Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Myth and Majesty: The Humanistic Tradition
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Peter Paul Rubens
Two Prisoners, ca. 1628
Oil on panel, 31.7 x 49.8 cm
Private Collection


Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

Two bound, seminude captives, one seated and the other kneeling on the ground, are arranged with their backs to one another, possibly tethered together. Behind and to either side of them are piles of armor and weapons—breastplates, helmets, shields, and spears. Framing the scene on either side are two tree trunks(?), and in the distance under swirling clouds, possibly the smoke of battle, is the line of a horizon. Most of the scene is drawn with quick black strokes and brushed veils of grayish green and blue paint, but the musculature of the two men is carefully modeled with flesh tones, and they wear white and gray drapery.

The subject of this handsome and freely executed sketch has been much disputed, but no fully persuasive explanation of its function has yet been advanced. The only virtual certainty is that it is closely related to a sketch of similar dimensions and executed in a similar style in the collection of the princes of Liechtenstein in Vienna. It depicts a woman seated disconsolately on the ground with corpses behind her, cannons to her left, and an equestrian battle raging in the distance. Both of these sketches seem to offer a somber commentary on the suffering produced by war. In the Vienna sketch, the vanquished figure seated on the ground with her head in her hand has been related by Julius Held (1980, vol. 1, p. 364, no. 270) and others to ancient Roman types of the sorrowing captive on classical reliefs (specifically of the personification of Captured Dacia—a Roman province in the Balkan area), coins, and gems. The pose of sitting on the ground had a long literary and pictorial tradition as a topos of grief and melancholy; in Shakespeare's Richard II, the doomed king intones, "let us sit on the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of Kings," and the pose is traditional for depictions of the Lamentation and images of Job on the dung hill.

Max Rooses (Rubens: Sa Vie et ses oeuvres [Paris, 1903], p. 529) believed that the Vienna sketch was related to Rubens's plan for the proposed gallery in the Luxembourg Palace dedicated to the Life of Henry IV. He related it to a series of three sketches containing large cartouches accompanied by allegorical figures in the foreground and a narrative subject framed in the upper half (see Held 1980, vol. 1, nos. 258, 259, 272). The first two seem to depict alternative solutions to the same problem, namely, an illustration of the theme of Occasio, which represents a hero who, aided by allegorical figures, appears to grab the proffered opportunity to make peace. Leo van Puyvelde (1940, p. 36) added to this hypothetical decorative scheme the present sketch of the two prisoners. However, Ingrid Jost (1964) and Justus Müller Hofstede (1969, pp. 227ff.) both rejected the connection with the Henry cycle; the latter published another sketch in Besançon (Held 1980, no. 278) that he connected with the cartouche sketches of the Occasio theme, suggesting that the entire group had to do with the celebration of the victory at Calloo in 1638. Held (1975, pp. 218ff.) rejected Müller Hofstede's theory; while admitting Jost's point that there is no documentary evidence directly linking the sketches with the project for the second gallery in the Luxembourg Palace, he still maintained that they were executed in about 1628 when Rubens was working on the Henry cycle and proposed that, with the exclusion of the Besançon sketch, they might have been part of a never-realized tapestry group for an antechamber of the main gallery. Rooses (1903) had already suggested that they might have been for a tapestry series that never progressed beyond the painted sketches.

While the motif of bound prisoners sitting or crouching on the ground occurs frequently in Rubens's work beginning with the Obsequies of Decius Mus (Held 1980, vol. 1, no. 4, vol. 2, pl. 5), there is no reason to connect the present work with the Decius Mus tapestry series, as van Puyvelde did when the picture was exhibited in Brussels in 1965. Held observed that the motif of prisoners seated at the foot of trophies of


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