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
Clytie Grieving, 1636
Oil on marouflaged panel, 15.6 x 14.8 cm (painted surface: 14 x 13.3 cm)
Private collection

Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

Ovid recounts the tragic tale of Clytie, daughter of the Babylonian king Orchamus, who loved the sun god Phoebus Apollo beyond all measure (Metamorphoses, 4.256-70). Ignoring the extremity of Clytie's devotion, Apollo turned his amorous attentions to her sister, Leucothoe. In a fit of jealousy Clytie denounced her sister to their father, who punished Leucothoe by burying her alive (she was subsequently transformed by Apollo into a frankincense tree). Distraught over Apollo's continued disregard, Clytie sat unmoving on the bare ground for nine days, taking neither food nor drink, but merely turning her head to follow the movements of the sun across the sky. She was ultimately transformed into the heliotrope, a flower that rotates to follow the rays of the sun throughout the day.

Rubens's diminutive panel is a masterfully economical expression of Clytie's anguish and despair: the yearning tilt of her head toward the sun's rays streaming over the treetops (and away from our gaze), the tight knot of her clasped fingers, the careless drift of clothes and hair that evoke Ovid's description of her as "naked, bareheaded, unkempt" in unrequited love. Despite the compelling pathos of her plight, Clytie's story was not among the commonly illustrated episodes from the Metamorphoses, and, as Svetlana Alpers notes, the images in those editions of the book that do depict the scene have little to do with Rubens's interpretation (Alpers 1971, p. 193). Rubens has not depicted Clytie's transformation into a flower—Julius Held (1980, vol. 1, p. 266) notes Rubens's disinclination to render hybrid forms—or indeed even alluded to the transformation, as did Annibale Carracci by showing Clytie holding a sunflower, another heliotropic plant, in her hand (Carracci's painting is known through several early copies, one of which is now in the Cincinnati Art Museum, acc. no. 1952.199). Consistent with the thematic thread that runs throughout his designs for the Torre de la Parada, in Clytie Grieving Rubens places the emphasis on love as part of the human condition rather than on heroic action or dramatic transformation. He teases out the emotional kernel of Ovid's tale, the all-too-human tragedy of Clytie's single-minded and inherently doomed love for the god Apollo.

Clytie Grieving is one of several small, fluidly painted sketches—each measuring approximately 14 centimeters square—that Rubens made for the decorations of Philip IV's hunting lodge at the Torre de la Parada in 1636. (See also The Abduction of Dejanira by Nessus and Nereid and Triton; as well as sketches of Cupid on a Dolphin [Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, inv. 4124]; The Abduction of Europa, The Harpies Driven Away by Zetes and Calais, and The Death of Hyacinth [Museo del Prado, Madrid, invs. 2460, 2458, 2461], and Narcissus [Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, inv. 2518]). The large version of this sketch, recorded in the 1700 inventory of the Torre de la Parada as hanging in the cubierto (dining room), is no longer extant. Ludwig Burchard was the first to recognize this work as a study for the decorations of the Torre de la Parada, although he identified the subject as Ariadne Abandoned (letter to A. Neuerburg, dated 1930; see Alpers 1971, p. 192). The painting had previously been identified as the Penitent Magdalen; such confusion is understandable, given Rubens's focus on emotional content rather than anecdotal detail. Noting the young woman's plaintive upward gaze and the prominent role given the sun in the composition, Alpers was the first to suggest correctly that the painting depicted Clytie.

Although the early provenance of this sketch is not securely documented, it was apparently in Spain by the late eighteenth century and among a group of forty-six sketches of mythological subjects by Rubens that were first recorded in the collection of the duke of Infantado in 1800 (see J. A. Céan Bermúdez, Diccionario histórico de los mas ilustres professores de las Bellas Artes en España [Madrid, 1800], vol. 4, pp. 272-73). On the death of the thirteenth duke of Infantado in 1841, the majority of the sketches passed to his natural son, the duke of Pastrana, with the remainder going to his great-nephew, the duke of Osuna. When the painting was subsequently in the Neuerburg collection (1930), it was noted that strips of wood covered with black paint had been added to the painting on all sides (noted by Burchard; see Alpers 1971, p. 193). The black paint was removed in 1972.

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