Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
Two Figure Studies (Mercury and a Yeoman), ca. 1632-33
Oil on panel, 63.5 x 53 cm (2.5 cm strip added at right)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow Fund 42.179

Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

In the upper left, the figure of Mercury, depicted nude save for billowing blue drapery and a red winged cap, leans forward on his bended left leg to extend his caduceus in his right hand. In the lower right a bearded yeoman in red drapery and bare feet, cradling a mace, sits on a stone.

Although these two figures are conceived in approximately the same scale and apparently were once even repainted by a later hand to misrepresent them as participants in a single narrative, they are in fact independent studies for two different scenes in the decorations for the Whitehall Ceiling. The bearded figure is a study for the yeoman seated in the shadows at the lower right of the Union of the Kingdoms, for which there is an oil sketch in St. Petersburg. The figure of Mercury is one of the studies for The Peaceful Reign of James I; another sketch related to this painting is also included in the present exhibition (Peace Embracing Plenty). In the Peaceful Reign, Mercury appears in the lower left, using his caduceus to assist Minerva to defeat personifications of the forces of rebellion and discord. As Julius Held has shown (1980, vol. 1, p. 188), Rubens combined two different studies in several of his oil sketches for the Banqueting Hall (ibid., nos. 136, 134); this is the case, for example, in catalogue 32, albeit the two studies there relate to the same final composition. If the present work is identical with a work that was with the Galerie Haberstock in Berlin in 1920 (as reported by Held) and possibly Spink Gallery in London in 1924 (photo at Witt Library, Courtauld Institute, London), additions by a later hand—a cow, a dog, and indications of a landscape—had transformed it into the Ovidian legend of Mercury and Argus (Metamorphoses 1.668ff.). These retouchings were removed before the picture was sold to the Museum of Fine Arts in 1942. It is possible that the partially visible flute lying before Mercury and the sword in his left hand (its blade peeking beyond his left ankle), as well as the extensions to the yeoman's mace that convert it to a shepherd's staff, are also remnants of these overpainted passages; the bulb of the mace was also effaced at the time of these later changes. Held suggests (1980, vol. 1, p. 209) that there may be traces at the lower left of the still life of flags, a shield, and a drum that appears before the yeoman in the final design, although these are not evident to the present author. In the light of Rubens's impeccable knowledge of classical literature, he would never have depicted Mercury using his caduceus to bewitch Argus; the god lulled the shepherd-sentinel to sleep with a flute before cutting off the latter's head with his sword. Although Rubens treated the subject of Mercury and Argus several times (see especially the painting in Dresden, M. Jaffé 1989, no. 1216, and the sketch in Brussels, Held 1980, no. 203), he certainly did not intend its depiction in this panel of studies, nor was it, as William G. Constable (1949) and others believed (see exh. cat. Cambridge/New York 1956), a study for one of the Ovidian subjects in the Torre de la Parada.

Like the other studies for individual figures in the Peaceful Reign, the present work probably did not precede the study of the overall design in the Akademie in Vienna. However, Held (ibid.) probably was correct in suggesting that the study of the yeoman here preceded the final modello in St. Petersburg, where the figure's costume is elaborated with the trimming it would have in the final ceiling.

The attribution of the present work to Rubens has been questioned by Gregory Martin (see "Rubens's Paintings for the Banqueting House: A Talk Partially Recaptured," in Vlieghe et al. 2000, p. 172), who is preparing the volume on the Banqueting Hall Ceiling for the Corpus Rubenianum. He also has questioned the Hercules Overcoming Discord, also in Boston (Held 1980, vol. 1, no. 141, vol. 2, pl. 147) and the Apotheosis in the Hermitage (ibid., vol. 1, no. 135, ill. Wieseman entry, fig. 1). Martin suggests that the handling is similar to that for the sketches for Moses' Song of Praise and Miriam's Dance at Karlsruhe and David with the Head of Goliath at Forth Worth (respectively, Held 1980, vol. 2, pls. 489, 490), which Hans Vlieghe has recently attributed to Jan van den Hoecke (see Vlieghe, "Nicht Jan Broeckhorst, sondern Jan van den Hoecke," Westfalen 68 [1990], pp. 167-72, figs. 13, 14).

The provenance for the picture has been confused in the past, according to Victoria Reed, a research fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The descriptions in the Pauwels sales conform to the overpainted state, but the dimensions differ (97 x 78 cm). According to a representative of Seligmann, Rey and Company, when the picture was acquired by the museum, the painting passed from baron d'Eder directly into an American private collection, but it may be identical with the picture reported to be with Haberstock and Spink in the 1920s.

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