Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
Sketch for a Portrait of a Family (Peter Paul Rubens and Hélène Fourment, with Nicolaas and Clara Johanna Rubens), ca. 1632
Oil on panel, 35.5 x 38.2 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art: John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, inv. J#622


Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

At the center of this family grouping is a young mother, seated in a low chair and clasping a sleeping infant to her lap. She wears a short jacket over a voluminous skirt; her crimped hair is demurely covered by a coif. The child sprawls heavily in its slumbers, its head and left hand nestled sweetly at the mother's breast. Standing behind and to the left is a boy, who leans over the back of the chair with legs casually crossed. To the right is a bearded man wearing a hat, seen in three-quarter view; the cloaked mass of his body is summarily indicated with a few strokes of the brush.

The figure of the young woman, seated in profile on a low chair with her head turned to the viewer, with her impossibly long legs tucked beneath her, appears in several other works by Rubens from the 1630s. Again sheltering a sleeping infant on her lap, she is the central player in Rubens's Rest on the Flight into Egypt in the Museo del Prado, as well as Christoffel Jegher's woodcut after this composition. Julius Held (1980, vol. 1, p. 400) proposed that the Philadelphia sketch preceded both the Prado painting and Jegher's print. The voluptuous young woman seated on a low stool at the center of Rubens's Garden of Love (oil on canvas, 198 x 283 cm; Museo del Prado, Madrid, inv. 1690), and on the left in the right half of the preparatory drawing Rubens made for Jegher's woodcut of the subject are also clearly derived from the central figure in this sketch. Related figures also occur in Rubens's charming Hagar in the Wilderness (oil on panel, 71.5 x 72.6 cm; Dulwich College Picture Gallery, London, inv. 131) and (reversed) in the more problematic Allegory of Music oil sketch in the Musée du Louvre (oil on panel, 18.5 x 28 cm; inv. R.F. 1985-24).

Based on the similarity of the head of the man in the sketch with Rubens's Self-Portrait of 1623 at Windsor Castle, Held suggested (1980, vol. 1, p. 400) that this sketch may have been made as a study for a portrait (never executed) of Rubens's own family. The woman thus undoubtedly represents Hélène Fourment, although the poor state of preservation of her face does not allow us to read Hélène's features. The naked child sprawled on her lap has been identified by both Held and Hans Vlieghe as Clara Johanna, Rubens and Hélène Fourment's first child, born on January 18, 1632. (Clara Johanna appears again in Rubens's unfinished portrait of Hélène with two children, of c. 1636 [Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. 1795]). The boy standing to the left must be Nicolaas, Rubens's son by Isabella Brant, who was fourteen years old in 1632. Although Held questioned why Nicolaas's older brother Albert was not included in the sketch, Vlieghe pointed out that Albert had left the family home in 1630 at age sixteen, to assume a post as secretary to the Conseil Privé du Roy in Brussels (Vlieghe 1987, pp. 166, 170).

Justus Müller Hofstede (in exh. cat. Cologne/Antwerp/Vienna 1992, p. 110) has noted the conspicuously hieratic nature of Rubens's composition. The young mother and the sleeping infant evoke clear and intentional parallels with traditional imagery of the Madonna and Child; they are protectively flanked by the watchful figures of Rubens and Nicolaas (who was, incidentally, just four years younger than Hélène). Rubens has included Nicolaas in this intimate portrayal of a close-knit family group as the living representative of his first marriage to Isabella Brant, drawn into the warmth and unity of his new family. Although the idea formulated in this composition was apparently never realized in a finished painting, the Philadelphia sketch is an expressive indicator of Rubens's attitude toward family.

The panel's somewhat abraded surface and the later addition of a layer of gray paint in the left background to offset the figures have caused some scholars to question the attribution to Rubens. Held (in Goris and Held 1947) initially had "serious doubts" about the painting but subsequently reversed his opinion (1980), judging it "an impaired original rather than a pastiche done by a follower." Following Held's earlier view, Frances Daugherty's (1978) attribution of the panel to a follower of Rubens, composed from individual designs by the master, rests largely on the admittedly disproportional relation between the figures. It is indeed possible that the sketch may be Rubens's working composite of figure studies (compare Two Figure Studies (Mercury and a Yeoman)) rather than a fully worked-out compositional study, which would then account for the imperfect transitions between the figures.


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