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 Duke of Buckingham, ca. 1625
Oil on panel, 46.6 x 51.7 cm
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, no. AP 1876.08


Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

Seated astride a sorrel horse with gray mane and tail, the duke of Buckingham is portrayed as the General of the Fleet. Beneath him in the lower left corner are Neptune with a trident and a naiad who both look up with admiration at the young, handsome leader. Beyond some reeds the masts of a large fleet appear in the distance. In the golden yellow sky to the right above the duke flutters a genius holding the trumpet of Fame in his right hand, scattering flowers and blowing wind from his mouth to propel the fleet. The duke's mount is viewed in profile rearing on its hind legs, its head turned slightly toward the viewer. Clad in armor, bareheaded, and sporting a blue sash, bright red breeches, and a fluttering crimson and pink cape, Buckingham turns to look directly at the observer. Neptune has blue drapery and the genius diaphanous white drapery and yellow highlights in his hair.

A favorite of King Charles I as well as his Master of the Horse, Georges Villiers, the first duke of Bedford, amassed a huge fortune and art collection but was a rakish figure given to disastrous political shifts and intrigues. He initially sought to ally England with Spain against France and subsequently sought an alliance with France against Spain; by 1627 England was in a costly war with both nations. So unpopular was the duke's quixotic foreign policy that he was assassinated on August 23, 1628. However, when Rubens met Buckingham in Paris in 1625 on a diplomatic mission to Charles I's proxy marriage to Henrietta Maria, Buckingham was riding high. Newly appointed to the post of General of the Fleet, he commissioned from Rubens an equestrian portrait of himself in this role; Rubens was paid 500 livres in 1625 for "drawing his L[ordship's] picture on horseback" (W. Noel Sainsbury, Original Unpublished Papers Illustrative of the Life of Sir Peter Paul Rubens as an Artist and a Diplomat [London, 1859], p. 68). The present work is the modello for the final large painting that was owned by the earl of Jersey at Osterley Park but was destroyed by fire in 1949. The likeness of the duke was recorded in a drawing now preserved in the Albertina, Vienna. From Rubens's correspondence with Balthasar Gerbier (who was Buckingham's Master of the Horse as well as his confidential agent), we know that the painter was working hard on the portrait in the autumn of 1625 but was interrupted by a journey he had to make for the Infanta; he may have finished the final picture by September 18, 1627, when he sent several paintings by his hand to the duke (see Vlieghe 1987, p. 65).

In the final portrait the allegorical apparatus designed to glorify Buckingham as commander has been elaborated, possibly at the duke's request. The female personification of Victory now flies before the duke with a laurel wreath and cornucopia, and on the right another female allegorical figure, possibly of Caritas with a flaming heart, subdues a demonic figure of Envy (see Gregory Martin, "Rubens and Buckingham's 'Fayrie Ile,'" The Burlington Magazine 108 [1966], pp. 613-18, and Vlieghe 1987, p. 64) or possibly Discord (Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 394). Francis Huemer (Portraits, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, pt. 19, vol. 1 [Brussels, 1977], pp. 57-61) sought to interpret this portrait as an allegory of Fortitudo (embodied in the duke) and Caritas (the two female figures), but Vlieghe (ibid.) correctly rejected this view, emphasizing instead Buckingham's glorification in the role of Commander of the Navy. In addition to Neptune, the naiad, and the fleet, the final version also includes a larger armada and a beach strewn with shells. In the period when Rubens first conceived this portrait he was just installing the magnificent cycle glorifying Marie de Médicis in the Luxembourg Palace (now preserved in the Musée du Louvre, Paris), which makes similar use of allegorical personifications for propaganda purposes. Huemer (1977, pp. 57-58) observed that Rubens's decision to depict the duke on horseback with the fleet at sea in the background followed an English tradition; Willem de Passe had earlier engraved the duke in a similar setting, and the former Lord High Admiral, the earl of Nottingham, had been depicted in a similar way.

Rubens and Buckingham remained in regular contact from 1625 on, as Buckingham negotiated to purchase the painter's collection of antiquities, gemstones, and some of the master's paintings, while Rubens sought to use the relationship to secure peace for the Southern Netherlands. In addition to the equestrian portrait, Rubens also painted an illusionistic ceiling for his patron depicting the Triumph of the Duke of Buckingham, which like the portrait was destroyed in the fire at Osterley Park, but for which there is an oil sketch in the National Gallery, London. Buckingham's patronage of Rubens also undoubtedly encouraged Charles I to retain the master's services. However, as we have noted, Buckingham had only about a year to enjoy Rubens's paintings before he was killed (on their relationship, see especially G. Martin 1966).

Rubens's earlier equestrian portraits, such as the Duke of Lerma of 1603 (Museo del Prado, Madrid) and Giancarlo Doria of about 1606-7 (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence), were configured frontally with the horse advancing toward the viewer. He had also depicted mounted horses rearing in profile in, for example, his copy of Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari (of which there is a drawing in the Louvre and a painted version in the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna) and his St. George and the Dragon of about 1607 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). Another early example of a rider on a horse viewed in profile rearing on its hind legs appears in the so-called Riding School (formerly in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin; repr. Vlieghe 1987, fig. 4), which was probably only a workshop copy of Rubens's original of about 1615. Sixteenth-century prints by Antonio Tempesta and after Stradanus also depict rulers on rearing horses in profile. The pose became a symbol in Baroque portraiture of a leader's authoritative control. In a poem on Rubens's lost equestrian portrait of Philip IV (a copy is in the Uffizi, Florence) that assumed this pose, Francisco de Zarate even likens the horse to the people under the monarch's control ("Rubens in short shows with the horse how you ought to be a vassal to your prince"; see Larry Ligo, "Two Seventeenth Century Poems Which Link Rubens's Equestrian Portrait of Philip IV to Titian's Equestrian Portrait of Charles V," Gazette des Beaux-Arts 75 [1970], pp. 345-55). While Hans Vlieghe (1987, p. 65) and others have described the equestrian pose in the Buckingham portrait as the levade, Walter Liedtke (see Liedtke 1989, pp. 19ff.) points out that properly speaking this is not correct; in the levade the horse bends its haunches deeply and tucks its raised forelegs close to the body while keeping its head straight. It is accurately depicted in Antoine de Pluvinel's influential treatise on equitation, L'Instruction de roy en l'exercise de monter à cheval ([Paris, 1925]; Liedtke 1989, p. 22, fig. 8). Liedtke (ibid., p. 23) suggests that Buckingham's pose is "better described as a rear on command (an appropriate movement for a military figure)." He also suggested that the source for Rubens's portrait could be Thomas Cockson's print Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire, on Horseback of about 1604 (ibid., p. 23, fig. 11). Rubens's later equestrian portraits Cardinal Infante Ferdinand (Museo del Prado, Madrid) as well as the lost Philip IV both employ the rearing pose first adopted in the Buckingham portrait. The latter also undoubtedly influenced later equestrian portraits by Anthony van Dyck and Diego Velázquez.

Julius Held (1980, p. 393) and Vlieghe (1987, p. 66) both incorrectly assumed that the present work could be the painting mentioned by Gustav F. Waagen (Kunstwerke und Künstler in England und Paris, 3 vols. [Berlin, 1837-39], vol. 2 [1838]) of the "Duke of Alva on Horseback," which was in Lord Radnor's collection at Longford Castle; however, that is another work on canvas identified in 1909 as Rubens's Portrait of Archduke Albert, Governor of the Netherlands, formerly known as the portrait of the duke of Alva (see Helen Matilda, Countess of Radnor, and William Barclay Squire, Catalogue of the Pictures in the Collection of the Earl of Radnor [London, 1909], pp. 37-38, no. 62). Vlieghe (1987, p. 66) lists five copies of the present work, including paintings in the museums in Schwerin and the Zanesville Art Institute, Zanesville, Ohio. In an article on the collection of Arnold Lunden (Rubens's brother-in-law) Vlieghe ("Erasmus Quellinus and Rubens' Studio Practice," The Burlington Magazine 119 [1977], pp. 636-42) also notes, "No. 134 Deux Esquisses: l'une le Duc de Bucquingam. C'est peut être l'Apothéose du Roi Jacques premier qui est souvent pris pour le Duc de Buckingham fl. 50-00." The document exists only in eighteenth-century manuscript copy (Duverger 1984-2002, vol. 5, doc. 1225). It is unknown whether this refers to the present work or another sketch.


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