The painting can be dated to the early 1610s, when Rubens made a series of equestrian studies for use in both portraits and subject pictures. Such studies were required to help him cope with the increasing demands on his time. By his mid-thirties Rubens was one of the leading painters in Northern Europe, and commissions flooded in. To maximize his output he began to rely on studio assistants to help him, and key to guiding them wasa large number of studies by Rubens himself like the present example. Today, Rubens’ best known studies are the characterful heads designed to be repeated (or in modern parlance "cut and pasted") in multi-figural compositions. As a result, we often see the same characters appear with unnerving regularity in Rubens’ larger works (and sometimes even within the same painting).1
But the same was true of Rubens’ equestrian studies. For example, the same horse in the same pose can be seen in a number of Rubens’ equestrian portraits from this stage of his career, including his 12 foot high Portrait of Don Rodrigo Calderon on Horseback dated to 1612-15 (fig. 2, Royal Collection),2 the lost circa 1615 Portrait of Albert, Archduke of Austria,3 and the slightly later Portrait of Ladislas-Sigismund, Prince of Poland (Wawel Castle, Cracow).4 The two extant portraits are today believed to have been painted with significant studio assistance. Since such large works would have been among the most complex for Rubens’ assistants to master it is hardly surprising that he sought to replicate a well-established pattern through the repeated use of one original study, which would be copied and scaled up by assistants. Rubens would then apply much of the final detail himself. A concession to originality in such pictures was to change the color of the horse from grey to brown.
But the original studies on which Rubens’ early equestrian works were based has until now remained something of a mystery. Three of the poses he used most often have been known through a now lost painting formerly in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, which was traditionally called The Riding School.5 In 1987 Hans Vlieghe recognized that the Berlin picture was not in fact intended to show an actual riding school, but was perhaps instead a “studio ‘prop’ [to be used] whenever an equestrian portrait was called for.”6 The Berlin picture showed three horses arranged together on a single canvas, on a landscape background, and in the three "attitudes" 17th Century viewers might have expected to see horses performing. The horse on the left was that used in the above mentioned equestrian portraits. The central horse is a semi-rearing grey horse in profile (performing a pesade), which can be seen in the large Wolf and Fox Hunt of about 1616 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) painted by Rubens and his studio.7 The horse on the right showed a "piebald" horse from behind. This pose, evidently unsuitable for both portraits and hunting compositions, is only known to have been used once by Rubens: in the foreground of his circa 1630 Henry IV at the Siege of Amiens in the Gothenburg Museum of Art (fig. 3).8
However, it has long been accepted by scholars that the Berlin canvas was not painted by Rubens himself, but by an unknown assistant.9 Furthermore, another picture in the Royal Collection, also attributed to Rubens’ studio (fig. 4),10 shows the horses placed in different positions and on a plain background. The varying presentation of the horses therefore makes it clear that Rubens’ missing original studies were not painted on one piece of canvas, as suggested in the Berlin picture, but were instead separate pictures.
The discovery of the present painting now allows us to appreciate Rubens’ original equestrian studies for the first time. While it matches the basic design seen in the Berlin and Royal Collection pictures, the unfinished and sketchy nature of both the horse and rider is far more apparent. Indeed, the rider is hardly described at all, with only the outline of his body and legs quickly drawn in. The emphasis of the painting is clearly on the balance and pose of the horse itself; the careful weighting of the legs; the raised rear left leg; and the poise with which the rider is seated in the saddle. Rubens was an enthusiastic rider, and the study demonstrates not only his facility for painting animals, but also his deep understanding of horses and horsemanship.
Like a large number of Rubens’ studies, the present painting was "completed" by later hands over time. The aesthetic of the unfinished has historically been far less appreciated than it is today, and even Rubens’ most detailed head studies were often, after his death, transformed into finished pictures with the addition of bodies or hands in order to make them more saleable.11 The same was true of Van Dyck’s head studies. What is unusual about the present lot is the extent to which it had been altered by later intervention. An entirely new landscape background was added (almost certainly in France in the mid-to-late 19th Century), which incorporated later strips of canvas (as seen by x-ray, fig. 5) to accommodate a landscape in the style of an artist like Gustave Courbet.12 The rider’s body was given a yellow jacket, while his hat was turned into something from a Hollywood western. But new developments in conservation techniques, in particular the use of solvent gels (which allow a far more controlled removal of overpaint layer by layer), have allowed this later overpaint to be successfully removed. Fortunately, the horse itself had remained unaffected by the later interventions, as can be seen in the perfectly intact, almost calligraphic strokes of dark pigment in areas such as the saddle and the rider’s accessories.
The two other studies from the series of three recorded in the Berlin picture have also now been identified. The semi-rearing grey horse in profile has been discovered in a private collection in England. As with the present painting, later intervention had led to the rider being substantially overpainted, and a landscape background added. Originally, as with the present lot, only the outline of the rider had been drawn in by Rubens. The whereabouts of the final study, showing a grey horse from the front, remains unknown, but was previously in the collection of the Earls of Portarlington in England.13
All three studies were originally painted on a plain ground layer, as seen in the present lot, and are of the same height. The Portarlington study was of a similar width to that of the present lot, but had also been made wider at a later date with the addition of two strips of canvas. What seems to be the same piebald horse as the present lot, similarly painted, appears in Rubens’ Act of Devotion by Emperor Rudolf I.14 Other artists seem also to have admired Rubens’ equestrian studies; the three horses appear, for example, in various works by Sebastian Vrancx.
We are grateful to Ben van Beneden, Director of the Rubenshuis Museum, and Professor Arnout Balis, Director of the Rubenianum, for confirming the attribution to Rubens after first-hand inspection.
1. For example, in Rubens’ 1618 "Theodosius and Ambrose" [Kunshistorisches Museum, Vienna], which was painted with Van Dyck, the same model is used for both the Emperor Theodosius and the bystander immediately next to him. When Van Dyck made his own smaller version of the composition (National Gallery, London) he amended this error and re-cast the figure of the Emperor with a different model.
2. Windsor Castle, RCIN 404393.
3. See Hans Vlieghe, Corpus Rubenianum Vol. XIX, "Rubens Portraits of Identified Sitters Painted in Antwerp," (Brussels 1987), no.58, p.36.
4. Ibid, no.114, p.124.
5. Destroyed by fire in 1945.
6. Hans Vlieghe, Corpus Rubenianum Vol. XIX, "Rubens Portraits of Identified Sitters Painted in Antwerp", (Brussels 1987), p.30.
7. Accession no. 10.73. Rubens claimed that the wolves were certainly by his own hand.
8. Inventory no. GKM 1380.
9. For example, Hans Vlieghe, Corpus Rubenianum Vol. XIX, ’Rubens Portraits of Identified Sitters Painted in Antwerp’, (Brussels 1987), p.37 fn.2, ‘This painting appears to be a copy rather than an authentic work’.
10. Oil on panel, 36 x 65.7cm, RCIN 404806.
11. See for example Rubens’ ‘Head of a Bearded Man in Profile holding a Bronze Figure’, Christie’s London, 2nd July 2013, lot 30, in which the hand and bronze figure were later additions by Jan Boeckhorst.
12. Old French newspaper clippings were discovered in the joins of the later canvas.
13. An extensive illustrated file on the painting is held at the Rubenianum in Antwerp. It was widely published throughout the early-to-mid 20th Century as a Rubens, but is not recorded after the 1970s.
14. This painting is currently dated to circa 1625 by the Prado, but others have suggested an earlier date. See Elizabeth McGrath, Corpus Rubenianum Vol. XIII, "Subjects from History" (Brussels 1997), Vol II p. 311-317 cat. 56.
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