Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Elevation of the Cross, ca. 1637-38
Oil on paper, backed by canvas, 60 x 126.5 cm (later enlarged to 70 x 131.5 cm)
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Purchase, 1928, acc. no. 906

Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

The Toronto Elevation of the Cross served as the modello for Hans (Johannes) Witdoek's 1638 engraving after one of Rubens's early Antwerp triumphs, the imposing altarpiece painted in 1610-11 for the church of St. Walburga in Antwerp (for a detailed analysis of the commission, see Judson 2000, pp. 93-94, and G. Martin 1966, passim). Presumably at the insistence of the church fathers, the St. Walburga altarpiece assumed a traditional triptych form, with the principal subject—the Raising of the Cross—occupying the central panel. This portion of the design fairly explodes with raw physical power, as a team of muscular soldiers and executioners hauls the cross bearing Christ's body to an upright position. Transcending the structural limitations of the rather old-fashioned triptych format, Rubens boldly linked the flanking scenes to the central composition through the use of a contiguous landscape background. The left wing depicts the Virgin, St. John, and several distraught witnesses before a rocky bluff overgrown with trees; the right depicts the two thieves crucified alongside Christ and Roman soldiers mounted on restive steeds.

Rubens's preliminary modello for The Raising of the Cross, the sketch shown to the priest and church wardens of St. Walburga in 1610, makes it clear that although he had determined the basic design of the altarpiece he was still refining details of the composition at this stage. The figure of Christ on the cross is conceived in a more static horizontal position, and the horsemen and crucified thieves appear both in the background of the central panel and on the right wing, suggesting that only in the process of painting the Paris sketch had Rubens decided to treat the wings as an extension of the central design (J. R. Martin 1969, p. 41). Bursting with dynamic movement and intensely affective emotion, Rubens's final design resulted in what was perhaps the first fully Baroque altarpiece executed in the North.

The boldly sculpted forms and dramatic chiaroscuro of the St. Walburga altarpiece were ideally suited to reproduction in print. Yet Witdoek's engraving only appeared twenty-seven years after the original painting. Rubens had apparently thought to have a print engraved after The Elevation of the Cross several years earlier, however: in a letter dated January 23, 1619 (see Magurn 1955, p. 69), he included the composition in a list of prints that he intended to have engraved "in my presence by a well-intentioned young man"—presumably Lucas Vorsterman (1596-1675), who initially enjoyed a successful and productive collaboration with Rubens as the engraver of his compositions. After a violent falling-out with Rubens, in 1622 Vorsterman left his studio, and no print was made of The Elevation of the Cross.

Some years later Rubens revived the idea of having the St. Walburga altarpiece reproduced in an engraving and painted the Toronto sketch for the engraver Hans Witdoek to work from. The modello incorporates several changes from the original tripartite composition. Most notably, Rubens placed the figures in one continuous space, eliminating the breaks necessitated by the altarpiece frame and completing those figures once abruptly cropped by the frame. While maintaining the three main figural groupings, he has connected them by introducing additional figures (the witnesses perched on the cliff left of center) and landscape elements (the distant view of Jerusalem right of center), and generally loosening the tightly compacted groupings of the original composition. These changes are entirely in keeping with Rubens's tendency toward looser arrangements in his later works and create a more fluid composition with greater narrative clarity and a more natural recession into space.

As J. Richard Judson has noted, the technique of the Toronto sketch, with its broadly brushed anatomy and drapery, stongly contoured shadows, and precisely drawn highlights, suggests a date in the 1630s (Judson 2000, p. 107). Unlike most of Rubens's oil sketches, it is painted in oils on paper over an initial outline in black chalk and mounted on panel (since transferred to canvas). The unusual choice of support may have been what led Ludwig Burchard to question the attribution of the Toronto painting to Rubens; he suggested instead that it was perhaps done by Anthony van Dyck for the engraving by Lucas Vorsterman planned in 1619, or by Vorsterman himself, but in either case averred that the sketch was at the very least retouched by Rubens (Burchard's opinions are cited in Judson 2000, pp. 108-9).

As was the norm for modelli (or modeletti) Rubens painted expressly as models for printmakers' use (cf. The Road to Calvary (Christ Carrying the Cross) and Last Supper), The Elevation of the Cross is primarily painted in neutral tones of gray and brown. The Toronto sketch is unique, however, in the unusually lavish addition of rich color accents throughout the composition. As Held (1980, p. 483) and others have noted, the addition of color as well as the painting's large size suggest that Rubens may well have conceived of the Toronto sketch as an independent painting, and possibly as a personal gift to his longtime friend and patron Cornelis van der Geest (see Judson 2000, p. 108). Van der Geest (1555-1638), a wealthy spice merchant, had a long history of support for the arts in Antwerp and had been instrumental in securing the St. Walburga commission for the young Rubens barely a year after the artist's return from Rome (on van der Geest as a patron and collector, see Julius S. Held, "Artis Pictoriae Amator, an Antwerp Art Patron and His Collection," Gazette des Beaux-Arts 50 [1957], pp. 53-84). Witdoek's engraving of The Elevation of the Cross bears a dedication to van der Geest, describing him as "the best of men and the oldest of friends, in whom ever since youth he [Rubens] found a constant patron," and adds that the engraving represented "a souvenir of eternal friendship" between Rubens and van der Geest.

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