Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
Studies for Figures in a Larder, ca. 1630-33
Oil on panel, 20.3 x 28.2 cm
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, inv. 5146

Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

With swift, delicate strokes and a few well-placed dabs of color, Rubens sketched three figures—a woman, a boy, and a man—at opposite sides of this small panel. At left, a robust young woman stands with a large serving dish propped against her hip, her red-lined overskirt rucked up behind it. She reaches out with her left hand to arrest the forward lunge of the young boy seated on the table, who twists to grab some invisible object. At the opposite edge of the quickly outlined table is a man in doublet and breeches, cap on his head and apron and knife sheath tied around his waist. With a rather fierce expression, he gestures toward the table and brandishes a knife aloft in his right hand.

This lively sketch is Rubens's preliminary design for figures in two monumental paintings executed in collaboration with the animal and still-life painter Frans Snyders (1579-1657) in the 1630s: Kitchen Still Life with Maid and Child and Cook at a Kitchen Table with Dead Game. Rubens and Snyders had worked together regularly even before the magnificent Prometheus Bound of about 1611-12, the first documented instance of their collaboration (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, inv. W50-3-1). In his modello for one of his earliest collaborative projects with Snyders, The Recognition of Philopoemen of about 1609 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. M.I.967; ill. p. 63, fig. 16), Rubens himself sketched in the still life elements. Several years later, in a sketch painted in about 1616 (collection earl of Wemyss, Gosford House) for a jointly executed painting of Cimon and Iphegenia, Rubens left blank those areas that were to be filled in with still-life elements by Snyders, indicating a growing level of confidence in Snyders's powers of invention. The present sketch, painted some fifteen years later, documents the evolving dynamics of a successful partnership between two professional colleagues.

The large painting that developed from the left portion of the sketch, showing the maid and young boy facing an abundant still life of fruit, exists in three versions: a version with nearly square dimensions at Cumnock, Dumfries House, collection Lady Bute; and two horizontal variants (in a private collection, Brussels; and J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, inv. 78.PA.207 [dated c. 1650]). The Bute picture is regarded as the primary version; the others were executed by Snyders, with Jan (or Johannes) Boeckhorst likely to have painted the figures (see Vlieghe 1990, p. 76). The painting that developed from the right half of Rubens's sketch, with the knife-wielding cook now confronting a pile of dead fowl and a larcenous cat, exists in a single version now in the Hermitage. This is presumably the pendant to the Bute picture, although the figure of the cook has recently also been attributed to Boeckhorst, working from Rubens's design (Gritsai 2001, p. 114). A cleaning of the Bute picture (c. 1970) revealed that Snyders first painted the still-life elements on and around the table, and that Rubens's figures were painted in later, on a broad strip of canvas added at the left for just that purpose (Jaffé 1971, p. 192). This suggests that unlike the several instances of collaboration cited above, the initial idea (or commission) for these paintings probably originated in Snyders's studio, with Rubens brought into the project as it developed. After executing the oil sketch indicating his proposed figural additions to the still lifes, Rubens also made more detailed drawings from life in preparation for the final painting, such as the Young Woman Holding a Tray (black, red, and white chalk, 46.8 x 30 cm; Institut Néerlandais, Paris, Fondation Custodia Collection Frits Lugt).

In the final paintings, the two seemingly unrelated figure groups in Rubens's oil sketch become protagonists in a moralizing tale of thievery and its consequences. The maid gently remonstrates the child as he tries to filch grapes from the basket of succulent fruit on the table, while the punishment for thievery in the pendant is potentially far more severe. Poised to sever the wing from the peacock lying resplendently across the table, the cook's gaze—and perhaps the downward slice of his knife as well—is suddenly distracted by the cat which, having snared his avian prize, is about to drag it quickly off the table.

The large paintings by Snyders and Rubens (and perhaps Boeckhorst) have been dated by several scholars to about 1636-38, based on the perceived likeness of the young boy in the Bute picture—aged perhaps about four or five—to Rubens's son Frans, who was born in July 1633 (principally Robels 1969 and Jaffé 1971). Julius Held, on the other hand (1980, vol. 1, p. 411), argued that the young boy did not bear sufficient resemblance to Frans to allow this identification to drive the dating of the picture, and on stylistic grounds proposed a date of about 1630-33 for the paintings as well as the oil sketch. Susan Koslow (1995) dated the pendants to 1635.

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