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
Nereid and Triton, ca. 1636
Oil on panel, 14.5 x 14 cm
Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, inv. St. 32


Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

With a few swift strokes, Rubens has delineated the powerfully muscled figure of a triton skimming over the waves as he sounds a mighty blast on his conch. The triton's right arm is wrapped around the waist of the plump young woman perched comfortably on his piscine back. Legs crossed, she gazes out unconcernedly, combing the fingers of her left hand through her long hair.

Nereid and Triton is one of a number of tiny, fluidly painted sketches that Rubens made as part of his designs for the decorations of Philip IV's hunting lodge at the Torre de la Parada in 1636 (on the commission, see Alpers 1971; and in the present catalogue, Clytie Grieving and The Abduction of Dejanira by Nessus, the latter entry noting additional sketches sharing the same format). Unlike the majority of scenes Rubens composed for the project, Nereid and Triton does not illustrate a specific mythological tale. Tritons, half-human and half-fish, and their beautiful female companions, the nereids, were among the lower orders of sea gods dwelling in the Mediterranean Sea. They were frequently conscripted as Neptune's escorts—compare the figures at the lower left of Rubens's sketch for The Duke of Buckingham—and are often present at the Birth of Venus (Venus Anadyomene). Rubens's detailed modello for an oval silver basin or platter depicting the Birth of Venus, painted just a few years before the Torre de la Parada sketch, shows three nereids accompanying the goddess while another trails the group, reclining gracefully on the back of a triton. As Svetlana Alpers noted (1971, p. 243), Rubens seems to have adopted the pose of this triton for his counterpart in the present sketch, although the nereid's pose is somewhat different. Nereids and tritons figure also in Rubens's Triumph of the Sea-Born Venus, a modello for an ivory saltcellar carved by Georg Petel (Welbeck Woodhouse, coll. Bentinck [Held 1980, vol. 1, no. 266]); and in his rendering of the Birth of Venus for the decorations of the Torre de la Parada, where they are joined by Neptune.

Near the right and lower edges of the Nereid and Triton panel are ruled lines drawn in black chalk. A number of Rubens's oil sketches for the Torre de la Parada show similar marks, which may have been used to indicate the boundary of an individual sketch when (as was probably the case with the smaller Torre de la Parada sketches) several small designs were cut from a single large panel. More puzzling are the ruled lines running vertically through several sketches for the project. These markings appear only in sketches for the Torre de la Parada, and their apparently arbitrary placement bears no relation to the painted composition. A convincing explanation for these lines has yet to be proposed (see Alpers 1971, p. 67).

The large version of Nereid and Triton based on this sketch, mentioned in the 1700 and 1747 inventories of the Torre de la Parada, appears to be lost, nor is it known who among Rubens's studio assistants might have painted it.


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