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
The Emperor Julius Caesar, ca. 1626
Oil on panel, 33 x 26.6 cm
Stephen Mazoh, New York

Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

The imperial ruler is seen at bust length, turned three-quarters to the right. He wears a cuirass beneath a red cloak pinned at the shoulder; his close-cropped hair is encircled by a laurel wreath. This is one of a series of at least six, and possibly twelve, bust-length portraits of Roman emperors painted by Rubens in about 1626. Other extant portraits from the series include Vitellius (present location unknown), Vespasian (private collection), Nero (present location unknown), Otho (Scunthorpe Museum and Art Gallery, Scunthorpe), and Galba (present location unknown). The oval format and uniform dimensions of these sketches correspond to a series of six busts of Roman emperors said to be by Rubens (per cat. 1790) or in his manner (per sale cat. 1821) that were in the collection of Thomas Loridon de Ghellinck in Ghent by the end of the eighteenth century. The Loridon catalogues describe portraits of Julius Caesar and Vespasian but also of Augustus, Tiberius, Vitellius, and Titus. The discrepancy between the list of subjects mentioned in the Loridon catalogues and those now known suggests either that some of the six portraits may have been misidentified or that some of the paintings from the Loridon collection have since been lost (and others resurfaced), and that Rubens's series originally included the twelve works customary for historical portraits on this theme. The lives of the first twelve Roman emperors, known as the "Twelve Caesars"—Julius Caesar (ruled 45-44 b.c.), Augustus (31 b.c.-a.d. 14), Tiberius (14-37), Gaius (Caligula, 37-41), Claudius (41-54), Nero (54-68), Galba (68-69), Otho (69), Vitellius (69), Vespasian (69-79), Titus (79-81), and Domitianus (81-96)—were memorably chronicled in a firsthand historical account by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. Filled with gossip and lively anecdotes, Suetonius's text was probably the most widely read series of biographies from the Roman world...

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