CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Pedro Pablo Rubens: La historia de Aquiles

Peter Paul Rubens: the story of Achilles Exhibition: 9 December 2003 - 29 February 2004


Alexander Vergara and guest curator
Friso Lammertse

From the exhibition webpage

The Museo del Prado is holding the exhibition Rubens: the story of Achilles, jointly organised with the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam where this same exhibition was recently shown. Through eight oil sketches, six modelli and a tapestry it demonstrates how Rubens created this important series of tapestries on the life of the Greek mythological hero.

Museum press release

Rubens (1577-1640) was not only a painter, but also designed tapestries, objects of enormous value that were often valued more highly than his painted works, and whose price was only within the reach of monarchs or the aristocracy. Over the course of his career the artist designed four series of tapestries. The last of these is devoted to the life of Achilles, created at an unknown date (suggestions range from 1620 to the 1630s) under his direction and following his designs. This series is the subject of the present exhibition, jointly organised with the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. It analyses Rubens’ creative process, from his preliminary sketches to the creation of the tapestries.

The artist first sketched out the different episodes from the life of Achilles in eight beautiful oil sketches on panel, all included in the exhibition. Particularly interesting is the way Rubens transferred the designs that he formulated in these sketches into modelli or models. These took the form of slightly larger panels which both Rubens and members of his studio worked on, and which present the final idea for each of the eight episodes. In the next stage, these models were transferred to large cartoons painted entirely by the workshop (lost since the 17th century). These cartoons were used by the weavers to make the tapestries. The final product, the tapestry, had the composition in the reverse sense to the model, a fact which the designer had to bear in mind from the outset. In Rubens’ oil sketches and modelli his figures are always left-handed, in order to come out right-handed in the tapestry.

It is not known who commissioned the Achilles series, but documentary evidence indicates that they were hugely successful, and that following the production of the original series, numerous subsequent ones were commissioned. The exhibition includes a tapestry from one of these series, woven between 1653 and 1668.

Rubens: the story of Achilles allows us to follow the artist’s creative process through a specific project. In addition, it focuses on one of the most important and characteristic aspects of his artistic activity: his role as interpreter of the myths and legends of Antiquity. In order to carry out the series, Rubens drew on the Iliad, the Greek epic poem on the Trojan war, as well as other classical sources such as the Achillead by Statius, and the Roman poet Ovid’s Ars amatoria. He also looked to compilations of classical texts published during the Renaissance and which he knew well.

Rubens: the story of Achilles thus offers the general public an exceptional opportunity learn about the artist’s classical learning as well as his activities as a designer of tapestries. In addition, it has enabled the Museo del Prado to continue its research into its holdings of the artist’s work (the largest in the world), as three of the paintings on display are from the Prado’s own collection: The education of Achilles, Achilles discovered among the daughters of Lycomedes and The return of Briseis.


The catalogue, to be published in Spanish, English and Dutch, has essays which cover both the contents of the series as well as the technique of the paintings and the tapestries.

Dutch edition: Friso Lammertse and Alejandro Vergara, with contributions by Guy Delmarcel and Fiona Healy and Annetje Boersma, translated by Yvette Rosenberg, Peter Paul Rubens: Het leven van Achilles, Rotterdam (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and NAi Publishers) and Madrid (Museo Nacional del Prado) 2003. 151 pages. 84 illustrations.

ISBN 90-5662-326-5 (hardbound).

Spanish edition: Friso Lammertse and Alejandro Vergara, with contributions by Guy Delmarcel and Fiona Healy and Annetje Boersma, translated by Goedele De Sterck and Jose Luis Gil Aristu, Pedro Pablo Rubens: la historia de Aquiles. 152 pages. 84 illustrations.

Other venue

Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (30 August-16 November 2003).