The Homer of Painting

Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens

Catalog of the exhibition by Peter C. Sutton and Marjorie E. Wieseman with Nico van Hout
An exhibition at the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, Greenwich, Connecticut, October 2, 2004–January 30, 2005; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, March 2–May 15, 2005; and the Cincinnati Art Museum, June 11–September 11, 2005.
Yale University Press, 272 pp., $60.00

Peter Paul Rubens: The Drawings

Catalog of the exhibition by Anne-Marie Logan, with Michiel C. Plomp
An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,January 15–April 3, 2005.
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 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.