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The medallions on the monumental facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art contain the names of, among other great artists, Rembrandt and Diego Velázquez. But if one looks for the name of the greatest master of the Flemish Baroque, Peter Paul Rubens, one will have searched in vain. Although Ruben’s paintings, oil sketches, and drawings lay within reach of the most important American collectors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they apparently avoided buying them. For example, Rubens is the only major seventeenth-century painter whose work is not represented in the Frick Collection in New York. This seems to be a typical lacuna: Americans prefer Rembrandt to Rubens. This choice has been fueled and continues to be fueled by the Protestant backgrounds of art collectors and by a general suspicion of eroticism and sensuality in art. The aversion to Rubens has led to the lack of any representative collection of Rubens paintings in an American museum, although here and there one can encounter a masterpiece by the artist. More recently, however, there has been a renewed interest in the master. Thus, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., have in recent years all acquired some outstanding drawings by Rubens. After the great Rubens exhibitions in Lille, Antwerp, Braunschwieg, and Vienna in 2004, the time was ripe on this side of the Atlantic to organize exhibitions on Rubens as a draftsman (in New York) and Rubens as the creator of virtuoso oil sketches (in Greenwich, Connecticut).
Unlike the Albertina in Vienna, where a large exhibition that took place at the end of 2004 featured “signed” paintings, oil sketches, and drawings by Rubens, the Metropolitan Museum chose to show only works on paper. This had the advantage of focusing the viewer’s attention completely on the graphic qualities and subtle tonalities of the sheets, avoiding the affect of their “fading” when placed near colorful paintings. The disadvantage was that the function of drawings in relation to oil sketches and the final product, paintings, was less obvious. Perhaps it would have been nice to reconstruct the evolution of at least one artwork in this manner. However, it must be said that the exhibition’s curators, Anne-Marie Logan and Michiel Plomp, were sensitive to placing the drawings in a broader context by reproducing some paintings on the wall labels.
The lenders to the exhibition were quite generous: 117 sheets in total made this an event not to be missed. At least 32 drawings were loaned by the Albertina, including some absolute gems of the art of draftsmanship: Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Coral Necklace (cat. no. 81), the Portrait of Susanna Fourment (cat. no. 83), and Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Red Felt Cap (cat. no. 85).
The exhibition was divided into eight rooms with red, blue, and warm gray walls that showed the drawings to full advantage. In the entrance room, the visitor was welcomed by a huge ground plan of Rubens’s Antwerp and a chronology of the artist’s career. In this space (called “Rubens: Beginnings”) also hang some copies that the artist made in his youth of engravings by German and Dutch masters (cat. nos. 1–2, 5–6).
The second room contained a group of drawings that originated between 1600 and 1608 in Italy and Spain, where they served as preparatory works for diverse projects such as altarpieces for the Jesuit Church in Mantua (cat. nos. 14–15) or the equestrian portrait of the duke of Lerma (cat. no. 13). There were also a number of copies after antique statues such as the Borghese Fisherman (cat. nos. 22–23) and the Centaur Tormented by Cupid (cat. nos. 20–21). At the same time, it became clear that Rubens was not always successful in rendering his impressions in a convincing idiom. Besides the whirling, wild scribbling of the Studies for Hero and Leander (cat. no. 10), we also encounter dry and poorly proportioned studies, such as The Descent from the Cross (cat. no. 9). One also wonders whether the bone-dry Libyan Sibyl (cat. no. 4), a copy of a figure on the Sistine ceiling, is really by Rubens.
The third room that the viewer entered (compositional drawings) opened with a splendid ensemble of six little studies in pen and brown ink and brush and brown wash (cat. nos. 25–30). These are magisterial compositions, in which the chaste Susanna is waylaid by the lascivious old men, and Samson and Holofernes become the victims of powerful biblical heroines. Seldom has aggression been so convincingly represented and by such economical means. These quick pen sketches are by far the exhibition’s biggest revelation. Also worthy of mention in this context is Studies for Silenus and Aegle (cat. no. 31), a “scribble,” namely, a tangle of lines on the recto of the sheet, which are chaotically overdrawn with the poses of nudes. This attracts, in turn, a drunken, philandering group on the left side of the sheet. Another wonderful work is Virgin and Child Adored by Saints (cat. no. 34), which was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in 2002; it offers insights into the development of the painting for the high altar of the Church of St. Augustine in Antwerp.
The fourth room was dedicated to studies of models that Rubens made in order to gain a clear understanding of the anatomy and illumination of figures in his paintings. These are studies after life that the artist made for such large altarpieces as the Raising of the Cross in Antwerp (cat. nos. 37–40), the Assumption of the Virgin in Vienna (cat. nos. 41–43) and Daniel in the Lions’ Den in Washington, D.C. (cat. nos. 45–48). The latterdrawings, which depict lions from the front and back, are among the most lifelike representations of animals made in the seventeenth century. Another wall in this room showed examples of highly worked drawings of models for book illustrations (cat. nos. 53–57) and detailed preparatory studies for prints, executed by assistants and more or less retouched by the master himself.
A fifth space housed an ensemble of portrait drawings primarily from the Albertina (cat. nos. 77–78, 81, 83–87)—penetrating studies of family members, close acquaintances, politicians, and military commanders—that are as splendid as they are famous. Also present were two drawings of Nicolas Trigault in Chinese Costume. The version in the Metropolitan Museum (cat. no. 73) in fact carries an inscription by the master and is clearly stronger than that of the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm (cat. no. 74). The ravages of time suffered by the latter drawing do not conceal its status as a slightly smaller copy of cat. no. 73; in Rubens studies it is almost axiomatic that the master never repeated himself, though he had many assistants who did such tasks. The reduction in size also explains why the copyist made a mistake in rendering the length of the silk garment. The drawing style of the Korean Man (cat. no. 75) in the Getty is finer than that of cat. nos. 73 and 74. The paper possibly played a role here, but one must also dare to ask whether the drawing did not originate from another hand.
A sixth room provided an overview of the preparatory drawings that Rubens made between 1616 and 1635, mostly in Antwerp but sometimes during his travels abroad. Among several studies of models after life (cat. nos. 58–66) was one from the hand of Anthony Van Dyck (cat. no. 67), which is closely related to other studies by Rubens. Here we can raise the question of whether other drawings from Rubens’s oeuvre can be ascribed to his young, genial assistant. Remarkable are the densely red studies of heads for the Saint Ildefonso Triptych in Vienna (cat. nos. 70–72) and some subtle landscape drawings that display the sunset mirrored in a pond or are enlivened by ribbons of white haze behind the leaves (cat. nos. 104–105). To this group also belong powerful studies of a horse (cat. no. 97) and an ox (cat. no. 99).
The seventh section, with late drawings by the master (1632–40), proved surprising. Among the exhibited works, one found a plainly subpar representation of Hercules and Minerva Fighting Mars from the Musée du Louvre (cat. no. 106). This sketch is executed in gouache, which makes it difficult to reconcile it with Rubens’s manner of working. The awkward physical forms of the figures on this sheet lead to the thought that they might be by the hand of an assistant. A Sermon in a Village Church (cat. no. 107) was another odd choice. This drawing was executed in black chalk, brush and brownish-red ink, watercolor, and gouache. Still, it makes a much stronger impression than cat. no. 106, and I see no reason why this drawing could not be by Rubens. The Boar Hunt (cat. no. 111), a quick, stenographic sketch in pen and brown ink, is not a late drawing by Rubens but an early one by Van Dyck of about 1616–17.
The last room, showing the picturesque drawings that Rubens made for his famous painting The Garden of Love (cat. nos. 90–92), displayed the true glory of this exhibition. There were also two large, magisterial drawings that formed the basis for Christoffel Jegher’s woodcut after this picture (cat. nos. 93–94), as well as the hitherto seldom exhibited drawing of models for the Rest on the Flight into Egypt from Pozna (cat. no. 95); both provided massive “fireworks” for this show.
One can state without reservation that this exhibition offered the general public a unique chance to acquaint themselves with Rubens as a draftsman. A comparison of the exhibited works often brought qualitative and technical differences to the fore at the same time that it raised some questions about attributions (above all, in relation to cat. nos. 4, 23, 79, 100–1, 106, and 111). The organizers of this exhibition deserve praise for the thoroughness and finesse with which they tackled it, making this event a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Nico van Hout
Curator, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium
This review was translated from Dutch by Wayne Franits, with assistance from Anne Diekema.
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