Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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History and Politics: Glory to the Hero
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Peter Paul Rubens
Decius Mus Relating His Dreams, ca. 1617
Oil on panel transferred to canvas (1773) in turn transferred to masonite (c. 1954-55), 80.7 x 84.5 cm
Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, 1957.14.2 (1394)


Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

The story of Decius Mus is told by Livy (8.6, 9-10). Publis Decius Mus (the Elder) was a consul and commander of the Roman legions fighting the Latins at Capua. He and his fellow commander, Titus Manlius, both had a dream informing them that one of the two armies engaged in the conflict would have to sacrifice its commander to the gods of the underworld and to Mother Earth, but as a consequence the opposing army would be completely defeated. Each general conveyed the dream to his officers. After consulting a soothsayer who performed a sacrificial offering to the gods, it was determined that Decius Mus must make the ultimate sacrifice. At the command of the highest priest, Decius covered his head with a toga and consecrated himself to the infernal gods with a solemn and dreadful vow. He then threw himself into battle and was killed. Fulfilling the prophecy, the Romans attacked with renewed strength and routed their enemy.

In the present sketch, which is the first in a series of five modelli for tapestry designs, Decius Mus wearing a bright red cloak stands on a pedestal to address five of his officers whose ensigns and standards bristle against the sky. Closest to the dais, the young warrior in shadow wears armor over a dark red tunic and has a green cloak over his shoulder. The soldier with his back to the viewer wears a leopard skin over a blue tunic. The soldier on the far right wears an elaborately decorated helmet and bright red cloak and carries a labarum. An eagle hovers above Decius, and at the base of his pedestal is a still life consisting of his helmet, complete with a gilded relief of the Roman wolf with Romulus and Remus in a circular decoration, his shield with an apotropaic head encircled with radiating bolts of lightning, and weapons. The other four modelli for the series depict the interpretation of the animal sacrifice by the soothsayer, the modello for which is in the Oskar Reinhardt Collection, Winterthur (Held 1980, no. 2); the consecration of Decius Mus by the high priest, present location unknown (a copy is in Munich; Held 1980, #3); the death of Decius Mus, in the Museo del Prado, Madrid (Held 1980, no. 3a); and the obsequies of Decius Mus, in the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich (Held 1980, no. 4). A series of cartoons in the princes of Liechtenstein collection now in Vienna were executed after the modelli and have been variously attributed to either or both Rubens and his pupil, Anthony van Dyck.

Rubens was a descendant of a famous tapestry manufacturer (Hendrick Pype, called Pypelinckx, d. 1580) and in 1630 married the daughter of a prominent tapestry dealer; thus, he was closely allied with this flourishing Flemish industry. The Decius Mus series was the first of his large tapestry series. It was commissioned on November 9, 1616, by a Genoese businessman, Franco Cattaneo, from the Antwerp tapestry merchants Jan Raes and Frans Sweerts, in a document that specified that Rubens should design the series and be the judge of the quality of the final product—a testament to his expertise in the field. Rubens himself mentioned the tapestries in letters to Sir Dudley Carlton in May 1618.

As Emil Kieser (1933) and Wolfgang Stechow (1968) observed, the subject of the history of Decius Mus had never before been depicted in an art cycle. It undoubtedly appealed to Rubens because, as he pictured it, the story was one of unflinching heroic stoicism, valor, and a profound trust in the wisdom of the gods. In all probability the subject was suggested by the learned artist and avowed Stoic to Cattaneo prior to the drafting of the contract in November 1616. Rubens also probably was attracted to the theme by the occasion it presented to display his extensive knowledge of the costumes, customs, and appearances of antiquity. Much of Rubens's time in Italy had been spent researching ancient Roman civilization and its relics. He also had a renowned command of ancient literature. As early as 1608 Rubens had contributed drawings of Roman sculptures to illustrate his brother Philip's book of essays on Roman expressions referring to civilian and military apparel. The Decius Mus series thus offered him for the first time a grand stage on which to display his expertise. It surely is not a matter of chance that, as H. D. Rodee (1967) first observed, Rubens's Decius Mus series is more archaeologically correct than any of the master's other later treatments of Roman history subjects.

Even the composition of the present work is derived from ancient Roman examples, namely the allocutio designs of leaders addressing their troops that appear on the Arch of Constantine (see Kieser 1933, p. 126). Rubens later returned to the allocutio composition when he executed The Emblem of Christ Appearing to Constantine in 1622 in his second venture into tapestry design, the Life of Constantine series. As Julius Held observed (1980, vol. 1, p. 25), Rubens surely knew Justus Lipsius's De Militia romana libri quinque (3rd ed., Antwerp, 1602), which discusses the classical allocutio and gives examples of the associations of antique military leaders and military signs. Held (ibid.) further observed that one of the ensigns features a prominent outstretched hand that appears frequently on Roman coins and which Caspar Gevartius in the Pompa Introitus ([Antwerp, 1641-42], p. 8) interpreted as a "symbol of warlike valor and trust."

The painting in Vienna corresponds to the present modello in most salient regards, but its major change is the conversion of the design to a more upright, narrower format. Thus in the large version, the left side of the frame is much closer to the figure of the general, his hand almost touches the ensigns, and the figure of the eagle is eliminated. A black chalk drawing in the Albertina, Vienna, no. 8238, was published by Ludwig Burchard and R.A. d'Hulst (Antwerp 1956, no. 81) as an original study by Rubens for the present design but was correctly demoted to a copy by J. Müller-Hofstede (1966, p. 449) and Held (1980, vol. 1, p. 25).


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