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
Peace Embracing Plenty, ca. 1632-34
Oil on panel, 62.9 x 47 cm
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.70

Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

The personification of Peace tenderly embraces her counterpart embodying Plenty or Abundance. Plenty is seated and holds Peace tightly about the waist as if about to be lifted up. Wearing a pink gown with blue drapery, Plenty is identified by an S-shaped cornucopia overflowing with green apples, grapes, and heads of wheat. Peace wears a yellow gown that covers her only to the waist; her blond hair is tied with a red ribbon. Peace's identity was once underscored by a caduceus that she held in her right hand and which is still partially visible in the passages of overpaint, but this was edited out by the artist and only the bottom of its shaft is now fully visible. Behind the two figures rises in steeply foreshortened perspective architecture with a niche surmounted by a putto's head and flanked by two undulating Solomonic columns on the left and one on the right. The former are painted in shades of gray with white highlights, while the latter are executed more summarily in tones of brown.

The present work is a study for two figures and sections of the architecture in the ceiling decorations in Whitehall in London, specifically for the painting glorifying King James's devotion to the cause of Peace. The final painting is situated directly above the Chair of State in the southern end of the hall and is dramatically revealed to the visitor entering from the north. The present work corresponds to details on the left and at the top in both the final mural and in an oil sketch of the overall composition now in the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna. Representing the Peaceful Reign of James I, it depicts the sovereign seated on a throne in a niche in the center of soaring architecture, gesturing toward Peace and Plenty and surrounded by other allegorical figures. While the personifications represented by the present pair are generally accepted, as is the figure of Mercury kneeling below and recorded in one of the figures in the sketch in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Two Figure Studies (Mercury and a Yeoman)), the identities of the combative, tumbling figures in the bottom right of the design have been disputed (see Held 1980, vol. 1, pp. 190-93, and Gregory Martin forthcoming). Rubens's oil sketch of this detail is now preserved in the museum in Brussels. Although the consensus accepts that the principal combatants represent the traditional adversaries Mars and Minerva, their precise meaning is not clear. As he is assaulted by Minerva from above, Mars steps on a prostrate figure with conspicuous attributes of evil, vipers about his head and a snake in his hand. Moreover, he brandishes a torch as he attempts to approach the regent, only to be rebuffed by Minerva. Because he triumphs over evil, Mars's actions have sometimes been interpreted as an offering of homage to the king, while Minerva's rebuff is seen as an expression of the king's rejection of bellicose ways and his commitment to peace. However, Julius Held (1980, pp. 193-94) and others have rejected the notion that Mars might be well intentioned, albeit misdirected; the fact that Minerva's lance is replaced in the final version by a thunderbolt leaves little doubt that Minerva is defeating Mars and that James's gestures to the left are meant to protect and welcome Peace and Plenty. Seated on high and determining the ascendancy of the good and the plummeting descent of the wicked, James has rightly been compared to the adjudicating, divinely orchestrating figure of Christ in Rubens's scenes of the Last Judgment. As Susan Shapiro speculated (exh. cat. New York 1967, p. 67), in depicting Peace and Plenty in such an affectionate embrace, Rubens may have recalled the words of the 84th Psalm (85th in the King James version): "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other." (On the tradition of the conceit "ex pace ubertas," especially in emblematic literature, see Baumstark 1974, pp. 148ff.)

As in the sketch in Boston of Mercury attributed to Rubens (Two Figure Studies (Mercury and a Yeoman)) and other sketches for the Whitehall decorations, Rubens combined two scenes in the present panel. While Peace and Plenty appear before stately architecture in the final composition for the Peaceful Reign, it is of a different scale and less steeply foreshortened, and the figures are situated before the two columns on the left, not before the niche. Thus, as Held took pains to point out, the two studies, though related to the same final scene, are essentially independent and not directly linked as foreground figures would be to their setting. Behind Peace and Plenty Rubens first painted the two columns on the left and part of the niche with the putto's head to help visualize these elements in the final composition and probably to enable his assistants to begin the scale enlargement. The lighter brown architecture on the right may, as Held speculated, have been added at a slightly later date to make the design read as more "complete"; it was at this time that the caduceus was partially obscured (see the detail illustrated in Held 1980, vol. 1, fig. 7). Held further suggested that Rubens probably consulted Italian sources for his Solomonic columns, perhaps Cristoforo Sorte's woodcut in the Osservationi nella Pictura (Venice, 1594), or G. Viola Zanini's copy of it in Della Architettura . . . libre due (Padua, 1629). However, Rubens made the undulating bulges of his columns more prominent and exchanged a composite capital for Ionic ones in the prints.

A drawn copy of the sketch is in the Frits Lugt Collection, Fondation Custodia, Institut Néerlandais, Paris (Held 1980, vol. 1, fig. 36).

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