Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 8, 2005
Peter C. Sutton, Marjorie Wieseman, and Nico Van Hout Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens Exh. cat. Greenwich, Conn.: Yale University Press in association with Bruce Museum of Arts and Sciences, 2004. 208 pp.; 60 color ills.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0300106262)
Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Conn., October 2–January 30, 2005; Berkeley Art Museum, March 2–May 22, 2005; Cincinnati Art Museum, June 11–September 11, 2005
Peter Paul Rubens, Head of a Negro, c. 1618–20. Oil on panel. 45.7 x 36.8 cm. The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York, inv. no. 1971.40. Photo credit: Joseph Levy.

It is a testimony to the esteem in which Peter Sutton and Marjorie Wieseman are held in the art world that they were able to find enough oil sketches by Peter Paul Rubens for an exhibition in the United States in 2004—the most competitive “Rubens” year in recent memory. Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens is the first exhibition dedicated solely to Rubens’s oil sketches since the one Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann organized in Rotterdam in 1953–54. Although originally planned to include loans solely from U.S. and Canadian collections, the exhibition was expanded with a few choice pieces from the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the National Gallery, London; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp; and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. The difficulties in bringing the exhibition to fruition may be gleaned from the fact that the forty-three sketches were borrowed from twenty-seven North American and five European public collections, from ten private collections or foundations, and from four dealers (two of them not in the catalogue).

The exhibition provided a fine overview of the various functions of Rubens’s oil sketches—from an initial small bozzetto such as the wonderful Triumph of Hope (cat. no. 22); to modelli for altar paintings, ceiling decorations, tapestries, sculpture, and prints; as well as independent works such as the small, rather tight Christ on the Cross (cat. no. 8; reproduced larger than the original) and the Head of a Young Warrior (cat. no. 4; reproduced in reverse and now without a hand, which disappeared during restoration). A thoroughly researched and informative exhibition catalogue reproduces all the oil sketches in color, along with many comparative figures in black and white. In his introductory essay, Sutton gives an overview of Rubens and his work, while Wieseman sheds light on the collectors of Rubens’s oil sketches. Nico van Hout explains the role of the oil sketches within Rubens’s working procedure. Thanks to infrared reflectography, he is able to show some of the artist’s initial quick “crabbelinge” in chalk, thereby illuminating the layout of the composition during the initial stages of the oil sketch. He also explains that Rubens most likely created short scratches on a number of oil sketches—mostly on the right edge—with his maulstick, which he held in his left hand while painting with his right hand.

Several oil sketches were unavailable due to their fragile state, and one escaped the exhibition organizers: namely, the Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1626) at the Yale University Art Gallery. This particular oil sketch appeared instead in the large exhibition Rubens in Wien, which opened at the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna in December 2004. It was shown next to Rubens’s enormous final altar painting, since it served as the preliminary sketch. As expected, not all of the venues exhibited the same selection. The most rewarding venue undoubtedly was the one in Cincinnati, since it included such beautiful examples as the Capture of Samson (cat. no. 3), The Triumphant Entry of Constantine into Rome (cat. no. 11), The Duke of Buckingham (cat. no. 15), The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek (cat. no. 19), and the small Studies for Figures in a Larder (cat. no. 27 bis).

Drawn by the Brush was planned to complement the exhibition Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640): The Drawings, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and organized in collaboration with the Albertina, Vienna. Unfortunately, due to a change of dates requested by the Albertina, the two exhibitions overlapped for only two weeks. In conjunction with its Rubens exhibition, the Bruce Museum also organized in January of 2005 a symposium entitled Peter Paul Rubens’s Oil Sketches and the Creative Process.

At times the term oil sketch was taken at liberty, as in the case of The Emperor Julius Caesar (cat. no. 16), which is in fact a painting and belongs to a series of bust-length portraits of Roman emperors. Also surprising was the inclusion of the recently auctioned Rubens painting Old Woman with a Candle of c. 1616–17 (not in the catalogue), lent by Otto Naumann, Ltd. The recently discovered oil sketch Flagellation of Christ (with Adam Williams Fine Art, Ltd., New York) was exhibited hors catalogue; it was shown as Rubens’s modello, based on his painting of 1617, today in St. Paul’s in Antwerp. Although the sketch likely was the modello for Pontius’s print in reverse, one would have expected a grisaille or brunaille if Rubens authored it. Moreover, Rubens did not include his Flagellation painting in 1619 in the list of works he would like to have engraved (perhaps because these were all engraved from drawings).

As exemplified in the exhibition at the Bruce Museum, Rubens’s preparation of his prints elicits questions requiring further attention. This applies to his own drawings (The Road to Calvary [Christ Carrying the Cross], cat. no. 29), drawings he began but which were then worked on by studio hands (cat. no. 39), as well as grisailles (cat. no. 30). Are these sketches actually all by Rubens, or did he partially intervene in the process and “edit” an assistant’s work in the way that he retouched other artists’ drawings? (Michiel Plomp discussed this subject in his lecture during the Bruce Museum symposium.) Some of the catalogue entries also reflect opinions regarding authorship that are divergent from ones expressed in the exhibition. Thus, in our opinion, the attribution of the Head of a Youth (cat. no. 1) to Rubens is rightly questioned. Adoration of the Magi (cat. no. 6) has been cleaned to the point that not much of Rubens’s original is left—if indeed it ever was by the artist. In a comment in the exhibition’s guest book, Walter Liedtke emphatically stressed the attribution of The Head of a Negro (cat. no. 7) to Anthony van Dyck. The Three Nymphs with a Cornucopia (cat. no. 23) is reproduced in reverse. The brunaille with the Three Graces (cat. no. 24) might be a modello for an ivory sculpture or a silver platter. A drawing of Two Prisoners in the Louvre (inv. no. 20.401; Lugt 1177), once attributed to Rubens, apparently copies another stage of the oil sketch of c. 1628 (cat. no. 25); differences are seen in the foreground at the right and the background. The two figures of Mercury and a Yeoman in an oil sketch for the Whitehall Ceiling (cat. no. 31) are definitely by Rubens himself (despite the catalogue’s misgivings), while the spaces in between were later filled by another hand. (Gregory Martin disattributed the sketch in his symposium lecture at the Bruce Museum and favored Jan van den Hoecke.) Three small bozzetti for the Torre de la Parada commission were reproduced larger than the original (cat. nos. 35, 36 [heavily restored], 37). The Martyrdom of St. Paul (cat. no. 38) is more likely by a Rubens follower, Theodoor Boeyermans (1620–1678), and served as the modello for his painting of 1670 in Aix-en-Provence; the same goes for the related, large drawing in the British Museum (inv. no. N.G. 853-E).

However, these qualifications should not diminish from an outstanding exhibition that brought together for the first time in the United States some of Rubens’s finest oil sketches.

Anne-Marie Logan
New York