Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Landscape and Hunt Scenes: Projects for Philip IV
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Peter Paul Rubens
Diana and Nymphs Hunting Fallow Deer, ca. 1639
Oil on panel, 23.5 x 52.6 cm
Private Collection

Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

The huntress Diana, wearing a purple-gray tunic and brandishing a spear, is given pride of place in the center of the composition beside a tree. She is accompanied by four nymphs and seven lunging brown and gray hunting dogs that pursue two does and a stag that have taken to water, as well as a fallow deer. The partially clad nymphs variously brandish a lance and a bow and arrow, while in the right foreground one wearing crimson drapery blows a hunting horn. The last nymph remains on shore, clinging to a tree trunk with one arm and reining in her leashed dogs with the other. Trees border the water and a landscape opens beyond on the left.

This is one of seven surviving oil sketches of mythological and secular hunt scenes (see Balis 1986 [Corpus], nos. 20a, 23a, 24a, 25a, 26a, 27a; and Bear Hunt, Diana and Nymphs Hunting Fallow Deer, and The Death of Silvia's Stag) that were preparatory to the eight hunting scenes (Balis 1986 [Corpus], nos. 20-27) that were part of one of the last commissions of Rubens's career, namely eighteen paintings for the Bóveda del Palacio in Philip IV's royal palace in Madrid. The series is mentioned repeatedly in correspondence between the king and his brother, the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, although only the latter's letters survive and then incompletely. On June 22, 1639, Ferdinand informed Philip that the work on the series had begun, and a month later he could report that all of the sketches had been finished by Rubens himself. It is understood from the documents that the final paintings were to be executed by the workshop of Rubens and his friend and colleague, the animal specialist Frans Snyders. The final painting that Rubens's studio executed based on the present sketch and sent to Madrid in 1640 probably has been lost, but at least seven painted copies of the composition exist (see Balis 1986 [Corpus], pp. 239-40), including the work assigned dubiously to J. Thomas van Yperen or Paulus de Vos in the Brighton Art Gallery and a large painting in the museum in Nîmes (Balis 1986 [Corpus], copy no. 1, fig. 108). A painted copy now lost that was in the collection of Francis Lamb, Edinburgh, in 1835, was engraved (Balis copy no. 2). As with several other oil sketches from the series, there also exists a tapestry by Daniël Eggermans the Younger(?) after the design, now preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Balis 1986 [Corpus], copy no. 9, fig. 109).

Within the group of hunt scenes for the Bóveda del Palacio, the present work evidently was paired in traditional fashion with the Death of Actaeon, the sketch for which remained with the present work until 1989. That work is also conceived in a long, narrow horizontal format and executed in a similarly delicate and subtle technique. It depicts the horrific end of the huntsman Actaeon who, having encountered the chaste goddess Diana and her companions as they bathed, is already suffering his fate—transformation into a stag and his violent death by his own hounds. As Svetlana Alpers first observed (1971, p. 111), the group on the far right of the design with the nymph clinging to the tree is borrowed from a design recorded in a drawing in the British Museum by one of the sixteenth-century artists that Rubens most admired, Giulio Romano. It attests to the fact that Rubens continued to pay homage to his Italian forebears to the end of his career.

The present work may be compared with Rubens's other earlier paintings of the popular theme of Diana and the Hunt (see as examples M. Jaffé 1989, nos. 929, 1263), but as Julius Held correctly observed (1980, vol. 1, p. 308), it is "the most graceful and least sanguinary" of all his treatments of the theme. David Freedberg (in exh. cat. New York 1995) rightly commended the fine and delicate execution of the work, which testifies to the master's undiminished powers even in his last works.

The panel was primed with a thin wash of light brown pigment extending over the entire surface of the ground; the design was then quickly sketched entirely with the brush in transparent thin strokes. Finally, color accents were sparingly but judiciously applied. When the painting sold in 1939 it measured 33 by 52 centimeters because it had two wooden strips added by a later hand to the top and bottom of the original panel (for the old state, see Alpers 1971, fig. 11). These were subsequently removed.

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