Yale University Press, 272 pp., $60.00
Yale University Press, 332 pp., $65.00; $50.00 (paper)
This winter the New York region has been blessed with two spectacular exhibitions of the work of Peter Paul Rubens, the great Flemish painter. At the Bruce Museum in Greenwich until January 30 (and continuing on to the Berkeley Art Museum and the Cincinnati Art Museum) was a small but brilliant show of the master’s oil sketches. On view now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a major survey of his drawings, the first ever held in this country. Both shows concentrate on Rubens’s preparatory studies, rather than on his finished paintings, and this emphasis is illuminating. Rubens was one of the supreme draftsmen in the history of European art; and he was perhaps the leading exponent of the oil sketch, a medium with which he was closely identified until well into the nineteenth century. To see these shows together was to glimpse the heart of his artistic achievement.
It is often said that painters reveal their essential character more clearly in their sketches than in their completed works. This may be especially true of Peter Paul Rubens. Working on a scale and at a speed never seen before, for much of his career he had an enormous workshop full of highly gifted artists, Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens among them; and many, perhaps even the majority, of his paintings were executed in collaboration with assistants. A significant portion of Rubens’s drawings and oil sketches were made as models for paintings, and in some cases these studies were the last personal contribution that Rubens made for a piece, before his workshop took over. The preparatory works thus allow direct access to his genius in a way that the finished paintings often do not.
There is another, even more crucial, way in which preliminary studies, especially the drawings, were central to his creativity. According to Giovanni Pietro Bellori, an early biographer and a famous critic, Rubens’s desire to study art was bound up with his love of drawing. Moreover, it was specifically through the act of drawing that as a young man Rubens invented himself as an artist of major importance.
Rubens was born in Germany in 1577, and spent much of his life in Antwerp and the southern Netherlands. Like many painters in northern Europe, he traveled in his youth to Italy, and for nine years, between 1600 and 1609, he was court painter to the Duke of Mantua. He also visited Rome, Genoa, Venice, and elsewhere, absorbing the art of antiquity and the Renaissance and painting altarpieces and portraits for a variety of distinguished clients.
Rubens’s paintings and drawings of this period are strikingly different in style and sophistication. Although the paintings have a certain innate power, they are somewhat primitive, especially in comparison with the works of the leading Italian artists of the day, such as Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci. In Rubens’s early pictures, the anatomy and foreshortening of the figures are often approximate, so much so that they look …