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.

Portraits of the Twelve Caesars in all media were popular among princely collectors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, creating for them a fictional ancestry and invoking genealogical and ideological connections with past imperial power. One of the most interesting series of painted Roman imperial portraits was that probably commissioned by the Dutch stadholder Maurits of Orange or his stepbrother and successor Frederik Hendrik, between about 1615 and 1625 (on the series, see Helmut Börsch-Supan, Jagdschloss Grunewald, Verwaltung der Staatlichen Schlösser und Gärten [Berlin, 1981], pp. 48-52). A dozen leading painters from the Northern and Southern Netherlands—including Rubens, Abraham Janssens, Hendrick Goltzius, Gerard van Honthorst, and Dirck van Baburen-each contributed a bust-length likeness of an emperor. Rubens's bust of Julius Caesar, painted in 1619 and possibly later reworked by the artist, is certainly the most animated of the series; characteristically, although he modeled the likeness on an antique portrait bust in his own collection, there is not a trace of stone in this lively and intelligent visage. The same imperial bust served as the model for the likeness of Julius Caesar in one of Rubens's last archaeological projects, the series of Twelve Famous Greek and Roman Men designed by Rubens and engraved by various printmakers, and finally brought to fruition in 1638 (van der Meulen 1994, vol. 1, pp. 142-52, vol. 2, pp. 115ff., nos. 108-19). While probably based on the same sculptural model, the likeness of Julius Caesar in the present sketch is less rugged and stern in aspect. Rather than fixing a piercing gaze on the viewer, he gazes off to the right, creating a more contempletive mood.

The exact purpose of the Julius Caesar and the other small sketches from the series is not known. Michael Jaffé (1971, p. 300) commented that they "were probably not intended in the procedural sense to be sketches" and proposed that they may have been created for an antiquarian colleague of Rubens, possibly as a result of his having met in Paris in the mid-1620s several eminent antiquaries—Girolamo Aleandro, Giovanni Doni, and Cassiano del Pozzo-then traveling in the entourage of Cardinal Francesco Barberini.


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