Exhibitions/ Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640): The Drawings

January 15 / 2005–April 3 / 2005
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

This exhibition is the first ever devoted solely to Peter Paul Rubens as a draftsman. It spans the artist's entire career and includes examples of all the mediums he used for drawing. On view are more than one hundred of his finest and most representative studies from public and private collections in Europe, Russia, and the United States. More than thirty drawings from the world-renowned holdings of the Albertina, Vienna, form the core of the exhibition.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was the most versatile and influential Baroque artist in northern Europe in the seventeenth century. Highly gifted and internationally oriented, the Flemish artist received commissions from almost all of Europe's major courts. His art blends the High Renaissance of Italy, with which he was familiar from an eight-year stay on the Italian peninsula, with northern realism. Having a phenomenal knowledge of classical antiquity—its art as well as its literature—he was the prototype of the pictor doctus, the intellectual artist.

Born in Siegen, Germany, Rubens spent most of his life in Antwerp, then in the Southern Netherlands. Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, the rulers of the Southern Netherlands, employed him as their court painter and sought his assistance in diplomatic affairs. After Albert's death in 1621, Rubens became a close advisor to Isabella. His command of Dutch, Latin, Italian, German, and French was a great advantage during his diplomatic missions, which he always combined with painting.

The majority of Rubens's drawings served as a step toward a final work of art in another medium—most often painting but at times book illustration or sculpture. Rubens kept his drawings close by as studio material to be used by his assistants and collaborators. It was often with the help of his drawings that assistants would execute the related paintings; later, Rubens would merely add the finishing touches. There are indications that the artist guarded his drawings from the outside world, both because he wanted no one to witness his artistic exertions, his sweat and toil, and because the drawings were considered a kind of studio secret. How careful he was about them is clear from his last will and testament, in which he stipulated that his drawings were not to be sold until it was clear that none of his children would become an artist or marry one.

Rubens's drawings can be divided into several categories, including compositional studies, drawings after the model, portraits, landscapes, and drawings for prints. The exhibition includes the finest and most characteristic examples of all these types. Some of the works have come to light only recently and are presented in the exhibition for the first time.


The exhibition is made possible by the Government of Flanders and Fortis Bank.

Additional support has been provided by The Schiff Foundation.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Albertina, Vienna.

The exhibition catalogue is made possible by The Drue E. Heinz Fund.

An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

It is logical that the earliest known works on paper by Rubens are drawn copies, as copying was a basic aspect of art education. Probably at the age of twelve or thirteen, Rubens started to faithfully—but never slavishly—record prints. Initially he copied them in their entirety, but fairly quickly he became more selective and copied only what interested him in a composition.

The Flemish master, however, did not copy only in his youth but continued doing so throughout his life, as it was the easiest way of acquiring reproductions of another artist's work. For Rubens, who had an interest in so many art forms, it was almost a necessity to make copies. Eventually, they added up to a rich collection of themes and motifs for future works.

On May 9, 1600, Rubens, twenty-two years old, went to Italy. The country and its art, especially that of the great Renaissance artists Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian, had a profound influence on him. The study of classical sculpture provided him with an endless collection of visual resources.

Shortly after his arrival in Italy, Rubens was appointed court painter to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua, where he remained for eight years. The duke allowed him to travel extensively through Italy and sent him on a diplomatic mission to Spain in 1603. Wherever he went, the artist received commissions: in Rome for altarpieces in the churches of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and Santa Maria in Vallicella; in Madrid for the equestrian portrait of the duke of Lerma; and in Genoa for an altarpiece in the church of Santi Ambrogio e Andrea, as well as for portraits. In Mantua his most important work was the decoration of the main chapel in the Jesuit church of Santissima Trinità.

On October 28, 1608, Rubens went back to Antwerp after an urgent message that his mother was dying. Although Italy would remain the mecca of his dreams—in 1629 he wrote that he still had not given up hope of returning to Italy and that "this desire grows from day to day"—he would never set foot there again.

In preparation for many of his paintings, Rubens began with compositional drawings to lay out the basic plan of the work. These drawings are usually executed in pen and brown ink, with some wash to indicate light and shade. Sometimes the drawings were mere thoughts on paper, hasty jottings of first ideas, as with The Virgin and Child Adored by Saints (cat. no. 34). In other instances, a neater drawing was produced, obviously after some deliberation, such as the Adoration of the Image of the Virgin and Child (cat. no. 18).

The compositional drawings, especially those that record first ideas, allow us a fascinating view into the artist's creative process in general and into the "birth" of a number of particular works. Rubens favored compositional drawings especially in the 1610s; after that, he started to use small oil sketches on panel for the same purpose.

Soon after returning to Antwerp in 1608 Rubens received a number of important commissions, such as the Raising of the Cross (Cathedral, Antwerp). It was a good time to return: in 1609 the Northern Netherlands signed the Twelve Years' Truce with the Southern Netherlands, which was under Spanish control. With the peace, many churches in the south were refurbished with new altarpieces.

In September 1609 Rubens was appointed court painter to Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella in Brussels, but he was allowed to remain in Antwerp. On October 3, Rubens married Isabella Brant. The artist was thriving and commissions were streaming in. He established a workshop and in 1611 wrote that he had been forced to refuse more than one hundred students, even sons of close friends.

In this room are several drawings after the model. Once Rubens had planned a painting through compositional drawings and had recorded it properly in an oil sketch, he made individual studies in black chalk of the most important figures in the work. In these drawings the artist refined the poses of the figure and studied and improved such details as facial expression, musculature, or the intricate folds of a garment.

Rubens created a large group of portraits on paper as well as on canvas. They have always been admired for their expressiveness, lifelikeness, and spontaneous facial expressions. Nevertheless, the artist seems to have made them reluctantly. Early on, during his service as court painter in Mantua, he wrote that he would paint portraits only if this work led to "greater things."

After returning to Antwerp from Italy in 1608, Rubens was able to avoid official portraiture for some time. From the 1620s, when his career as a diplomat took flight and he was often visiting foreign courts, the demand for painted portraits by him—which he, in his role as a painter-diplomat, could not refuse—began to rise.

In general, all his portrait drawings were made in preparation for painted portraits. The artist used two distinct types of preliminary drawings: studies of the sitter's pose and costume, and studies of the head.

The portrait drawings that Rubens made of members of his family—his two wives, his children, and other close relatives—seem to have been intended as private studies, probably largely for the artist's own enjoyment. Only occasionally were these personal documents translated into oil.

During the second decade of the seventeenth century, Rubens was in charge of a large studio of students and collaborators who assisted him in fulfilling the many commissions he received from churches, courts, and private citizens. He began a project by creating an oil sketch of the proposed composition that he submitted to the patron for approval. Students would begin the work while Rubens established the final poses of the most important figures by creating detailed chalk drawings from models posing in his studio. His disciples would transfer the figures to the canvas. Once finished, Rubens would add the final touches. Many of these large and lucid model drawings—the most prominent group of drawings from the 1620s—are in the exhibition.

Despite Rubens's long stay in Italy, his art was solidly based upon and connected with the art of his northern predecessors and contemporaries. In his large collection of paintings, places of honor were given to the works of the Flemish artists Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Adriaen Brouwer. Especially in the 1630s, perhaps because of his remarriage and resettling in Antwerp—which may have inspired a renewed love of Flanders, after his extensive travels—Rubens followed in their tradition of depicting local outdoor life and genre scenes.

This interest in his immediate surroundings greatly increased after he purchased his country estate, Het Steen, near Mechelen, in 1635. At this time, he produced many landscapes. In 1681 Roger de Piles wrote in his biography of Rubens (based on correspondence with the artist's nephew Philip) that Rubens enjoyed living in solitude and painting the hills and surrounding valleys, at sunrise and at sunset.

Rubens's late compositional drawings were made either with a bold, rather heavy quill pen or with very loose black and red chalk, at times accented with pen and dark brown ink. They are much less detailed than the early examples, focusing just on the principal outlines. In some instances, Rubens prepared a composition with a brush and colors, either gouache or watercolor, much like his oil sketches on panel.

Although Rubens hardly touched the etching needle or the engraving burin, his participation in printmaking set new standards, especially for book illustrations and reproductive prints. Rubens created (or supervised and corrected) the preparatory drawings, while his assistants made the prints, which were closely checked by the master.

The artist's involvement with prints was twofold. On the one hand, there were book illustrations and title pages, usually made for the distinguished Plantin Press in Antwerp. The most important member of the press, Balthasar Moretus, was a close friend of the artist. On the other hand, there were prints that Rubens had made after his paintings and published himself. Assistants usually made the preparatory drawings while a wide range of engravers, working on commission, translated them into print. The seriousness with which Rubens approached the process of transferring his paintings into prints is clear from his interventions, large and small, in the preparatory drawings.

Old Master drawings today are considered untouchable, almost holy. This was not necessarily the case in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when they were cut to what was considered the proper format and sometimes heavily reworked so that they would be either more salable or would more closely reflect the taste of the time.

Rubens, who was an avid collector, is known to have retouched dozens of Old Master drawings. As the artist was extremely private about his drawings—those he created himself as well as the ones he collected—he probably did so, as the early biographer Roger de Piles wrote, to "stimulate his senses and to heat up his genius." In other words, this retouching was a challenge to his creativity and inventiveness.

Rubens painted The Garden of Love, one of his most admired and copied works, about 1632. A celebration of marriage, it was in all likelihood a tribute to Helena Fourment, his young, beautiful second wife, whom he married in 1630. In Rubens's time the painting was known as a conversatie à la mode. Couples play games in a lavish garden in front of a large stone building while others stroll or listen to a singer accompanied by a lute player.

Three of Rubens's preliminary chalk studies for major figures in The Garden of Love are gathered in the exhibition. Their exuberance and freedom of handling make them among his finest and most magnificent sheets.