Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
Last Supper, ca. 1632
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 48.5 cm
Private Collection


Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

In 1631 Rubens was commissioned by Catherine Lescuyer to paint an altarpiece for the chapel of the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament in the church of St. Rombout (Romuald) in Mechelen, which would also serve as an epitaph for her deceased father, Pauwels Lescuyer. The large finished painting of the Last Supper (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan) was the central focus of an ensemble that also included two predella panels by Rubens (Musèe des Beaux-Arts, Dijon) and several sculptures mounted above the main image. (On the history of the altarpiece, see Judson 2000, pp. 48-52, with further references.)

Rubens first developed the composition of the Last Supper in an oil sketch now in Moscow (Pushkin Museum, inv. 653). Although the proportions of the finished painting are more attenuated and the setting more elaborate, apart from some minor alterations—greater prominence given to the wine cooler in the right foreground, expanding and opening up the upper register to admit a more complex play of light and shadow—most of the basic elements are in place in the sketch. In a cavernous space lit by a few candles, Christ sits at table surrounded by his disciples and blesses their humble meal of bread and wine. The positioning of the apostles around a square table (as opposed to a long table placed parallel to the picture plane) had a strong tradition in the Netherlands: a painting of the Last Supper made in 1593-94 for Antwerp Cathedral by Rubens's former teacher, Otto van Veen, shows a similar configuration in a nocturnal setting and probably influenced Rubens's conception of the subject (see Justus Müller Hofstede, "Zum Werke des Otto van Veen 1590-1600," Bulletin des Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique 6 [1957], pp. 138ff.).

Immediately to Christ's right is St. Peter, and to the left, St. John. The young apostle in the left foreground, impatiently straddling his stool, first occurs in a sheet of sketches for a Last Supper that Rubens had drawn in Italy nearly thirty years earlier (pen and ink, 293 x 435 mm; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, inv. 84.GA.959). The evident source for this figure is the similarly posed young cavalier in Caravaggio's Calling of St. Matthew for the church of S. Luigi dei Francesi, Rome; Caravaggio (as well as van Veen) also provided inspiration for the dramatic nocturnal setting of Rubens's composition.

Seated at the near side of the table is Judas, his twisted pose an outward expression of his agitated mental state. Wild-eyed and fearful, he turns away from Christ, for the first time fully aware of the magnitude of his betrayal. Yet, as David Freedberg has noted (in exh. cat. New York 1995, p. 83), Judas's dark, brooding form cannot completely block the light of the candle that fulfills both a symbolic and a scriptural function in Rubens's painting by illuminating the sacramental bread and the wine chalice, and by symbolizing Christ as lux mundi, the light of the world. Beneath Judas's feet is a dog gnawing on a bone, a symbol of greed or covetousness.

In his earlier rendering of the Last Supper for the Jesuit church in Antwerp (1620-21), Rubens had focused on the communion of the apostles as the dominant message of the eucharistic sacrament. As Müller Hofstede first observed (1970), the present composition presents a far more complex and emotionally charged interpretation of the theme: it combines the moment of the institution of the Eucharist, as Christ blesses the bread that is his body with a growing awareness among the apostles that one of them will betray Christ—note the apostle's hand signaling Judas as the guilty one. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, the identification of Judas as the betrayer immediately precedes the blessing of the bread (Matt. 26:25-26). Conflating these two nearly simultaneous events allowed Rubens to explore a full range of emotions and expressions, from reverential wonder and excitement to suspicion and fear. Julius Held's insistence (1980, vol. 1, p. 468) that the act of blessing the bread alone would have had this profound an impact on the apostles undercuts the exquisite tension created in Rubens's painting.

After completing the Last Supper altarpiece for St. Rombouts, Rubens painted this extremely detailed grisaille sketch as a modello or modeletto for the engraver Boëtius à Bolswert to work from in creating a print of the composition. As Bolswert died on March 25, 1633, the sketch was almost certainly completed by 1632. Although technically a grisaille, the predominantly gray and black tonalities of the Last Supper are modulated by a subtle range of blue, purple, and lavender hues and enlivened by creamy white highlights. More thinly painted areas, such as the floor in the foreground, deliberately allow the golden brown imprimatura to show through, extending the coloristic effects of the limited palette.

Rubens made several adjustments in translating the painted altarpiece of the Last Supper into a design for a print. The figures are pushed farther back into the space, and the composition is extended at the top to include a grand view of dimly lit arches. The apostle at the far right, who previously laid a gentle hand on his companion's back, now balances his urgent forward-leaning stance with the strut of a muscular forearm. The positions of the apostles to either side of Christ—Peter and John—are reversed, presumably so that they would appear in the same positions in the finished engraving as in the altarpiece (Peter to Christ's right and John to his left; see Judson 2000, p. 54). It is conceivable that Rubens may have altered the proportions of his original composition to conform to standard formats for copper printing plates or paper (on standard paper sizes in the seventeenth century, see Jan-Piet Filedt Kok, Erik Hinterding, and Jan van der Waals, "Jan Harmensz. Muller as Printmaker II," Print Quarterly 11 [1994], pp. 364-71).

While nearly all scholars have accepted the grisaille of the Last Supper as by Rubens's hand, Ludwig Burchard felt that the paint was too dense and the execution too careful to be by Rubens and suggested Erasmus Quellinus as the author of the sketch (in a letter of 1932; see Judson 2000, p. 54). However, Rubens obviously understood the need to precisely distinguish light and dark tones in an engraver's modello, and—as in The Road to Calvary (Christ Carrying the Cross)—was able to adapt his style to meet these requirements. Identifying certain details in the grisaille modello that are present in preliminary sketch but not in the finished altarpiece, Judson (2000, pp. 52-54) catalogued the present work as a copy (not by Rubens) after the Moscow sketch. It seems simpler and more plausible, however, to view the modello as an opportunity for Rubens himself to select from his two earlier versions of the composition those details that would convert most effectively to the printed medium.

From as early as 1722 the Last Supper was paired with a grisaille sketch by Rubens of the Raising of Lazarus (oil on panel, 61 x 48 cm; formerly Adolphe Schloss collection, Paris) that was also reproduced in a print by Bolswert. The paintings were separated sometime after 1826.


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