Moreover, the ship itself could be a symbol of Hope, conveying its mariners to a safe harbor. Thus in this little bozzetto Rubens followed the tradition of Triumphs in his Eucharist tapestry series, which also featured allegorical representations of the Church, Divine Love, and Faith all riding in triumphal cars.

Julius Held observed (1980, vol. 1, pp. 165-66) that it is unusual for the angels to be rowing facing the prow rather than the stern of the boat and suggested that Rubens might have been unfamiliar with the mechanics of rowing. However, it seems exceedingly unlikely that a man of Rubens's extensive travels at sea would not have observed how vessels powered by oars are propelled. David Freedberg (in exh. cat. New York 1995, p. 66) also questioned Held's assumption and further insisted that Rubens never invented pictorial ideas arbitrarily. Thus, there must be a reason for this curious detail, albeit one that still eludes us today. Jeremy Wood (in Vlieghe et al. 2000, p. 161) plausibly suggested that the oddly unseaworthy boat could be the result of Rubens's use of a motif he observed at Fontainebleau in the Galerie d'Ulysse by Francesco Primaticcio, which he undoubtedly would have visited while in Paris working on the Médicis cycle between 1622 and 1625. Both Held and Freedberg also noted the oddity of the backward glance of the female figure assumed to be Hope, since she surely should be looking forward with optimism. Freedberg correctly allowed that he might be reading too much into the expression of this sketchy figure in suggesting that she "seems less to suggest a lingering on the past as a sense of leaving it reflectively behind, and moving on" (ibid.). Had the final work been executed on the large scale, the oval shields on the side of the boat might have been decorated with emblematic designs in the manner of a similar maritime scene, the Majority of Louis XIII by Rubens for the earlier Marie de Médicis cycle. The latter decorations assist in the interpretation in the scene; they represent Fortitude, Religion, Justice, and Concord, whose efforts in the Ship of State are guided by the young king, the trusted helmsman. However, the shields are blank in the present work. Nonetheless, Charles Scribner (1975, p. 193) speculated that the four angelic oarspersons might represent the cardinal Virtues that are guided by the light of the large lantern on the bow. The lantern is undoubtedly symbolic because it is not depicted "realistically"; lanterns on seventeenth-century ships were not hung on the bow but on the stern, above the taffrail. Virtually all authors agree that the lantern bears a resemblance to the monstrance of the Eucharist. Thus the virtues would be guided by the light of Christ (John 8:12, "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life"). Nora de Poorter (1978, p. 406) even points to two Autos Sacramentales by Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca, which identify a ship's lantern with the host of the Eucharist.

If the scene was originally conceived as accompanying Faith and Charity (Charity Enlightening the World), Held noted that it would complete the triad of theological virtues. However, de Poorter was right to stress the precedent of earlier tapestry series, suggesting that it was designed to complement the other Triumphs in the series, namely of Faith, Divine Love, and the Church. Why the scene was ultimately abandoned is unknown. But Scribner (1975, p. 193) was undoubtedly correct when he first suggested that the Triumph of Hope was replaced in the cycle's overall design by the traditional Old Testament prefiguration of the Eucharist, The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek. His further theory that the allegory of Hope was fused iconographically with the Triumph of the Church (Hope, after all, is found in the Church) finds some support in the resemblance of the chariot of Ecclesia (who holds high the Eucharist's monstrance) to the design of Hope's boat and the fact that her car is drawn by four horsemen, the possible counterparts of the Virtues with their oars.

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