CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Drawn by the brush: oil sketches by Peter Paul Rubens

Exhibition: 2 October 2004 - 30 January 2005


Betsy Wieseman* and Peter Sutton.


This exhibition has been organized by the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich, Connecticut, the Cincinnati Art Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, in Berkeley, California.

Museum press release, August 2004

Drawn By the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens explores the central role that oil sketches played in Rubens’s creative process and his remarkably successful career. The exhibition is the first ever in this country devoted exclusively to the oil sketches.

Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was one of the most gifted, versatile and influential painters in all of art history. Eulogized at his death as the most learned artist who ever lived, he had a seemingly infinite capacity for inventive subjects and designs, a vast repertoire of figural poses and a sparkling palette. Contrary to the popular modern stereotype of artists as irascible, unsocialized creatures living in garrets, Rubens was also blessed with legendary personal charm, early revealing a gift for diplomacy and keen business acumen. He was surrounded by and in constant communication with admiring friends and, to all appearances, enjoyed a delightful home life. He was the confidant of kings and princes who besieged him with commissions from across Europe, through which he earned all sorts of honor and amassed a sizable personal fortune, enabling him to retire as a nobleman to his own castle at the end of his life. Rubens’s astonishing success was the wonder of his international peers and an example to be emulated by no less an admirer than Rembrandt.

The exhibition

Drawn by the Brush examines how the sketches enabled Rubens to marshal and orchestrate the efforts of a sizable studio, the members of which often assisted in the creation of his vast decorative cycles, tapestry series and towering altarpieces. While the final works of art sometimes betray the labor of the assistants’ execution, covering acres of canvas on deadline, the sketches have a freshness and vitality that utterly beguiles the viewer. They were prized by collectors even during Rubens’s own lifetime as original works of art, indisputably by the master. Rubens’s oil sketches not only show the undiluted essence of his intellect and spirit, but also come closer to the electrifying instant of creativity than virtually any other work of art by an old master. Jealously guarded by the master as the embodiment of his creative capital, Rubens even left instructions to safely lock the sketches away from prying eyes when he was out of town.

The exhibition surveys the development of Rubens’s use of the oil sketch and offers examples from most of the large decorative programs on which he worked. The sketches vary in their degree of finish, from a few fluid strokes on a small panel to larger, more carefully refined works to be used as presentation pieces for a potential patron. Yet all are united by their function as preparatory works for other, final works of art, not necessarily in the same medium. Some were to be translated into prints, sculpture or tapestry designs for weavers, while other sketches were executed from live models and kept on hand in the studio as a visual resource to be consulted in completing larger compositions.

An exhibition of singular importance, the show reveals to American audiences for the first time how the sketches are the most significant and direct record of Rubens’s creative process, documenting his propensity for swift improvisation in the development narratives and designs. Within the intimate confines of a tiny wood panel, these small sketches compress all the power and drama of wall-sized murals and vast decorative cycles, be they ceiling plafonds or yards and yards of tapestries; the visual impact of the sketches thus belies their scale and offers a uniquely memorable viewing experience.


The fully illustrated, 280-page catalogue, distributed by Yale University Press and written by the Bruce Museum’s Executive Director Peter C. Sutton, Marjorie E. Wieseman, Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and Nico van Hout, Paintings Conservator at the Koninklijk Museum in Antwerp, discusses Rubens’s stylistic development, his major commissions and projects, his predecessors, techniques and materials, as well as the historical appreciation of the sketches. In addition, an innovative, interactive website devoted exclusively to the exhibition will be linked to the institutional websites of each of the three venues.


The exhibition at the Bruce Museum is generously supported by Morgan Stanley, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Samuel H. Kress Foundation, The David T. Langrock Foundation, and the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation, as well as a large committee of honor of honor under the patronage of His Excellency, Frans van Daele, Ambassador of Belgium to the United States, and The Honorable Renilde Loeckx, Consul General of Belgium in New York.

Other venues

Berkeley, Berkeley Art Museum (2 March-15 May 2005)
Cincinnati, Cincinnati Art Museum (11 June-11 September 2005)