Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
Hercules Strangling the Nemean Lion, ca. 1639
Oil on panel with traces of red chalk, 23 x 39.2 cm
Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Gift of Dr. Charles and Nobuko Kuhn in honor of Charles L. Kuhn, Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, 1930-1968, acc. no. 2000.199


Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

Hercules' labors were penance for slaying his own children in a fit of madness. Having offended the Olympians, he was given a menial role serving a mortal. The Delphic oracle ordered that he serve Eurystheus, king of the Tiryns, for twelve years. Among the twelve labors imposed on Hercules by the king, the first was the killing of a lion that had terrorized the citizens of Nemea. When his weapons proved inadequate, he strangled the creature. Following this initial victory Hercules wore the lion's pelt as his emblem. Initially celebrated simply as tales of victorious strength, the labors acquired moral associations as the triumphs of good over evil.

In the present scene, the mighty Hercules chokes the lion, wrapping his left arm around the animal's throat. Both the muscular hero and enraged creature look out at the viewer as they struggle. A second lion is visible in a landscape at the back right. Hercules wears gray drapery and there are accents of red in his face, but most of the scene is very lightly brushed with gray priming on the ivory-colored ground. Some red underdrawing in the lion's head suggests that Rubens first sketched the animal in chalk.

The subject of Hercules with the Nemean Lion was treated by Rubens repeatedly in his career. In a drawing in the British Museum he executed a series of very quick studies of the different labors (Held 1959, no. 61, ill. 73; see also exh. cat. London 1977, no. 184, ill.). In the four studies on this sheet of Hercules and Nemean Lion, Rubens depicts Hercules looking out of the picture and encircling the lion's neck, as in the present work; but as Julius Held observed (1980, vol. 1, p. 330), it is only in the very summary outline sketch at the bottom center that Rubens depicts the animal seen from the side. Rubens made several additional designs of the subject, one of which exists in a painting attributed by Michael Jaffé to Rubens and dated about 1615 (1977, p. 117 n. 75; and 1989, p. 203, no. 290), but which, like a copy in Sanssouci, Potsdam, may only be a workshop product. Rubens also developed the subject in three other drawings: in a loose chalk sketch in the print room in Antwerp (Held 1959, no. 34, ill. 32); in a much more finished study at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, depicting the scene in a landscape with the second lion disappearing into a cave; and in a careful study mostly of Hercules' musculature in the Cabinet des Dessins in the Louvre (see exh. cat. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Rubens, ses maîtres, ses élèves, dessins du Musée du Louvre, 1978, no. 13, ill.). The dating and sequence of these drawings have been debated, with Egbert Haverkamp Begemann suggesting (Drawings from the Clark Institute [Williamstown, MA, 1964], no. 20) that the red chalk drawing in Williamstown might date from the Italian period, about 1605-8, but which is dated after the return to Antwerp by others (see exh. cat. Paris 1978, p. 31). In classical models, such as sarcophagi reliefs, where Rubens probably first studied the subject in Rome, Hercules is depicted standing upright holding the animal in a vertical position. But in converting the subject to a more horizontal design, he probably consulted Renaissance Italian chiaroscuro prints, specifically those by G. Nicolo Vincentino (see exh. cat. London 1977, fig. 62) and those attributed to Niccolo Boldrini, both after Raphael (see Held 1959, vol. 1, p. 108). The more horizontal treatment is fully realized in Rubens's very freely brushed oil sketch in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris (Held 1980, vol. 1, cat. 242, vol. 2, pl. 276). Held has characterized the present work as a "neat" edition of the Paris sketch. Not only is the drawing of the figure and animal more clearly outlined, but also the lion's left foreleg now crosses Hercules' right thigh and the second lion at the back is much clearer.

Dates proposed for the present sketch when it appeared in exhibitions (Detroit 1936, New York 1951, and Cambridge/New York 1956) put its origin at about 1620, which is probably too early. Leo van Puyvelde (1940, p. 42) dated it later but incorrectly believed it was part of the Torre de la Parada series. In 1959 Held (1959, under no. 242) first proposed a date in the 1630s, a suggestion accepted by Ludwig Burchard and R.-A. d'Hulst (1963, p. 299) and Alpers (1971, p. 274). In 1980 Held (vol. 1, p. 312) further likened the style of the present work to the hunt scenes that Rubens executed at the end of his life for the royal palace in Madrid (see Bear Hunt, Diana and Nymphs Hunting Fallow Deer, and The Death of Silvia's Stag). He further suggested that an oblong painting (c. 125 x 167 cm) by Rubens of Hercules Killing the Lion, now lost, which was recorded in the 1686 inventory of the royal palace (Alpers 1971, p. 275) should be connected with the present sketch, which he dates about 1639. The less fully developed Jacquemart-André version therefore would date somewhat earlier, or perhaps the mid- to late 1630s.


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