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 simultaneously tumescent and shapeless. The lighting in these paintings, too, can be harsh and unpleasant, with overly stark contrasts of dark shadows and bright highlights. To judge from these paintings, if Rubens had died during this decade, he might be remembered as no more than an interesting eccentric, a side-show in the history of art. Instead he is rightly considered an artist of the first magnitude, along with Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Raphael.
That this is so has everything to do with his activities as a draftsman in Italy. While his early paintings can seem provincial, his drawings of the same period are unfailingly brilliant. As a draftsman his genius was instinctive and inexhaustible. This can be seen in his copies after classical sculpture. He was a passionate copyist; more than two hundred studies by him of antique objects survive. When other artists copied the antique, they often did so in a formulaic way. They tended to record the entire work of art, which they depicted from a frontal viewpoint and at a moderate distance; the purpose of such copies seems to have been more to make an aide-mémoire of a famous object than to explore its artistic character. Not so for Rubens. His copies are obsessive, imaginative, and analytical; they are the works of a man who, rapt in fascination, seeks to understand the source of the magic he feels. Rubens intensely scrutinized the sculptures he copied, often choosing unusual and close positions from which to make drawings. In some of these sheets, his purpose was to overcome his limitations of technique in anatomy and foreshortening. In others, instead, he clearly sought to grasp the exalted expressiveness of classical art.
The most extraordinary of these copies is the series of drawings he made after the Laocoön. Rubens seems to have studied every detail of the sculpture from every angle imaginable. In what is perhaps the most astonishing of these drawings the swel-ling torso and out-flung arm of the figure shoot across the page; the viewpoint is so low, Rubens appears to have lain on the floor to make the study. Unfortunately, none of the drawings of the Laocoön is in the show at the Metropolitan, a serious omission. But it does contain two studies after an antique statue of a Centaur Tormented by Cupid; for both sheets, Rubens stood nearly on top of the sculpture, and chose viewpoints that accentuated the writhing of the figures.
The style of the copies is remarkable as well. Rubens drew them with the greatest delicacy, using the barest minimum of chalk necessary to create shadow. The outlines are darker and more liquid than the other parts of the drawing and they seem to rush around the figures with pulsating energy. In his treatise On the Imitation of Statues Rubens wrote about the distinctive radiance of ancient sculpture, and these drawings have an effulgent luminosity unlike those of any artist before.
Rubens copied the masters of the High Renaissance, too, and the most dazzling copy in the exhibition is his study after Michelangelo’s fresco of the Libyan Sybil, one of many drawings Rubens made from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (see page 16.) On this sheet he drew the background, the lower part of the drapery, and some other details in black chalk, and he used red chalk instead for the main part of the figure. The chalk is applied in the thinnest dusting imaginable. It is handled with such a soft touch that the palette of the drawing is not black and red but silver and rose. Large areas of the sheet are left completely unworked to serve as highlights, and these glow forth even more brightly. The vibrating contrasts between the silver and rose of the chalks and the buff color of the paper create the impression of a lofty amplitude of space around the sibyl. She looks like a resplendent cloud of color, suffused with light, and shimmering on the air.
This drawing is exhibited next to a preparatory study by Michelangelo for the same figure, and the disparities in style are revealing. Although both artists used shifts in tone from light to dark to produce the appearance of three-dimensional form, the tonal balance in the two sheets is completely different. Michelangelo’s drawing is in an oilier and denser chalk, much more of the figure is shaded, and the darks are far deeper. That is to say, in Michelangelo’s drawing the emphasis is on shadow, whereas in Rubens’s drawing it is on light.
This leads us to consider what is perhaps the greatest surprise of Rubens’s artistic development. The feature for which Rubens is most widely celebrated, his brilliance in handling light and color, arose first in his drawings and only later appeared in his paintings. What makes this remarkable is that according to the art theory of the time, drawing was essentially limited to lines and shadowing, without color; painting was distinguished by color and light. In practice there were many exceptions to this distinction, particularly among artists north of the Alps. But Rubens, more than any artist before him, worked to dissolve the barriers between the two. He instinctively gave his drawings the play of light and color normally found only in painting; and he infused his paintings with the subtlety and luminosity of his drawings.
This can be seen, for example, in his love for combining colors in his drawings. Multicolored drawings had been made at least since the beginning of the sixteenth century, but no one before Rubens had ever made such systematic and brilliant use of the technique. So great was his success that when later artists, such as Watteau, made polychrome drawings, they did so in conscious emulation of the Flemish master.
Rubens’s preferred method was to use red, black, and white chalks jointly in a single drawing; together with the sandy or tan hue of the paper, this gave him four colors to work with. The paper would serve as a middle tone, with the white as the higher and the red and black as the darker tones. This palette had two major attractions for Rubens: it made it possible to mimic closely the color of human skin, eyes, and hair, and the inherent differences in the tone of the colors made it easier to model three-dimensional form.
The tremendous possibilities of the technique are displayed in Rubens’s magnificent study of a Young Woman Looking Down from 1628 (see page 14). He began the drawing by lightly sketching with black chalk the main outlines of her hand, dress, neck, face, and hair. These are rapid and liquid lines, thrown down as quickly as possible, yet with unerring accuracy. Rubens then went over the drawing in red chalk, building up form and adding luster to her hair and skin. Lastly he added white highlights to the back of her hand, the tip and bridge of her nose, the top of her cheeks, and her forehead. Rubens captured the details that give this woman such allure: the flush of her skin, the flounce of her hair, the sparkle and sheen of her eyes. She radiates with the glow of youthful vitality.
It has been suggested that this drawing depicts Helena Fourment, Rubens’s second wife, an idea that the catalog entry rejects. Whether it does or not, she is a figure of considerable tenderness, gazing down pensively, with one hand pressed to her breast. Rubens made this drawing at the age of fifty-one, and less than two years after the death of his first wife. One cannot help but feel that the drawing has both a hint of romantic and sexual longing as well as a sense of melancholy for the mortal transience of love and beauty.
Rubens’s early composition drawings are painterly as well. In these fascinating works, one can follow his rapid development during the first decade of the seventeenth century. In the earliest sheets, such as The Descent from the Cross of circa 1601– 1602, he is still occasionally awkward, yet his urge to find new solutions is so powerful that the drawing has considerable force nonetheless. By contrast, in the later of these sheets, such as Judith Killing Holofernes of circa 1609–1610, he is absolutely certain of the effect he wants and he knows exactly how to achieve it. In such works there appears to be no gap between conception and execution; the combination of spontaneity and authority is magisterial.
In all these compositional drawings, he tended to make a quick preliminary sketch in black chalk or pen and ink, which he then worked up with brush and ink wash. As he developed the drawing, his goal was to make a visual drama of nearly overwhelming power. He preferred to depict scenes of violence—murder, rape, revenge. The figures are shown in ecstasies of hatred, grief, pain, or fear. Their gestures are big and forceful, their expressions contorted and extreme. Rubens applied wash to the drawings with astonishing boldness, imposing on the composition a pattern of lights and darks; these he arranged to highlight the expressions and add strength to the gestures of the main actors. The lessons Rubens learned from the Laocoön are everywhere to be seen. In these sheets one can watch as Rubens, inspired by the high rhetoric of Hellenistic sculpture, helped to create a new style in the history of art, the Baroque.
It was Rubens’s practice to follow his compositional drawings with a more highly finished oil sketch painted on panel. His term for oil sketch was “disegno colorito“—painted drawing—indicating his full amalgamation of what had traditionally been thought of as separate activities. In these studies, he sought to raise the visual excitement of the image to an even greater height. Every stage of the work was conceived with this goal in mind. The preparatory layer of the paint on the panel was executed with broad swipes of the brush in monochrome gray-brown. These strokes were never applied in neat lines parallel to an edge of the picture. Rather they swerve and dance across the board, adding to the sense of tumult and agitation. On top of this layer, Rubens painted swiftly and thinly. He often worked in a restricted palette of grays, yellows, and browns, saving stronger colors such as blue and red for accents of key figures or elements in the scene. The brushwork is fluid, spontaneous, and utterly dynamic. Giovanni Pietro Bellori praised Rubens’s “furia del penello“—the fury of the brushwork—and it is easy to see what he means. Evident everywhere in the thin coat of paint, his brushwork carves forms, shapes figures, molds draperies. Above all else, it gives life. Rubens’s oil sketches overflow with energy, all of it set in motion by the power of his brush.
After making an oil sketch, the next stage in Rubens’s creative process was to draw figures in the composition whose poses he wanted to develop or correct. The show at the Metropolitan includes a number of such drawings, among them the famous study for the head and upper body of Christ for The Raising of the Cross of 1610–1611, one of his early masterpieces. Often the next stage in a picture’s execution was to make a second and much larger oil sketch, painted on canvas, in which all aspects of the composition were shown in their final form. Only then would Rubens, with the aid of assistants, begin the final version of the painting. The changes in scale in this process are remarkable. The initial drawings and oil sketches are small, some only 4 inches square. The final paintings are often huge. The Raising of the Cross, for example, is nearly 15 by 20 feet.
In the course of Rubens’s career, the oil sketches took on ever greater importance in his artistic imagination. During the first decade of the seventeenth century, the drawings served Rubens as an avenue of discovery. Beginning in the second decade, it was instead the oil sketches that provided him with a new vision of aesthetic possibilities. The freedom of their brushwork became the ideal of the dynamism he wanted to realize in his large-scale paintings.
From about 1620 until his death in 1640, Rubens achieved this ideal with the greatest regularity. The late pictures are hypercharged with movement; their surfaces ripple and sparkle like a body of water in a fresh breeze. Writing about Rubens’s pictures of the life of Marie de’ Médicis in the Louvre in Paris, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt said, “God is there.” Rubens’s paintings seem to capture the quickening spirit that animates life.
Rubens was regularly engaged in the creation of large cycles involving many pictures executed on a colossal scale, and intended for the decoration of buildings of the church and state. The subjects for many of these cycles were drawn from classical or Christian history and mythology, for example, the life of Achilles, scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and stories from the Old Testament. Rubens also made two large series of paintings to glorify rulers: the Marie de’ Médicis cycle in Paris, and the Apotheosis of James I for the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall Palace in London. So great was Rubens’s talent as a painter of the mythic and the triumphal that his work was in constant demand and the governments of England, France, Flanders, and Spain competed continually for his services.
Delacroix called Rubens the “Homer of painting” and indeed he was a kind of epic poet, instinctively drawn to the representation of the heroic. He preferred to depict the climactic moments of a narrative and to show figures in extreme and absolute states of being: his figures are all action and expression, motion and emotion. They convey a superabundance of vitality far beyond the capacity of normal mortals. This concentration on power and animation is fundamental to the pictures’ impression of the sublime.
It is important to observe, however, that to achieve such intensity Rubens chose to restrict himself in the description of character. Like the warriors in the Iliad, the figures in Rubens’s narratives seem to live almost exclusively on the surface and in the present. They perform conspicuous deeds, display strong emotions, and personify virtues and ideals, but their portrayal lacks depth and detail. One cannot imagine Rubens painting a picture as dark and brooding as Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath in the Villa Borghese or as richly subtle as Rembrandt’s Bathsheba in the Louvre. In literature Rubens’s taste was strictly for classical authors—it is said that he had Tacitus read to him while he painted—and like many Greek and Roman writers he preferred to concentrate on the exterior manifestations of character rather than examine the interior complications of the soul.
Rubens’s portraiture reveals a similar tendency. In the show at the Metropolitan there are two beautiful portrait drawings, nearly identical in size and technique. One represents the philosopher Jan Woverius, the other George Villiers, Lord High Admiral of the British navy. Both pictures are vivid, lifelike images that seem to capture something fundamental about the sitters. Both men appear mild, sympathetic, intelligent, reserved. Looking at either image, one has no doubt that it is a faithful picture, true to the temperament of the man. The problem is that in actuality the two men were as different as could be. Woverius was a Neo-Stoic and humanist, whom Rubens deeply admired. Rubens thought Villiers full of “caprice” and “arrogance.” That the two men nevertheless seem indistinguishable in temperament in these portraits suggests that often he was simply not interested in penetrating deeper into the character of the people he painted.
The portraits Rubens made of his family are only a partial exception. The show at the Metropolitan contains ten or so sheets of Rubens’s inner circle, among them some of the most beautiful drawings in the exhibit. (One must note, however, that many of them, especially those from the Albertina, have been damaged from abrasion or overcleaning.) These are loving pictures from a happy family. In some of his paintings, such as La Petite Pelisse, Rubens made a declaration of sexual love for his second wife, Helena Fourment, and he did so with a frankness and tenderness that was unprecedented in the history of art. But the drawings, for all their immediacy, never come close to achieving the intimacy of these paintings. In the sketches, one can do no more than glimpse into his relationship with Isabella Brant, Helena Fourment, and their children.
Rubens’s high rhetorical style, his erudite subject matter, his loyal service to church and state, and his lack of psychological intimacy are features wholly out of keeping with modern expectations for artistic authenticity, and one might think the shows of Rubens’s work would have trouble finding an audience. Instead, the joyful exuberance and sheer beauty of the art on display is so great that the two exhibitions have proved immensely popular, and rightly so. They provide a stunning introduction to one of the greatest talents in European art.
April 7, 2005