CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640): the drawings

Exhibition: 15 January - 3 April 2005

Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall


Michiel Plomp*, associate curator, and Anne-Marie Logan*, guest research curator, both of the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Drawings and Prints. Conservation work has been carried out by Marjorie Shelley, Sherman Fairchild conservator in charge, and Rachel Mustalish, associate conservator, both of the Paper Conservation Department of the Metropolitan Museum.

Museum press release, December 2004

The first major retrospective ever to be devoted to the drawings of Peter Paul Rubens in the United States will open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on January 15, 2005. Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640): the drawings will bring together 115 of the versatile Baroque master’s finest and most representative drawings, including 12 recently discovered works that have never before been exhibited. Court painter, diplomat, and international celebrity, Rubens was one of the most influential artists of northern Europe in the 17th century. Best known for his paintings, this universal genius is among the most imaginative of draftsmen. His topics vary from engaging biblical scenes to alluring nudes, from animated and stately portraits to poignant animal studies, and from landscapes sketched from nature to complex allegories.

“This landmark international loan exhibition will offer an extraordinary view into the creative process of the Flemish genius,” stated Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum. “Even more than his paintings, which were often executed largely by his pupils, it is Rubens’s drawings that radiate beauty and power. This exhibition – on which we are privileged to collaborate with the Albertina in Vienna, which holds the most significant grouping of Rubens drawings anywhere in the world –will unite works from more than 40 collections throughout Europe, Russia, and the United States.”

At the core of the exhibition will be a major unprecedented loan from the Albertina –more than 30 drawings by Rubens that will leave Vienna for the first time. Among them are such celebrated works as Portrait of a Little Boy with a Coral Necklace (ca. 1619) and Lady-in-Waiting to Infanta Isabella (ca. 1623–25), studies of an Ox (ca. 1618) and a Saddled Horse (ca. 1615–18), and several portraits of Rubens’s immediate friends and family.

The exhibition will span Rubens’s entire career, beginning with his early training under Otto van Veen in Antwerp, where he made ingenious copies after prints of 16th-century German masters like Hans Holbein and Tobias Stimmer. From 1600 to 1608, Rubens lived and worked in Italy, a mind-changing experience for the young Flemish artist. In the service of the Duke of Gonzaga in Mantua, he was allowed to travel extensively throughout the peninsula and even made a brief trip to Spain. Rubens repeatedly copied antique sculptures to study their intrinsic beauty, and to learn about anatomy. Highly impressed by the work of Michelangelo, he copied from the Sistine ceiling extensively. Rubens’s Libyan Sibyl (1601–1602, Musée du Louvre), after the fresco by Michelangelo, will be exhibited alongside Michelangelo’s Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (ca. 1512, Metropolitan Museum).

He returned to Antwerp in 1608, and in 1609 was appointed court painter to the Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella, governors of the Southern Netherlands. In the same year he married Isabella Brant, daughter of Jan Brant, an Antwerp lawyer and humanist. In 1610 he bought a Gothic house with a large portico in Antwerp, to which he added an Italian palazzo for his studio. The house can still be seen today in the manner in which he designed it.

In the 1620s, especially, Rubens traveled extensively throughout Europe. He visited Paris repeatedly, chiefly in connection with Marie de Médicis’s order for a series of pictures for the Palais du Luxembourg (now in the Louvre). In 1628 – two years after Isabella Brant died – Rubens went to Spain for the second time, primarily on diplomatic business, but also to execute some paintings for the court at Madrid. At this time Philip IV appointed him secretary of the privy council of the Netherlands. In 1629–30 he was again on a diplomatic mission, this time in London, where he was knighted by Charles I. Back in Antwerp in 1630, he married the 16-year-old Hélène Fourment, daughter of his friend Daniel Fourment, a dealer in silks and tapestries.

From 1610 onward, until the end of his life, Rubens, together with his large studio, supplied courts and churches all over Europe with innumerable altarpieces, history cycles, and portraits. While these paintings are not always by the master alone, the preparatory drawings are. Through the drawings, it is possible to trace not only the creation of certain famous works, such as the Louvre’s Flemish Kermesse (ca. 1635–38), for which there will be two large compositional drawings in the exhibition on loan from The British Museum, but also the artist’s own development from an ambitious Italophile, visible in the powerful studies for the early Antwerp Raising of the Cross (1610–11), to a retired painter-diplomat, manifest in his leisurely yet extremely tender female portrait studies from Rotterdam, Florence, and Vienna. For the latter, it seems to have been Hélène Fourment, or one of her equally beautiful sisters, who sat as his model.

For Rubens, the drawings, above all else, fulfilled specific functions in the production of other works of art, usually paintings, but also prints, sculptures, and architecture. Consequently, the artist had different types of drawings to suit different purposes. As preparation for his large and ambitious paintings, he created sketchy yet bright compositional drawings, as well as vigorous figure studies. More than 15 examples of preparatory drawings, among them the hitherto unknown Virgin Adored by Saints (recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum), will be on view. Three large figure studies for the enormous triptych of the Raising of the Cross for the Antwerp Cathedral, Rubens’s first important commission, will be reunited in the exhibition. Other, more unexpected model drawings are lifelike animal studies, such as two lion drawings from The British Museum, London, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., for Rubens’s painting Daniel in the Lions’ Den (ca. 1613/1615, National Gallery). Three stunning trois crayons sheets for The Garden of Love (1632–33, Prado, Madrid) represent model studies from later in his life.

Although Rubens’s portrait drawings are usually preparatory for paintings, they often have the stature of independent artworks, such as those of his first wife Isabella Brant (ca. 1621–22, The British Museum), An Asiatic Man in Korean Costume (1617, J. Paul Getty Museum), and Susanna Fourment (early 1620s, Albertina). Rubens’s drawings in preparation for prints and book illustrations are a lesser-known aspect of his career. The National Museum in Poznan, Poland, is lending the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, a little-known design for a woodcut by Christoffel Jegher that complements the two designs that Rubens prepared for Jegher’s woodcuts of The Garden of Love (Metropolitan Museum).

Twelve of the drawings in the exhibition have come to light only within the last few years and will be exhibited in the context of Rubens’s oeuvre for the first time. His drawing after the antique sculpture of the Centaur Tormented by Cupid is one of three Rubens studies discovered in Cologne in 2000; it will be shown with the only previously known Rubens drawing after the same sculpture from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. On view from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, will be the recently acquired Portrait of Thomas Howard, Second Earl of Arundel (1629–30), along with the better-known portrait drawing from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, allowing a direct comparison for the first time. The Metropolitan Museum’s newly acquired, unpublished Susanna drawing will be shown together with the dynamic Susanna study from the Musée Atget, Montpellier. Another extraordinary work, Man on Horseback (1603, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich), is a study for Rubens’s early equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma in Madrid. This large, meticulously executed sheet, a recent bequest to the Munich printroom, became known only in 1996.


The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue by Anne-Marie Logan in collaboration with Michiel Plomp. Published by The Metropolitan of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, the publication will be available in hard- and softcover in the Museum’s book shops. The publication is made possible by The Drue E. Heinz Fund and the Doris Duke Fund for Publications.

Other venue

Albertina, Vienna (15 September-5 December 2004).