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Museo del Prado reveals "Rubens. Painter of Sketches" exhibition

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Peter Paul Rubens painted nearly 500 sketches in his career and is considered the most important painter of sketches in European art. In partnership with the Government of Flanders and the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in the Netherlands, the Prado has brought together 73 works of art from its own collection and leading institutions world-wide, including the Louvre, the Hermitage, the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

«It offers an analysis of Rubens as the most important painter of oil sketches in the history of European art," the Spanish museum said in a statement.
Madrid’s renowned Prado Museum was set to exhibit a collection of oil sketches produced by Belgian artist Peter Paul Rubens. The exhibition «Rubens. Painter of Sketches» is on display for four months in Room C of the Jerónimos Building. The sketches, such as The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Prometheus, and The Capture of Samson, are shown alongside a number of prints, drawings and paintings by Rubens which provide a context for them.
The practice of producing oil sketches within the process of creating a painting began in 16th-century Italy. Artists such as Polidoro da Caravaggio, Beccafumi, Federico Barrocci, Tintoretto and Veronese were the first to make use of painted oil sketches as vehicles to try out their ideas when devising a painting. However, their use of such works was limited, given that drawing was their principal preparatory method.

Basing himself on these precedents, Rubens’s innovative contribution consisted of developing this preparatory process and making systematic use of images painted in oil and on more durable supports than paper. Rubens used some of these sketches to elaborate his ideas on new compositions, or often to show to clients or as a guide for his assistants and collaborators.

His innovative contribution lays in developing this preparatory process to systematically include images painted in oil and on more durable supports than paper. While drawings were normally monochrome, Rubens’s oil sketches almost always involve colour, generating the illusion of skin and muscle on the figures.

Left: Rubens, Saint Matthew, 1610 — 1612. Oil on panel, 106.5×82 cm © Museo Nacional del Prado.

Depending on their different purposes, these studies could be very sketchy or highly finished, as well as small or relatively large. They differ from the rest of the artist’s pictorial output in that they are less highly finished and detailed, the paint layer is thinner and the preparatory layer is frequently visible. Despite their unique nature, Rubens’s oil sketches encourage the viewer to appreciate the qualities fundamental to all his art.

The sketches are divided into five thematic blocks, comprising The Eucharist Series, Paintings for the ceiling of the Jesuit church in Antwerp, The Achilles Series, Paintings for the Banqueting House ceiling and oil sketches for the Torre de la Parada.

The Eucharist Series

In the first half of the 1620s Rubens designed twenty tapestries on The Triumph of the Eucharist. This large series, commissioned by the Infanta Isabel Clara, involved the participation of Rubens, his assistants, the Infanta and the tapestry weavers. Rubens produced two series of preparatory oil sketches of different sizes. Their subject is the Eucharist, the principal dogma defended by the Archduchess as Governor of the Southern Low Countries.

The exhibition includes one sketch×A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? read more
from the smaller series, the only one that shows a number of the intended tapestries in a single image (Art Institute of Chicago), and six from the larger series which belongs to the Prado. The last ones were the subject of an important restoration project in 2014.
Rubens used his oil sketches to define the composition and to show to his patrons, while they also functioned as guides for his assistants, who were entrusted with painting the large-format cartoons to be used as models by the tapestry weavers.
Peter Paul Rubens. The meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek
  • Peter Paul Rubens. The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, ca. 1625. Oil on panel, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado. © Museo Nacional del Prado.
  • Peter Paul Rubens. The meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, ca. 1626. Oil on panel. Washington, National Gallery of Art.
Peter Paul Rubens. The Victory of Truth over Heresy
Peter Paul Rubens
1625
Peter Paul Rubens. The Triumph Of The Church
Peter Paul Rubens
1626, 86×106 cm

Paintings for the ceiling of the Jesuit church in Antwerp

In 1620 Rubens made 39 works, commissioned by the Jesuits, for the Company’s church in Antwerp. Most were to be installed on the ceiling and would thus be seen from below. The final paintings, which were destroyed in a fire in 1718, were painted by Van Dyck and other assistants. To prepare this cycle Rubens produced small monochrome sketches and other, more elaborate coloured ones, both in oil, as well as various drawings. The smaller sketches are studies of light and shade while the large ones indicate that the colour is already completely devised.

Left: Rubens, Descent from the Cross, ca. 1611 — 1612. Oil on panel, 115.2×76.2 cm, London, The Courtauld Gallery, The Samuel Courtauld Trust.

The Achilles Series

The Achilles Series was the final tapestry series designed by Rubens. It depicts various episodes from the life of the Greek hero in eight scenes. Rubens prepared the project with two sets of oil sketches. The ones in the first series are smaller and less highly finished, and three of them are included in this section of the exhibition.

This section is completed in the Central Gallery of the Villanueva Building with the display of an oil sketch×A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? read more
loaned by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, shown alongside Achilles revealed by Ulysses and Diomedes by Rubens and his studio from the Prado’s own collection.

Rubens (and workshop), Achilles discovered among the daughters of Lycomedes, 1630−1635. Oil on panel, 107,5×145,5 cm, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Paintings for the Banqueting House ceiling

Peter Paul Rubens. England, Scotland, Minerva, Cupid and Two Victories

For the painted decoration of the ceiling in the Banqueting House (part of Whitehall Palace in London), Rubens painted these oil sketches. The sketches include the nine scenes that appear in the ceiling, in addition to various isolated figures and architectural elements.

The scene that depicts the union of the crowns of England and Scotland commemorates the most important event in the reign of James I. Here the personifications of the two nations are united by Cupid, representing Love, with Minerva above him joining the two crowns together. In the second scene Peace embraces Abundance, while in the third a figure representing both Temperance and Modesty subjugates a Vice that is identified is Immodesty in the accompanying iconographic programme.

Left: Rubens, England, Scotland, Minerva, Cupid and Two Victories, c. 1632. Oil on panel, 64×49 cm, Róterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

Oil sketches for the Torre de la Parada

In 1636 Philip IV commissioned the now elderly Rubens to paint more than 60 mythological scenes to decorate a hunting pavilion known as the Torre de la Parada on the outskirts of Madrid. The artist designed all the scenes in small oil sketches, only painting a few of the final works himself and entrusting the execution of most of them to other painters.
Peter Paul Rubens. The Lion Hunt
The Lion Hunt
1615, 73.6×105.4 cm
Also on public display for the first time is a manuscript copy of a lost sketchbook by Rubens known as the Bordes Manuscript which includes texts and drawings. It is the most important of the four known copies of the manuscript, which in addition to being a direct copy of the original contains two original drawings by the artist, one of them a study for the colossal sculpture known as the Farnese Hercules. The notebook entered the collection of the Prado in 2015 as a generous donation by the sculptor, architect and art historian Juan Bordes.
Anónimo (Taller de Rubens, Pedro Pablo), Manuscrito de principios artísticos de Rubens (Manuscrito Bordes), 17th century. Pencil on paper, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado. (c)Museo Nacional del Prado
Peter Paul Rubens. Portrait Of Clara Serena Rubens

The exhibition closes with a portrait of Clara Serena Rubens, eldest daughter of artist, who died at 12 years, six years after Rubens painted her. It is not a sketch but a sketchy painting. For Alejandro Vergara, chief curator of Flemish and Northern schools painting at the Museo del Prado, this is a great example of «metaphysical and transcendental» character of Rubens' work. «He was not a realist. He always painted improved life. This is not portrait of his daughter, no girl gives away that beauty, is portrait of love with which he looks at him.»

Left: Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens, ca. 1616. Oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 33×26 cm, Liechtenstein, The Princely Collections, Vaduz-Viena.

Rubens. Painter of Sketches is on view till 05 August 2018 at the Prado. Then the exhibition will travel to the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in September.
Based on materials from Museo del Prado website.

Title illustration: Peter Paul Rubens, The Victory of Truth over Idolatry, ca. 1625. Oil on panel, 65×91 cm, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado. (c)Museo Nacional del Prado.
Artists mentioned in the article
Peter Paul Rubens
Biography • Artworks
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