CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Peter Paul Rubens: a touch of brilliance: oil sketches and related works from The State Hermitage Museum and The Courtauld Institute Gallery

Exhibition: 20 September 2003 - 8 February 2004


James Cuno


The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

From the exhibition website

An important exhibition devoted to the oil sketches of Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). This will be the first project to result from the alliance between the Courtauld Institute of Art and The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, announced earlier this year.

The exhibition will bring the visitor closer to the creative moment and the development of the artist’s pictorial ideas and illustrate the wide range of Ruben’s preparatory work throughout his life from loose sketches through to more fully worked pieces. It will not only offer insights into the genesis of some of this major artist’s most important compositions but also further the understanding of his innovative and original use of the oil sketch.

This exhibition draws on the two celebrated and complementary collections, those of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. With the addition of loans from the National Gallery and Dulwich College Picture Gallery, London, and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the exhibition will comprise some forty oil sketches supplemented by ten related drawings and a small number of finished paintings.

Peter Paul Rubens: a touch of brilliance will focus on a number of Rubens’ projects where the Hermitage and Courtauld holdings are exceptionally rich including the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall and the now lost ceiling of the Jesuit church in Antwerp. By bringing together preparatory material from a small number of commissions, this exhibition aims to provide a concentrated account of the role of the oil sketch in Rubens’ working process. Loosely painted grisailles, exploratory bozzetti, more finished modelli and drawings will provide an insight into the genesis of several of the artistā€™s most important compositions. It is particularly appropriate that sketches for the Whitehall ceiling have been brought together in the 400th anniversary year of the event celebrated in the ceiling’s iconography: the Unification of the Crowns of Scotland and England.

From a museum press release, 24 July 2003

Peter Paul Rubens: a touch of brilliance will bring together two celebrated and complementary collections of the sketches that have long been regarded as one of the most compelling and remarkable aspects of Rubensā€™ work and aims to show how Rubens developed his pictorial ideas and compositions. With the addition of loans from the National Gallery and Dulwich College Picture Gallery, London, and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the exhibition will comprise some forty oil sketches supplemented by ten related drawings and a small number of finished paintings.

Rubens was widely acclaimed by his contemporaries as Europeā€™s greatest living painter and he was commissioned to produce vast decorative cycles of paintings for some of the most powerful people in Europe. The exhibition will focus on a number of these projects where the Hermitage and Courtauld holdings are exceptionally rich: the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall, the now lost ceilings of the Jesuit church in Antwerp, the Medici Cycle and the Triumphal Entry of Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand into Antwerp in 1635. In addition preparatory sketches for paintings such as The conversion of St Paul, The Descent from the Cross and The Assumption of the Virgin will be on show together with a number of other oil sketches and closely related drawings and engravings.

The decorative cycles of paintings were so extensive that Rubens rarely did much of the actual painting himself, entrusting the execution to his assistants. The skill of the master can best be seen in the limpid, sparkling, oil sketches on oak panels where his rapid brush strokes created images of great beauty and immediacy. These wonderful sketches bring the viewer close to the artist and offer an insight into his creative process.

The magnificent ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall (1630-34), the only one of these great cycles of paintings to survive in situ, was commissioned by Charles I to commemorate the achievements of his father (James VI of Scotland, James I of England). It is particularly appropriate that four sketches for the Whitehall ceiling have been brought together in the 400th anniversary year of the event celebrated in the ceilingā€™s iconography: the Unification of the Crowns of Scotland and England in 1603.

Two of these sketches come from The State Hermitage Museum: The Apotheosis of James I and The Unification of the Kingdom while The Bounty of James I triumphing over Avarice belongs to the Courtauld Institute Gallery. From a private collection on extended loan to the National Gallery comes a further sketch of The Apotheosis of James I and other studies. This is unique amongst Rubensā€™ oil sketches in that it contains the first drafts for seven of the nine compositions in the Whitehall ceiling.

The first of Rubensā€™ great cycles of paintings, commissioned in 1620, some ten years earlier than the Whitehall project, consisted of 39 ceiling paintings for the side aisles and galleries of the new Jesuit church in Antwerp. This was Antwerpā€™s first Baroque church and Rubensā€™ paintings were as innovative as the architecture. Rubens was contracted to make sketches for the ceiling while the large paintings were to be executed by Van Dyck and other pupils and reworked by Rubens himself. This ceiling did much to establish Rubensā€™ fame at home and abroad and from then on he received commissions for similar large ensembles.

The Jesuit church paintings were destroyed by fire in 1718 and all that now remains are Rubensā€™ oil sketches. The Courtauld is fortunate in having six of these outstanding sketches while the Hermitage has one rare preparatory black chalk drawing of St Athanasius overcoming Arius. Also related to the Jesuit cycle are two sketches of St Barbara pursued by her father, to be loaned by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and the Dulwich College Picture Gallery. They are particularly fascinating in that they show two different stages in the development of the composition. These works will be shown alongside a number of watercolours by Jacob de Witt recording the finished paintings before their destruction.

In 1622, immediately after the completion of the Jesuit cycle, Rubens was commissioned to paint a series of 24 large-scale canvases for Marie de Medici, the widowed French queen, for her new Luxembourg Palace in Paris. Painted to celebrate her career, the Medici Cycle was not only considered ā€˜the high point of baroque decorative paintingā€™ but also as a ā€˜triumph of artistic diplomacyā€™. Marie de Medici quarrelled with her husband Henri IV and her son Louis XIII but Rubens tactfully veiled the events of her life with an ambiguous mixture of allegory, mythology and religion and the result was universally admired and was more influential on later generations of artists than any of his other cycles. The Medici Cycle was the most ambitious artistic undertaking of Rubensā€™ career, completed in 1625. The magnificent finished paintings are now one of the treasures of the Louvre.

As with the sketches for his other great cycles, those for the Medici project show the development of his ideas before the final canvases were painted. Catherine the Great acquired five of the sketches in 1772 including The meeting at Lyons – the city where Marie and Henri met and were married in November 1600. There are considerable differences between this spirited first sketch and the final version while the sketch for The birth of the Dauphin is closer to the finished picture, with the same number of figures, but with the queen placed in a more prominent position.

The final great project undertaken by Rubens to be featured in the exhibition is the triumphal entry of Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand into Antwerp in April 1635. Following the death in 1633 of Archduchess Isabella, Philip IV of Spain appointed his younger brother Ferdinand as Governor of the Netherlands. A tradition was established in the 16th century for a sovereign to make a Joyeuse EntrĆ©e or triumphal entry into his principal cities. Although he was Governor, not sovereign, the city of Antwerp invited Ferdinand to make a triumphal entry which also celebrated his recent victory with the Austro-Hungarian army against the Swedes. Rubens was one of three citizens who planned this important event. His responsibility was to make the sketches and supervise the work of an army of leading artists, craftsmen and carpenters who were hired to execute his designs for the elaborate temporary architectural arches and stages, using his oil sketches as patterns. Rubens said that he carried ā€œthe entire burden of this festivalā€ and that he had ā€œtime neither to live nor to writeā€ but the resulting splendour of the decorations far excelled those of previous triumphal entries. They were in place for just six weeks after the great day and were then scattered or disposed of.

Eight of the sketches from the Hermitage collection will be exhibited including The stage of welcome and the rear face of The arch of Ferdinand. The triumphal entry was commemorated in a sumptuous publication Pompa Introitus honori serenissimi pricipis Ferdinandi Austriaci… written by Casperius Gevartius. In the book all the stages and arches are reproduced in etchings based on Rubensā€™ sketches by Theodoor van Thulden, one of the artists who painted the arches, and a copy, with a title page designed by Rubens, will be shown alongside the oil sketches in the exhibition.

The conversion of St Paul is a subject Rubens returned to at different periods in his career. The Courtauldā€™s finished painting of the dramatic scene dating from circa 1610-12 will be exhibited together with two preparatory works, a lively oil sketch and a pen and ink drawing. Two further, later, oil sketches, The conversion of St Paul from the Ashmolean Museum and The lion hunt from the Hermitage, in which the foreground figures are closely related, complete this striking group of works and they show the artistā€™s constant reuse and development of certain successful motifs.

The Descent from the Cross and The Assumption of the Virgin are also themes that Rubens explored in numerous compositions, creating some of his most powerful and dramatic works. His great triptych of The Descent from the Cross was painted in 1612/3 for the chapel of the guild of the Harquebusiers in Antwerp cathedral. The exhibition will offer the opportunity to compare the magnificent Courtauld 1611 oil sketch for the central panel with the smaller and earlier, but no less compelling, sketch attributed to Rubens from the Hermitage. There will also be a drawing from the Hermitage and two Courtauld sketches and one further drawing for the wings of the triptych depicting The Visitation and The Presentation in the Temple.

The Hermitageā€™s magnificent oil sketch The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin comes from the same period of Rubensā€™ oeuvre, circa 1611, and is his earliest known representation of the subject. This version has two iconographic motifs that do not occur again in later examples: Christ holding a wreath-like crown above the Virginā€™s head and two groups of angels playing musical instruments. The sketch was eventually used for the painting commissioned in 1619 for the high altar of Antwerp cathedral and placed there in 1626. From the Courtauld comes what is probably Rubensā€™ final version of The Assumption of the Virgin painted around 1635, some ten years after the Antwerp altarpiece. Many differences of treatment of the subject can be seen between the two sketches such as the exclusion of any reference to the setting and a greater unification of the witnesses of the Assumption in the later version.

Connected exhibitions

This exhibition at the Hermitage Rooms anticipates a comprehensive Rubens exhibition that will take place from 6 March to 14 June 2004 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille and will show the great diversity of Rubensā€™ artistic activities. To complement that exhibition the city of Antwerp, where the artist lived and worked for much of his life, is collaborating with Lille by presenting an exhibition devoted to Rubens the collector in the Rubenshuis while Genoa will stage an exhibition Lā€™Eta di Rubens which brings together works by Rubensā€™ contemporaries.


The exhibition is generously supported by The Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation, Mrs Charles Wrightsman, The Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation and the Founding Members of the Walpole Circle.


James Cuno, with contributions by Joanna Woodall, Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, Natalia Grizay and Alexei Larionov,Peter Paul Rubens: a touch of brilliance: oil sketches and related works from the collection of the State Hermitage Museum and the Courtauld Institute Gallery, London (Prestel) 2003. 128 pages. 55 color illustrations.

ISBN 3-7913-3026-8 (hardcover).