Peter Paul Rubens|
Head of a Youth, 1601-1602
Oil on paper, mounted on panel, 34.9 x 23.4 cm
Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, The Suida Manning Collection, 1999, acc. No. 507.1999
Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman
Painted during his early years in Rome, this engaging study of the head of a youth is among the earliest of Rubens's oil sketches. With wide-open eyes, slightly parted lips, and an overgrown tumble of curls, the boy turns his head sharply
to glance up and to his right. Strong light illuminates the subject from the right, casting
the far side of his face in deep shadow. Although the head of the figure is quite finished, his shirt is described with just a few swift brushstrokes. This sketch exhibits all the Caravaggesque effetti that so profoundly shaped Rubens's work during the first decade of the century: the bold chiaroscuro and intense physicality, the sustained tension inherent in the twisted pose, even the boy's rather feminine beauty. Typically, though, Rubens's rendering is more natural and more realistically observed than that of his Italian model.
The intense vitality of the sketch suggests that it was done from life. Although Jonathan Bober (in exh. cat. Cremona 2001-2, p. 108) proposed that Rubens got the idea of doing life studies in oil from the Venetian followers of Tintoretto, there was a lively Northern tradition of painting head studies (tronies) from life, most notably
in the work of Frans Floris (c. 1519/20-1570) who, like Rubens, operated an immense and impressively efficient studio. These head studies played an important role in communicating the master's ideas to his studio assistants (see also Head of a Young Warrior). It is possible to distinguish two categories of studies from live models in Rubens's work: those which were made in advance of, and apart from,
a specific work of art and kept on hand as "visual capital"; and those which were made "ad hoc," in the process of developing a composition (see A. Balis, "Working It Out: Design Tools and Procedures in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Flemish Art," in Vlieghe et al. 2000,
p. 141). In Balis's view, the former rarely exhibit highly specific emotions but instead are portrayed in generic moods and poses, which increased their adaptability for use in different situational contexts. The Austin Head of a Youth clearly belongs to this category of images.
Rubens must have been particularly pleased with the effect of spontaneity achieved in this strikingly illuminated sketch, for it is one of the most frequently repeated physiognomies in his oeuvre, figuring in numerous finished paintings in the course of more than a decade. The figure first appears—wearing a feathered beret—in The Mocking of Christ, painted for the church of Sta. Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome, in 1601-2 (Notre Dame de Puy, Grasse), thus establishing an approximate date for the Austin study. The figure is seen in reverse in the Transfiguration painted
for the church of Santissima Trinitˆ, Mantua (1604-5; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy), and as
a page to one of the magi in Rubens's Adoration
of the Magi, painted for the Antwerp town hall in 1609-10 and reworked in Spain in 1629 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, inv. 1638). Rubens continued to use the figure as St. Matthew in the series of apostles commissioned by the duke of Lerma, 1611-12 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, inv. 1656);
as a music-making angel on a pair of organ shutters, also painted in about 1611-12 (Princes of Liechtenstein, Vaduz); and as a courtier in The Judgment of Solomon, 1613-14 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, inv. 1543 [as school of Rubens]). The figure made its final appearance as a page in
the Portrait of a Warrior Accompanied by Two Pages, about 1613-14 (versions in The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit [inv. 79.16], and collection of
Earl Spencer, Althorp).
Michael Jaffé (1968) was the first to publish the Austin painting, then in the Manning collection, and identify it as a study for the
young boy who tries to shield Christ from his tormentors in The Mocking of Christ, giving the sketch a date of about 1601-2. Justus Müller Hofstede (1968, p. 229 n. 42) proposed instead that the Austin sketch originated as a ricordo of the figure in these early Italian works and was painted soon after Rubens's return to Antwerp
as preparation for comparable figures in The Judgement of Solomon and Portrait of a Warrior. Other authors (Held, Vlieghe) have questioned the attribution of the sketch to Rubens, tacitly suggesting that it might be the product of Rubens's workshop.
Jaffé (1968, p. 180, and subsequent publications) has suggested that the model for
the Head of a Youth was the young Deodato del Monte (Dieudonné Van der Mont, 1582-1644), Rubens's first pupil and traveling companion to Italy. Comparison with the engraved portrait of the mature del Monte included in Anthony van Dyck's Iconologia does little to advance this theory, however (see Simon Turner, Anthony van Dyck, part 2, The New Hollstein: Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts, 1450-1700 [Rotterdam, 2002], no. 58).