Peter Paul Rubens|
Bear Hunt, ca. 1639
Oil on panel, 26 x 53.7 cm
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna Fund, 1983.69
Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton
In a rapid brush drawing executed primarily
in shades of brown, two mounted hunters, two attendants on foot, and a half dozen hounds attack two large bears in a landscape. The horseman on the left wields a sword as he is bitten on the shoulder by the rearing bear. His jacket is a light purple and his horse a roan. The horseman at the center wears a rose jacket and sits astride a charging white and gray horse. Both horsemen have plumed hats. One of the running hunters at the back blows a horn and the other brandishes a lance. In the violence of the hunt several of the dogs, many of which are spattered with blood, have been thrown to the ground, while others attack the beasts. A hillock in shades of blue-green rises on the right. Several changes reveal Rubens subtly editing himself: the horses' legs, the right hind leg of the rearing bear, and the paw of the hound thrown to the ground in the right center all show pentimenti.
This is one of a series of sketches (see Diana and Nymphs Hunting Fallow Deer and The Death of Silvia's Stag) that Rubens executed on a long and narrow format in 1639 to serve as models for a set of eight large paintings on hunting topics to decorate the Pieza Ochavada and Bóveda del Palacio in the Alcázar, Philip IV's royal palace in Madrid. Some of the series depict mythological hunts, such as the Hunt of Diana, the Death of Adonis, and the Death of Silvia's Stag, while others, including the present work, depict contemporary hunts with anonymous hunters.
A letter dated June 22, 1639, from the Cardinal Infante to his brother, the king, reports that work had begun on the series, and a second letter dated July 22 indicates that the sketches from Rubens's hand had been finished. The second letter also states that the sketches would be distributed "among those whom Rubens and Snyders entrust [with their execution]" (respectively, Rooses and Ruelens 1887-1909, vol. 6 , pp. 232, 237), implying that the large final paintings were not personally executed by either master. The large paintings have been assumed to have been destroyed by a fire in the palace in 1734,
but Julius Held (1980, p. 305) identified two surviving paintings that may be either copies
or the originals in the Museo Arqueológico in Gerona, Spain (Balis 1986, nos. 25, 26, figs. 124, 126), and three other copies in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nîmes, France (Balis 1986, figs. 113, 115, 134). A large version of the present design is among the latter works (oil on canvas, 110 x 280 cm; inv. IP-293), and a fragmentary canvas in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh corresponds closely to the left-hand side of the present composition, save for the fact that the central horseman has a beard. Held observed that the Raleigh painting is superior
in quality to the copy in France but concluded that it was probably substantially the work of assistants. Balis (1986, no. 27, p. 262), by contrast, gave the attribution the benefit of the doubt because the canvas was probably damaged in
the Madrid fire, amputated, and extensively repainted. He felt that Rubens had a hand in the execution of the Raleigh painting, specifically
in the heads of the figures, while attributing the animals to Frans Snyders. He further observed that the poses of several of the dogs and of the horse on the left of the composition recur elsewhere in Rubens's work; see, for example,
the oil sketch the Lion Hunt (The National Gallery, London, no. 853P). Balis (ibid.) also suggested that the motif of the bear biting the horseman could have been inspired by a print by Stradanus (Jan van der Straet), and the horseman on the right was borrowed from an etching by Antonio Tempesta. Svetlana Alpers (1971, p. 39) showed that the theory first advanced by Wilhelm Valentiner that the Raleigh picture (and thus by implication the Cleveland sketch) was done for the Torre de la Parada is incorrect.
Copies of the present sketch appeared in two sales: panel, 34 by 51.5 centimeters, sale Berlin (Graupe), May 27, 1935, lot 64; and panel, 55.5 by 104 centimeters, sale London (Christie's), November 26, 1965, lot 71. Seven of the hunt scenes for the Alcázar, including the present design, were woven into tapestries by the
Brussels manufacturer Daniël Eggermans the Younger and were acquired for the imperial collection in Vienna in 1666 from the Viennese merchant Bartholome Triangl. They are still preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (see Ludwig von Baldass, Die Wiener Gobelin Sammlung [Vienna, 1920], vol. 4, no. 183). However, Eggermans's tapestry after the present design moves the two horsemen to the right and the footmen, bear, and hounds to the left, while reproducing them in reverse (see Balis 1986,