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
The Abduction of Dejanira by Nessus, 1636
Oil on panel, 18.7 x 14 cm (with approximately 2 mm additions on right and left edges)
Ivor Foundation


Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

The scene depicts the centaur Nessus's attempted rape of Dejanira, the wife of Hercules, a subject derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses (9.11-126). When Hercules and his wife were stopped by a swollen river, the ferryman Nessus offered to carry them across, but after delivering Dejanira to the opposite bank the centaur attempted to violate her. Hercules thwarted the attack by shooting Nessus with a poisoned arrow. Hercules is not depicted in the present work, but the scowling Dejanira, wearing rose drapery which she holds tightly about her thigh, rides sidesaddle on the centaur's back, her legs tightly crossed to emphasize her rejection of the creature's advances. The bearded Nessus grabs her arm with one hand while placing his other hand on his heart as if declaring his love. Behind them are flourishes of billowing drapery suggesting the speed of the abduction, and beneath the centaur a few rapid strokes intimate the shallows of the riverbank, thus correctly implying that Nessus's assault occurred only as they approached the far bank. As with many of Ovid's tales, the story of Nessus and Dejanira had a cruel twist. As he lay dying, Nessus told Dejanira that his tunic, by then covered with blood, would bring Hercules back to her from any illicit love. When Dejanira subsequently heard of Hercules' tryst with Iole, she sent him the poisoned tunic, unwittingly causing his death.

The sketch was the model for a larger canvas (now lost, but listed in a royal inventory of 1794 as a work by Erasmus Quellinus) for the Spanish king Philip IV's hunting lodge, the Torre de la Parada, near Madrid. The sketch is also related to two larger treatments of the theme by Rubens's studio that are preserved in the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover and recorded in a sale in London, July 29, 1949, lot 39. These two studio variants differ from the present design in including Hercules firing the poison arrow in the lower left-hand corner and adding a river god (Evenus) and nymph in the lower right. Both also include a flying cupid holding the torch of matrimony and tugging at the centaur's hair in an effort to dissuade him. As Julius Held observed (1980, vol. 1, p. 270), the pulling of the centaur's hair to subdue his lust was an iconographic topos formulated in antiquity and revived in the Renaissance by Sandro Botticelli and others. The amplification of the theme in the studio variants suggests that the present work was an early conception of the theme that was followed by one or more intervening studies (now lost or unidentified) that added the subsidiary figures. Svetlana Alpers (1971, p. 199) first observed that Rubens's inspiration in his design was probably the engraving by Antonio Tempesta in an illustrated edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which depicts the rearing centaur turning back to embrace Dejanira as Hercules fires from the distant shore. Rubens also executed the Death of Nessus (canvas, 78.5 x 62.5 cm, present location unknown; see M. Jaffé 1989, no. 1110; engraved by Paulus Pontius; studio versions in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, and Sanssouci, Potsdam), with Dejanira climbing off the centaur's back as he expires.

For more than a century the present work was only known through the reproduction in the 1895 sale catalogue. It was accepted by Ludwig Burchard and Alpers (1971, p. 199, no. 16a) but questioned by Max J. Friedländer and Held (1980, vol. 1, p. 269). When the picture resurfaced before the sale in 2000, it was accepted by contemporary Rubens specialists, including Hans Vlieghe. The little sketch has all the compacted vitality, painterly verve, and economy of Rubens's conceptual genius and is surely autograph.

There is a panel now generally recognized as a copy of the present sketch in the Museo del Prado, Madrid (inv. 2460; see Held 1980, vol. 1, pl. 92). It is noteworthy that the present sketch was probably acquired in Spain by the English landscape painter Giorgio Augusto Wallis (aka George Augustus Wallis) in the years 1807-13, during which time he served as an agent for the renowned dealer William Buchanan (see W. Buchanan, Memoirs of Painting (London, 1824), vol. 2, pp. 202-50). At some moment the Nessus as well as the Atlas (see Alpers 1971, no. 5, the original, her fig. 69, is now in Count Seilern's Collection in the Courtauld Institute, London; the Prado's copy is her fig. 70) from the Torre de la Parada series were replaced in the Spanish royal collections by copies.


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