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 Negro, ca. 1618-20
Oil on panel, 45.7 x 36.8 cm
The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York, inv. 1971.40

Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

This simple life study of a man's downturned head exemplifies Rubens's keen mastery of physiognomy and expression. The man looks down and to his right, allowing the light emanating from upper left to softly sculpt the contours of his face. His slightly furrowed brow and pensive expression express a sense of concentration or concern. By leaving much of the panel's light ground bare, Rubens intensifies the contrast with the man's deep, burnished skin tones.

The identity of the model for this sensitive sketch is not known, but the same man also appears in Rubens's Four Studies of the Head of a Negro from about 1615, in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. The heads in the Brussels sketch are each on a different scale and were apparently not all painted at the same time (as noted by Nico van Hout, in an unpublished paper given at the symposium "'Tronies' in de Italiaanse, Vlaamse en Nederlandse schilderkunst van de 16de en 17de eeuw," The Hague, 2000), yet their individual poses and careful distribution within the sketch result in a cohesive and dynamic arrangement. Rubens explored a variety of facial expressions in the Brussels sketch: like the more subdued but no less accomplished study of a single head in the Hyde Collection, the effect is lively and immediate, indicating that they were all done from life.

Although the physiognomies are identical, the man in the Hyde Collection sketch wears a shirt with a narrow collar open at the neck, while the subject of the Brussels panel wears a broad-collared shirt beneath an ocher doublet. This suggested to Julius Held (1980, vol. 1, p. 612) that the two paintings were done on different occasions. The technique of the two sketches is also rather different, with a more liberal use of glazes in the Hyde Collection sketch. Held's proposal that the two sketches were painted less than five years apart would accommodate these stylistic differences, yet it also acknowledges the fact that there is no marked difference in the age of the sitter. The fact that Rubens appears to have studied his model over a number of years indicates that the sitter was probably a resident of Antwerp rather than a onetime visitor, perhaps a servant in a wealthy local family. Held proposed that the same man may also have been painted by Jacob Jordaens, in a study of two heads formerly in the collection of Jacob Goldschmidt, New York (see Julius S. Held, in Oud Holland 80 [1965], p. 115, fig. 11).

Unlike many of Rubens's head studies, the present oil sketch cannot be connected with any known painting by his hand. Two heads from the Brussels sketch can be linked to several works from the 1610s, however: for example, the head at the left appears in the Drunken Silenus of about 1616-17 in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich (inv. 319); and the smiling face at the top of the sketch was used in the Adoration of the Magi painted by Rubens for the St. Janskerk, Mechelen, in 1617-19. The head at the left was also engraved by Paulus Pontius and included in a drawing book containing twenty prints after designs by Rubens (C. G. Voorhelm Schneevoogt, Catalogue des estampes gravées d'après P. P. Rubens, avec l'indication des collections où se trouvent le tableaux et les gravures [Haarlem, 1873], p. 238, no. 65).

Although the attribution of the Brussels sketch to Rubens has never been questioned, the authorship of the Hyde Collection sketch has frequently been challenged. Many scholars have considered the painting to be by Anthony van Dyck (see the opinions cited by Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 608; also M. Jaffé 1989, p. 228, under no. 428 bis), yet, as Held notes, the execution of the sketch favors an attribution to Rubens over van Dyck. A related sketch in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, currently given to "Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens," copies the four heads from the Brussels sketch but arrays them more horizontally, thus losing the dynamic interaction created between the heads in Rubens's original.

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