The exhibition ‘Pure Rubens’ is the largest overview of Rubens’ oil sketches in sixty-five years. Each of the oil sketches displays the brilliant touch of the master himself. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is proud owner of an important collection of Rubens’ oil sketches. The collection is unique in The Netherlands and among the finest of the world. ‘Pure Rubens’ reveals the painter’s unmatched imaginative powers: his ability to tell stories in ways so original and exciting that you will be swept away. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid have collaborated to bring together the most beautiful works that show the master’s hand in all its facets and reveal his temperament: ambitious, spirited and plentiful.
‘Rubens could do anything’, says Friso Lammertse, curator of old paintings and sculptures at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. ‘Absolutely anything. And his oil sketches show this absolute talent. They do not only reveal his methods, but also his utter delight in painting.’
Rubens usually prepared his works with an oil sketch on panel – an unusual choice of material for sketching. Rubens was not the first to do this, but he was certainly a crucial innovator: no one used this preparatory method as extensively as he did. The significance these sketches had to Rubens became apparent after his death, when hundreds of them were found in his workshop. Most of them were by his own hand, but he also owned several sketches of artists he admired, like Titian and Tintoretto. It means Rubens was the first to acknowledge the art-historical value of sketches. In the centuries to follow, the interest in Rubens’ oil sketches grew and grew, as they turned into desired collector’s items. Influenced by new art movements like impressionism, the loose, spontaneous character of the sketches and the clearly visible, personal brush stroke of Rubens gained evermore admiration.
Most beautiful Rubens sketches from all over the world in Rotterdam
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid both have unique collections of oil sketches from Peter Paul Rubens. For years there has been the mutual wish to combine the most beautiful pieces of their collections, and complement them with masterpieces from other museums, in order to create an unprecedented overview. The exhibition ‘Pure Rubens’ takes place in the large Bodon wing (1500 m2) of the museum, and grants the public temporary access to the room where Rubens kept his most personal works. The sketches from Rotterdam and Madrid are complemented by loans from all over the world, including works from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, the National Gallery in London and Louvre in Paris. The cooperation of these museums enables us to show a selection from Rubens’ output from 1605 to 1640 in its full glory. In total, sixty-eight of the most beautiful sketches from around the world are now on display in Rotterdam. The sketches are supplemented with a number of large paintings, drawings and an enormous tapestry.
The god of painters
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was known to his contemporaries as ‘the god of painters’. And not without reason: Rubens was one of the most influential and successful painters of his time, who produced an incredibly high and varied amount of paintings. Landscapes, portraits, religious and mythological images, hunting pieces, or designs for title pages, gates, floats and tapestries – nothing was too much for Rubens. Even so, he was not always destined to become a painter: as a young man from a good family he was taught Latin, and for a while he worked as a page boy in noble circles. For the intelligent young Rubens a scientific and political career seemed to be mapped out, in the footsteps of his older brother. Nevertheless, in 1594 he chooses the art of painting. At that moment, he has been living in Antwerp for five years. He grew up in Cologne, where his parents had moved to avoid the religious wars in The Netherlands. Presumably, father Jan was a protestant, whereas Rubens himself was a devout Catholic, like the rest of his family.
Rubens’ most important mentor in painting is Otto van Veen, from Antwerp. To him Rubens owns his great love for the Italian renaissance. In 1600, Rubens leaves for Italy, where he will stay for eight years. His painting is heavily influenced by the classical tradition he studies, as well as the contemporary Italian art he encounters.
Peter Paul Rubens - from Sketch to Painting
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a major figure of his time. He was awarded prestigious assignments by the nobility throughout Europe and ran a successful company with a large number of assistants.
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen owns hundreds of prints based on Rubens designs, a wonderful collection of drawings and more than twenty paintings, mainly sketches in oil. Among the highlights are seven oil sketches for a series of tapestries about the life of Achilles, of which this example is one.
In the early 17th century, Rubens was one of Europe’s most successful painters. Before he settled in Antwerp, he spent several years travelling to Mantua, Genoa, Rome, Milan and Madrid. During this time he studied the works of artists such as Titian, Michelangelo and Caravaggio and developed his own Baroque artistic style from these influences.
In 1608, he moved to Antwerp, at the time the most important cultural and religious centre of Northern Europe, and built up a flourishing studio with a large number of assistants. In many cases, Rubens would make the initial design, and then leave the painting to his assistants. He carefully supervised the proper execution and often took care of the last finishing details himself.
Sketch or modello
Rubens produced oil sketches in manageable sizes for a variety of reasons. They often acted as an aid for his assistants, but in some cases they were also shown to the client. In the 17th century, clients would often interfere quite emphatically with the execution of the painting they were having made. Even a master such as Rubens would have to show a ‘modello’ before commencing the assignment: it was an example, a model on which the execution of the final work was based.
Clients wanted to see what the painting would look like before granting the assignment - whether church authorities, nobility or merchants. For this reason, Rubens would often make, in addition to the first sketch intended primarily for this assistants, a more elaborate modello which was probably actually intended for the client.
The painting ‘The Martyrdom of St Livinus’ from the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen appears to be such a modello. There is also a much freer sketch of this that must have pre-dated this work. The oil sketches differ from his paintings in their freedom and spontaneity. They were made quickly and totally by the master himself, so that the handwriting of Rubens can be clearly recognised. Unlike many of Rubens’ paintings, which were largely painted by his assistants.
Rubens was not only a painter; he also designed tapestries. These tapestries were often more expensive that painted works because the weaving was very labour-intensive and sometimes made use of expensive materials such as gold and silver thread. Only princes, members of the nobility and the wealthy could permit themselves such valuable possessions.
Strict division of tasks
Rubens made the first sketches for every painting he made. He made these in a small size and with a free hand, often on a light grey background. He would indicate the colours he wanted to use with small dabs of paint on these sketches. Using this, the assistants would set to work. They prepared the surface of the painting, laid down the composition and coloured it in according to the sketch they had been given. In the final stages, when the composition was virtually finished, the master himself would take part again. He painted the final details, perfected the material expression or accentuate a shadow. This method of working explains why the hand of the master can be recognised in each of Rubens’ paintings, even though he had an extremely high output.
Rubens did not always work like this. He also produced large paintings entirely alone, without the intervention of an assistant. On the other hand, it sometimes seems as if Rubens left everything to a talented employee, including drawing the first design sketch. That was, however, completely in the style of the master.
During his life, Rubens designed four series of tapestries. The last is dedicated to the life of Achilles, probably an assignment from his father-in-law Daniel Fourment (ca. 1565-1643). Fourment was a tapestry merchant in Antwerp. The number and the various dimensions of the eight tapestries may possibly have had something to do with the room for which this first series was intended.
Rubens approached this large assignment with great precision. He made an oil sketch for each of the eight episodes; seven of these are in the collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. These designs were elaborated on large panels approximately two and a half times larger (so-called ‘modelli’). These in turn acted as example for the large boards which became the pattern for the weavers. The museum owns one tapestry from this Achilles series. The series was a great success; many editions of it were woven.
An unknown tapestry
It is remarkable that Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has been able to acquire one of the tapestries for its collection. The tapestry, woven by Daniel Eggermans (? - 1643), which was originally part of probably the first edition of the series, was unknown for a long time. It turned up in a private collection during the preparations for the exhibition about the Achilles series in 2003. This exhibition was organised in collaboration with the Museum Nacional del Prado in Madrid and brought together the oil sketches from Rotterdam and the ‘modelli’ from the Madrid and other collections. The tapestry was a faithful reproduction of the modello, although in mirror-image. In his sketches, Rubens took into account that the tapestries would be woven in a mirror-image. That is why on the sketch and the modello, Achilles is drawing his sword with his left hand! This series demonstrates the expertise of the weaver, particularly in the expressions on the faces. In later series, woven by others, the heads often become cariacatures.
Collect them all
Number five in the series of the eight oil sketches, ‘Briseis is returned to Achilles’, is missing from the collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. This sketch is in the collection of the Detroit museum. The eight sketches were together until at least 1794, for in that year they were all offered as a collection for sale at auction.
Two of the eight sketches, however, ‘Achilles Among the Daughters of Lycomedes’ and ‘Briseis is Returned to Achilles’ were separated from the series after the auction.
The two sketches appeared on the market again in 1922. One sketch was bought by the Whitcomb family, who later donated it to the Detroit Institute of Arts, The other was bought by Rubens connoisseur Franz Koenings. He later encountered financial difficulties and sold the sketch in 1940 to the art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, who had already purchased the other six sketches in 1933 for D.G. van Beuningen. Van Beuningen donated the series to the Museum Boijmans almost immediately after this purchase.
The almost immortal Achilles is one of the great heroes of Roman and Greek mythology. Achilles is the son of Peleus, the king of Myrmidons, and the sea-nymph Thetis. The best-known story is Achilles’ fighting for the Greeks in the Trojan War, which arose after Paris of Troy abducted the wife of the Greek king Menelaus. Achilles, who was dipped in the River Styx by his mother, was invulnerable for his opponent. Only his heel, where his mother had held on to him as she dipped him in the water, proved his weak point. And this point, the so-called Achilles heel, proved fatal to the hero when he was struck there by an arrow.
The best-known version of this story can be found in the Iliad, written by the Greek poet Homer, who lived around 800 BC. Homer describes Achilles as a young, brave and pugnacious hero, caring for his friends, but cold-blooded in battle. Rubens based his Achilles series largely on this story. The Iliad, however, only describes the last ten years of the Trojan War, and Rubens must have used other sources for the basis of the complete series illustrating Achilles’ life. He based, for example, his illustration of Achilles being dipped into the Styx on the story by the Roman poet Publius Papinius Statius. This poet lived in the first century AD.
Why Rubens chose the life of the hero Achilles for this series is unknown; perhaps it was suggested to him by his client Fourment. But it is also possible that Fourment acted as a sort of go-between for a client who remains unknown. The sketches about the life of Achilles show that, despite his education and virtuosity, Rubens occasionally made a mistake. In the first sketch of the series, the infant Achilles is held by his mother by his left ankle, while in the final sketch he is shot in his right heel.
Become a friend of the museum
As a Boijmans friend you visit the exhibition ‘Pure Rubens’ prior to the opening. Sign up and enjoy 10% discount in the Museum shop, free fast-lane access to the museum and many other perks.
Enrich your visit
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue written by Friso Lammertse, curator of Old Master Paintings and Sculptures at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, and Alejandro Vergara, senior curator of Flemish and Northern European Paintings at the Museo Nacional del Prado. It is available from the museum shop and online for €29.95.
The special multimedia tour places Rubens in his context and brings the stories he painted to life. The tour is available in Dutch and English, it can be reserved online for €3.00 or can be hired at the entrance to the exhibition.
You can do a sixty-minute guided tour in the exhibition with groups of up to fifteen people. The tours are available in Dutch €85 / English and French €100 (excl. entry). You have to make an reservation in advance.
Rubens work of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen on display in the exhibition 'Pure Rubens'
Catalogue 'Rubens - Painter of Sketches'
This catalogue presents detailed studies and superb illustrations of eighty-two of Rubens’s most eloquent oil sketches, and two essays explaining the historical context from which they emerged, their salient features and how they were viewed by contemporaries.