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
Briseis Returned to Achilles, 1630-31
Oil on panel, 45.4 x 67.6 cm (without the added strips)
The Detroit Institute of Art, Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar B. Whitcomb, acc. no. 53.356


Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

In Homer's Iliad, the Greek campaign to subdue Troy and avenge the abduction of Helen was jeopardized when Achilles angrily withdrew from the field and retired to his tent. Achilles' wrath was provoked by Helen's husband, Agamemnon, the leader of the campaign, who took away his favorite slave, Briseis; the latter had been consigned to Achilles when the town of Lyrnessus was conquered by the Greeks and her husband killed. Achilles only agreed to resume fighting to avenge the death of his best friend, Patroclus, who had been killed by Hector, the most valiant of the Trojans. To placate Achilles, Agamemnon returned Briseis to him along with gifts of seven tripods, ten bars of gold, twenty cauldrons, twelve stallions, and seven women (Iliad 9.148-56). At Ulysses' suggestion, Agamemnon further solemnly swore to several deities that he had not slept with Briseis.

At the right of Rubens's oil sketch Achilles, wearing lavender and a red cape, rushes forward enthusiastically with arm outstretched. At the center of the composition, Briseis, in white and gold, stands in the traditional pose of female modesty, with hand raised to her bosom and head slightly bowed. Between them two muscular attendants place a tripod, gold cauldron, ewer, and a bowl full of gold. At the left are three of Achilles' twelve horses, one held by a groom, and five of the seven women, one carrying a basket with her belongings on her head. Behind Briseis, old Nestor in a long white beard and blue and red drapery holds her by the waist gently urging her forward. At the back right the figure with raised hand pointing upward (a gesture that would be reversed, hence properly delivered with the right hand, in the final tapestry) has been identified as Ulysses (Haverkamp Begemann 1975, p. 123; Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 179; McGrath 1997, p. 120), who supervised the transfer of the gifts, but may be Agamemnon himself (see Rotterdam/Madrid 2003-4, p. 108) swearing his honorable treatment of Briseis. In the background on the right, the dead body of Patroclus is laid out on a canopied bed and mourned by two women. Masts and the furled sails of ships appear in the background. Framing elements surround the scene. On the left is a herm of Hermes/Mercury holding a caduceus as the Mercurius Pacifier (bringer of peace), while on the right is the herm of Peace with a laurel wreath and, hanging below, the emblem of Concord (two clasped hands) within a second wreath. In the immediate foreground are two horns of plenty and crossed palm branch and caduceus, both symbols of peace. Above, swags of fruit are held up by four putti and attached at a central cartouche. As Egbert Haverkamp Begemann showed (1975, pp. 15-19), the framing devices in the Life of Achilles are derived from Rubens's earlier Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series but do not include fictive tapestries as in the Eucharist series. However, they are not merely decorative or illusionistic elements, underscoring as they do the allegorical concepts encoded therein or the gods that affect the scenes that they border.

The Life of Achilles was the last of the four tapestry series that Rubens undertook. All the other seven sketches for the series are preserved in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. No documents relating to the series are known. It can be dated on stylistic grounds to about 1630-35. (Scholars have differed on the dating; for a discussion of the confusion created by the copies of the series in Pieter van Lint's notebook, see Friso Lammertse in exh. cat. Rotterdam/Madrid 2003-4, p. 12 n. 3.) It is unknown whether Rubens was commissioned to make the series, but several royal patrons, namely Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain, have been proposed as possible candidates. Rubens's father-in-law, the tapestry merchant Daniël Fourment, owned a set of the tapestries as well as the eight "sketches" (schetsen) in 1643. It is conceivable that Fourment undertook the project for his own stock, but unlikely, given the high cost of producing tapestry series, especially the first edition of the Achilles series that was woven by the workshop of Daniël Eggermans using not only silk and wool but also rare and expensive silver thread (see the discussion by Guy Delmarcel, in exh. cat. Rotterdam/Madrid 2003-4, p. 35). Fourment may have served as an agent for an unknown patron.

The subject is unusual. The only earlier treatment of the Life of Achilles was a cycle, now lost, by Vicente Carducho executed in 1608 for the Palace of El Pardo outside Madrid. The scenes depicted are unknown, as is whether Rubens knew the cycle. The unknown patron of Rubens's Life of Achilles may have selected the subject, but in all likelihood the learned painter chose the individual scenes. As Elizabeth McGrath (1997, pp. 118-29) and Fiona Healy (in exh. cat. Rotterdam/Madrid 2003-4, p. 45) have shown, Rubens did not portray Achilles as he appears in Iliad (indeed only three of the eight scenes in his series are described in detail in Homer's text) but chose incidents from his life that convey both his humanity and heroism. For example, in Homer's account Briseis is merely a spoil of war, given a passing reference when she is returned to Achilles (19.247) and when they lie together (24.675-77), but Rubens transforms the scene into a triumphant story of love and desire. McGrath has convincingly shown that the artist's inspiration in his rendition of the tale came from Ovid, who developed the story of Briseis and Achilles in his Heroides (3), in an epistle in the Ars amatoria (1.9.33), and in the Remedia Amores (777-84). In Ovid's version of the story, Achilles is consumed with jealousy when Briseis is returned to him. He doubts that Agamemnon restrained from touching her (as does Ovid): unlike in Homer's account, Ovid claims Agamemnon only swore by his scepter, not by the gods. McGrath further observed (1997, p. 120) that Rubens was courting Hélène Fourment when he conceived the Achilles series, so Ovid's love poems might well have been in his thoughts.

The present sketch reveals several pentimenti, including a second basket of clothes held aloft at the back that was painted out with blue sky, and the paint film is finely scored as if for transfer. A larger modello, mostly executed by assistants in fact exists. It clarifies details of the framing devices and makes minor changes, for example to the two putti at the upper left. As the authors of the Rotterdam/Madrid exhibition catalogue observed (2003-4, p. 112), it is curious that the basket of clothes painted out in the sketch is also painted out again in the modello, perhaps indicating that it had not been removed in the earlier version before the modello was begun. Rubens himself seems to have retouched some details in the Madrid panel, such as the slightly elaborated cornucopia in the foreground. The first edition (editio princeps) of the tapestry seems to have been in the estate of King Louis-Philippe of France and was sold in 1852; four of the scenes including the Return of Briseis were purchased shortly before 1954 by the house of Bragança for the Paço Ducal at Vila Viçosa, Portugal (see Haverkamp Begemann 1975, p. 124, no. 6, fig. 52). Another version of the tapestry by Frans Raes is in the Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels (Rotterdam/Madrid 2003-4, p. 113, no. 5D, ill.). There are etchings after the present work by F. Ertinger, 1679, and B. Baron, 1724 (C. G. Voorhelm Schneevogt, Catalogue des estampes gravées d'après P. P. Rubens, avec l'indication des collections où se trouvent les tableaux et les gravures [Haarlem, 1873], p. 218, nos. 15.6, 16), and Julius Held (1980, vol. 1, p. 179) lists three copies including a drawing by Antoine Watteau formerly in the A. Scharf collection. The painting has been assumed to have been owned by the painter Joshua Reynolds, but the works he owned were all probably copies (see Francis Broun, "Sir Joshua Reynolds' Collection of Paintings," Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1987).


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