CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Rubens: a master in the making

Exhibition: 26 October 2005 - 15 January 2006


David Jaffé*

From the museum website

The exhibition tells the remarkable story of Rubens’s dramatic ascension from working as a pupil of a minor Antwerp artist, to become the dominant international painter of his time.

It will be the most thorough explanation of the flowering of his genius ever attempted. The story traces his hesitant beginnings in Antwerp (1598-1600) to his eight-year study trip to Italy (1600-1608), where he embraced the Renaissance greats of Michelangelo and Raphael and the revolutionary style of Caravaggio.

A dazzling group of Genoese portraits from 1606 marks Rubens’s irresistible bravura with the brush. These offer the exciting opportunity to focus on works that are by his hand alone, undiluted by any workshop assistance.

The culmination of the show is a group of heroic images Rubens created from his ambitious amalgam of sources on returning to Antwerp (1609-1614). These include Samson and Delilah and The Massacre of the Innocents, works that were last seen together in Rubens’s studio.

Museum press release

International diplomat, shrewd businessman, linguist, intellectual and genius painter whose works were coveted by royal courts across Europe… But what made Rubens one of the most successful artists of the seventeenth century?

That is what The National Gallery’s exhibition, Rubens: a master in the making, explores by tracing his extraordinary development through the first fifteen years of his career. The exhibition follows Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) as he leaves Antwerp at the age of twenty-two and embarks on an eight-year Italian study trip, where he was inspired by antique statues and the art of Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio.

Rubens: a master in the making investigates and deconstructs the way Rubens made his paintings, from the sculptures that inspired him (such as the Borghese Centaur and the Laocoön) to his studies of the workings of the human body, through his preliminary sketches and drawings, to the paintings themselves.

This focus on his early career means that the works featured in Rubens: a master in the making are by his hand alone, undiluted by workshop assistance. The exhibition gathers more than one hundred works including paintings, sculptures and drawings from across the world. There is the vast and impressive Saint George (Museo del Prado, Madrid), The fall of Phaeton (National Gallery of Art, Washington) with its dramatic movement of flailing horses and tumbling figures, The Entombment (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) and many more.

The climax of Rubens: a master in the making is his triumphant return to Antwerp, where a remarkable burst of creative energy gives us the explosive brushwork of a string of head studies, religious and mythological masterpieces: the compelling brutality of The Massacre of the Innocents (private collection); the intimate candlelit stealth of Samson and Delilah (National Gallery, London) and the delicate, beautiful image of his daughter Clara Serena Rubens (Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna). This is also a chance to see The Massacre of the Innocents in context before it returns to Canada.

To mark this important exhibition, the National Gallery will be offering a varied range of courses and lectures throughout the autumn. A fully illustrated catalogue by world-renowned Rubens scholars, priced £20 hardback, accompanies the exhibition.