Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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The Workings of the Studio: Head Studies, Portrait and Genre
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Peter Paul Rubens
Head of a Young Warrior, ca. 1614-15
Oil on panel, 50.8 x 41.5 cm
Private collection


Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

Facing three-quarters to the right, a young boy dressed in soldier's armor looks up from beneath a thick, wildly unruly mop of hair. Delicate, almost feminine features and slightly parted lips create an innocently youthful appearance. A dark cloak is draped over the boy's left shoulder. Light from the left highlights his creamy skin and tousled curls and deposits gleaming accents on the ribs and bolts of his gorget, casting the far side of his face into shadow. The hand resting on the staff at lower right is probably a later addition, intended to give a more narrative quality to the sketch. The panel is composed of two horizontal planks, with a strip about three centimeters wide added at the left.

The boy's head can be seen—with a thin mustache and tightly curled chin whiskers adding some maturity to his youthful face—as a warrior in the background of Rubens's St. Ambrose Barring Emperor Theodosius from Entering the Cathedral, painted (with the assistance of Anthony van Dyck) in about 1616-17. The present study may have been created a few years earlier, however, perhaps about 1614 or 1615. As evidence for this earlier dating, Justus Müller Hofstede (letter to G. Henle; see Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 610) noted that among the large body of drawings after Rubens probably by Willem Panneels that make up the so-called Rubens Cantoor is a sheet showing the present head together with a view of the same model in lost profile, presumably also based on an oil sketch (now lost) by Rubens. This latter head was used by Rubens in a painting of Christ and the Adulterous Woman, datable to about 1614-15 (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, inv. 3461). Assuming that the two head studies from the same model were painted at the same time, the present study must also have been executed during this period. Stylistically, the Head of a Young Warrior shows the heavy, glossy curls—alternating thick strokes of dark paint with more delicate scumbled highlights—and creamy skin tones frequently encountered in Rubens's works from the early to mid-1610s. Comparable in handling is the Two Studies of the Head of a Young Man, which probably slightly postdates the present sketch (oil on panel, 46.3 x 63.5 cm; coll. H. Schickman, New York, [Held no. 446]).

Several other physiognomies in the St. Ambrose altarpiece are also based on known painted head studies by Rubens, a voluble model of the efficient design and execution of a large commission by the master and his atelier. Most of Rubens's head studies, including the present work and Head of a Youth, express generic moods and expressions, allowing them to be adapted for use in a variety of contexts. Arnout Balis points out ("Working It Out: Design Tools in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Flemish Art," in Vlieghe et al., 2000, p. 141) that paintings like the St. Ambrose "seem not just to make use of the available heads, but to be altogether conceived on the basis of them": the painting's dramatic content "reads" from the juxtaposition and interaction of these specific character heads. The impressively bearded man positioned beside St. Ambrose and looking so intently at the emperor was the subject of no fewer than four oil sketches by Rubens's hand (coll. Princes of Liechtenstein, Vienna, inv. 113; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, inv. A4590.39-20; Národni Galerie, Prague, inv. DO-4377; and a private collection), which served in turn as models for numerous figures in paintings dating from at least 1612 to 1618. The curly-haired, bearded centurion at far left in the St. Ambrose is based on a study head that was also employed as the model for a figure in Rubens's Death of Seneca (c. 1611-20; Alte Pinakothek, Munich, inv. 305). Interestingly, this latter study of a man's head is painted on a panel of nearly identical configuration to the Head of a Young Warrior (minus the added strip at left) with the horizontal join in the panel occurring at almost exactly the same place (oil on panel, 49.1 x 37.2 cm; sale London (Sotheby's), December 3-4, 1997, lot 81 [with further references]). These two related studies thus appear to have been painted at the same time, on pieces cut from a single, larger panel.


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