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
The Death of Silvia's Stag, ca. 1638
Oil on panel, 23.2 x 52.6 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art: John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, inv. J#663


Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

Virgil's Aeneid (7.475-508) recounts the origins of the war between the Trojans and the Rutuli. Aeneas's son, Ascanius, mortally wounded a stag that was the favorite pet of Silvia, daughter of the shepherd Tyrrhus. Silvia's enraged brothers and other shepherds took up whatever arms they could find and attacked Ascanius, who was supported by his fellow Trojans. In Rubens's sketch Silvia is seated at the right comforting the dying stag. A second woman (or, according to Julius Held, another image of Silvia) stands above crying out for revenge. At the left the shepherds armed with sticks, pitchforks, and flails engage the Trojans and beat back their dogs. The foremost rider who brandishes a javelin is probably Ascanius; as Arnout Balis observed (1986, p. 251), the warrior before him is identifiable as a Trojan by his Phrygian cap. Although he first mistakenly proposed that the subject was the Sacred Stag of Artemis Killed by Agamemnon, Held was the first to correctly identify the theme in 1947.

The large version of the composition is preserved in the Museu d'Art in Gerona, Spain, and may be either a copy or the original canvas that was part of the suite of eight hunt scenes that were commissioned by Philip IV for the Alcázar in 1639 (see also Bear Hunt and Diana and Nymphs Hunting Fallow Deer). Díaz Padrón believed that the Gerona picture was a copy, but Held (1980, no. 224) thought that it could be the lost original. Balis (1986, pp. 251-52) argued that despite its "depressingly low quality," like its companion, The Bull Hunt also in Gerona (Balis 1986, no. 26), it should be regarded as the original, although mainly the work of the studio, damaged, and "spoilt by later overpainting." In the large version the scene extends farther to the left: the head of the running dog is visible, another hunter is seen behind the second mounted Trojan, and Ascanius's horse is viewed fully in side view. There also are minor changes in the figures' costumes and the positions of their weapons, and a man rushes out of the doorway of the farmhouse on the right.

The painting has suffered extensive paint loss along the lower quarter of the panel; a photo of it in a stripped state before in-painting was illustrated by Balis. In the areas that preserve the original paint, the figures are fluently brushed in brown paint, and delicately transparent passages of color are distributed throughout: Ascanius's tunic is pinkish purple; the man at the center with the pitchfork is in pink; the man in front is in light blue; ocher and olive green touches appear in the standing woman's fluttering costume; and Silvia's dress is pink and purple. Patches of green and blue articulate the sky and landscape. Balis noted the pentiment in the stag, which was originally farther to the left and higher. He also listed three copies of the sketch.


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