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 Reconciliation of King Henry III and Henry of Navarre, 1628
Oil on panel, 22.5 x 18.4 cm
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester: Marion Stratton Gould Fund, acc. no. 44.24


Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

In 1621 Rubens was first approached by the queen mother, Marie de Médicis (1573-1642), to decorate two large galleries in the new Luxembourg Palace, one with the glorious military career of her late husband, King Henry IV (1553-1610), the other with scenes from her own stormy life. While a contract formalizing the commission was signed on February 26, 1622, and the Life of Marie de Médicis cycle (Musée du Louvre, Paris) became one of the greatest triumphs of Rubens's career, the Life of Henry IV was an ill-fated project, which remained unfinished as late as February 1631, when the queen mother was banished, ending her life in exile. The approval of Rubens's program for the Henry Gallery was repeatedly delayed by the French court, and Cardinal Richelieu sought to have the artist replaced by an Italian painter. The cardinal's motivations probably were political, since Rubens's diplomatic missions in these years sought to bring about a rapprochement between Spain and England, thus running counter to Richelieu's ambitions for France. Nonetheless, a letter from Rubens to Pierre Dupuy dated January 27, 1628 (Rooses and Ruelens 1887-1909, vol. 4 [1904], p. 357), states that he had begun work on the sketches for the Life of Henry. Nine oil sketches related in various ways to the gallery's decorations have survived (see Held 1980, nos. 80-89), and five of the large canvases that he began after returning from England in March 1630 are known (see Jost 1964, pp. 184-92, with ills.). Several depict Henry's actual battles, such as the Battle of Ivry, for which there is a sketch in the museum in Bayonne as well as a large version in the Uffizi, Florence, while others are allegorical celebrations of the monarch's life.

The present work depicts an actual event, namely the meeting of King Henry III and Henry of Navarre at the Château of Plessis-les-Tours on April 30, 1589, but in allegorical terms. The event was significant for Henry's ascent to the throne of France. Since the death of the duke of Anjou, the brother of the childless and homosexual King Henry III (1551-1589), Henry of Navarre had been the heir apparent but had been denied succession by a papal bull of September 9, 1585, that also excommunicated him. In protest he had begun the war known as the War of the Three Henrys. When King Henry III was driven from Paris for having instigated the murder of the duke of Guise, he decided to reconcile with Henry of Navarre and recognize him as the heir. Although he did not know the monarch's intentions, with characteristic bravery Henry of Navarre went to the meeting virtually unprotected. Contemporary reports cited by P. de Vaissière (Henri IV [Paris, 1928], p. 321) record that the meeting between the two men took place, not in a throne room as depicted by Rubens, but in the garden of the palace in the presence of throngs of people. However, the artist accurately depicts eyewitness accounts of the actions of the two figures: as soon as Henry of Navarre saw Henry III, he reportedly bowed down and the king moved to embrace him. Rubens creatively enhances the symbolism of the meeting by having the monarch drape part of his blue royal mantle over Henry of Navarre's shoulder and depicting the two men jointly clasping the scepter of France. As Julius Held observed, this motif is probably derived from the Roman symbol of Concord, two clasped right hands holding a caduceus. In Rubens's sketch, the clasped hands are repeated inside a wreath atop a pole held by the genius of Concord, who stands at the back between the two men wearing a gold-ocher gown and laurel wreath. The actual transfer of power did not take place until several months after the meeting, when Henry III was assassinated on August 1, 1589, but Rubens depicts a putto lifting the crown from the monarch and looking down toward the bowed profile of the future Henry IV. The latter is bareheaded, ready to receive the crown; a page standing behind him holds his white plumed helmet—the personal badge of Henry of Navarre, who wears pink drapery over his armor. While two courtiers stand accompanying Henry III at the left, the two hectoring figures at the back right are probably personifications of Fraud (who removes a mask) and Discord. Their evil intentions are rebuffed by the outstretched hand of the genius of Concord. The dog at Henry of Navarre's feet seems to reiterate his bowing gesture and was a traditional symbol of Fidelity.

No painting based on the sketch is known, and Held was probably correct in suggesting that it is unlikely that one ever existed.


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