Rubens was a draughtsman of genius, and also prolific, but even so this drawing ranks among his finest in terms of scale, power and assurance of execution. A key drawing in the development of one of the artist’s pivotal commissions, with an astonishingly distinguished provenance, it is one of only a tiny handful of drawings by Rubens of comparable importance to have come on the market in the last half century.
This is a drawing conceived and executed with total clarity of purpose and mastery of technique, yet also illustrates very clearly the artist’s thought processes and working method, as he developed the composition of the major altarpiece for which it is a study. The very large figure is drawn right to the edges of the sheet which, though cut in both right corners, seems otherwise to have retained its original dimensions. In figure studies from this stage of his career, Rubens often seems to have drawn with such energy and scale of vision that he ran out of space, and it is not at all uncommon for the end of a figure’s hand or foot to be missing at the edge of a sheet, and completed in a separate study beside the limb in question. Here, the twin emphases of the study are the pose and the modelling of the figure. The outlines are very rapidly drawn with firm, long lines of rich chalk, the density of the lines varying very subtly as the artist applied more or less pressure as he drew. Then the volumes of the figure are sculpted with much more softly applied black chalk, seemingly stumped in many places, highlighted with understated but extremely effective touches of white. Despite the apparent assurance of the figure’s positioning, Rubens was clearly still working out the pose as he made the drawing: the figure’s left leg was initially lightly drawn, more bent and further forward, and then repositioned closer to the other leg, in the position in which it appears in the final painting. As Rubens clearly concluded, the figure would have been able to exert more upwards pressure on the heavy weight above his head if his feet were closer together, so the final pose therefore communicates more clearly the effort he was making.
Influence of Italy
In the final composition, the figure that is based on this drawing appears as a soldier, clad in armour. The practice of making large-scale, nude or near-nude individual figure studies in chalk for figures that would subsequently appear clothed is something that Rubens learned from his lengthy stay in Italy – a sojourn that was to transform his approach to art in more or less every way. While in Italy, Rubens saw, studied and copied paintings and drawings by all the great masters of the renaissance, from Michelangelo and Raphael to Correggio, Mantegna and Titian, but in the context of a drawing such as this, the two most obvious influences in terms of both style and method come from Michelangelo, and from the Carracci, alongside whom Rubens would have lived and worked when he was in Rome.
Rubens travelled to Italy in 1600, following in the footsteps of so many illustrious predecessors from the northern countries. Although he was, for much of his time in Italy, in the service of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga (1562-1612) of Mantua, he seems not to have been required to reside continuously in that city, and also spent significant periods in Rome and, importantly, Madrid, where he was sent by his patron in 1603-4 to deliver gifts to the Spanish King Philip III, and the Duke of Lerma. There he immersed himself in the great works by Raphael and Titian that had been collected by Philip II, making his famous series of copies after Titian. On 26 October 1608, however, Rubens received news that his mother, whose health had been weak for some years, had taken a turn for the worse, and two days later, having informed his employer that he needed to go back to Antwerp to see her, he left. Though he subsequently wrote of how much he wished to return to Rome, this was the last time Rubens was to set foot on Italian soil.
Re-established in Antwerp
Although he arrived back in Antwerp too late to see his mother before she died, Rubens did not immediately set off again for Italy, and very soon he found himself much in demand. Perhaps as a result of the signing of the Twelve Years’ Truce in Antwerp on 9 April 1609, and the bringing to an end, at least temporarily, of the Eighty Years’ War, there may have been more of a sense of optimism in the city than had been the case in previous decades, and there was also much to be done to redress the damage wrought to the city’s churches and altars by the Iconoclasm of 1566-7, and the later purges undertaken by the Calvinist city council in 1581. By the autumn of 1609, the die was clearly cast, and Rubens’ decision to remain indefinitely in Antwerp was confirmed by two events: on 23 September, the artist agreed to re-enter the service of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, for whom he had briefly worked in the period between their arrival in the Low Countries in 1599 and his departure for Italy the following year, and three weeks later, on 13 October, he married Isabella Brant.
It seems that Rubens’ new royal patrons did not insist that he move to Brussels, where their court resided, and he was therefore able to accept local, Antwerp commissions as well as those from the royal court. The first two significant commissions that he received were for paintings of The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Glorification of the Holy Eucharist, both destined for the Dominican Church. Very soon afterwards, probably at the end of 1609 or the very beginning of 1610, came the commission that concerns us here, and the one that really established Rubens as the dominant artist active in Antwerp at the time, The Raising of the Cross, painted for the Church of Saint Walburga (now destroyed), and subsequently removed to the Cathedral of Our Lady, where it can still be seen today, though in a slightly different form from how it appeared originally. The altarpiece, the definitive work from this stage of Rubens’ career, was largely paid for by the wealthy spice merchant, collector and philanthropist Cornelis van der Geest, a church warden at Saint Walburga’s, who was also a member of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sacrament, which had just commissioned the altarpiece of The Glorification of the Holy Eucharist for the Dominican Church. Van der Geest’s support for Rubens at this time was clearly immensely important, and when, some 30 years later, the artist had a print made after The Raising of the Cross, it was dedicated to Van der Geest, described in the inscription as ‘The best of men and oldest of friends, in whom ever since youth he found a steadfast patron.’ This was also the moment when Rubens made two of his most important early paintings for private patrons, The Massacre of the Innocents (Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario) and Samson and Delilah (London, National Gallery), the latter painted for another of his highly influential patrons and long-standing supporters, the Antwerp Burgomaster Nicholas Rockox (1560-1640). Rockox was also behind the commissioning from Rubens of two more of his most significant paintings of this richly productive period: The Adoration of the Magi, painted for the town hall in Antwerp in 1609, and The Descent from the Cross, commissioned for the Arquebusiers’ Chapel in Antwerp Cathedral in 1611.
Working method, and development of the commission
By this point in his career, Rubens had developed a fairly consistent method by which he devised and developed his painted compositions. Typically, the main working out of the overall composition would be done in the form of one or more oil sketches, on panel, in which the basis is a rapid chalk sketch, which is usually largely obscured by the loosely applied oil paint of the sketch itself. These oil sketches also often served as a prospectus, to be presented to the patron as an indication of how Rubens intended the composition to look. Sometimes, he also sketched out his composition in pen and ink, prior to (or instead of) executing an oil sketch – one such drawing, for the London Samson and Delilah, is in a New York private collection2 – but generally, no pen drawings exist for the artist’s more complex, multi-figured compositions, and that is the case for the Antwerp Raising of the Cross. Rubens painted a fine oil sketch (fig.2), now in the Louvre, which was presumably submitted to the patrons prior to the signing of the final contract for the commission, in June 1610.3
The next step in the development of the composition was the production of large chalk studies of individual, key figures within the composition, something that would typically be done either concurrently with the painting of the oil sketch, or shortly thereafter. For The Raising of the Cross, five such figure drawings have survived, although it is likely that Rubens actually made more.4 Four of these drawings are, like this, studies for major figures in the main, central panel of the altarpiece, and the other, a sheet of studies of two heads and two pairs of hands, in the Albertina, Vienna, relates to the inside left wing. All four of the large studies of single figures show fascinating differences both from the corresponding figures in the oil sketch and from the final painted versions, differences that bear witness to Rubens’ creative process in action, and his method of developing and refining the composition from oil sketch to finished work. For example, the study of the upper half of the figure of Christ, now at Harvard5 shows the figure in a more frontal and upright position than in the oil sketch, a change that is more or less followed in the final painting. Similarly, in the oil sketch, the crouching man seen from behind in the lower right corner of the central panel contributes to the raising of the cross by pulling rather awkwardly on a rope, but in the painting he is helping much more directly to heave the cross upright, his hands applied directly to the back of the wooden upright, a revision first explored in the dramatic drawn study for this figure.6 Only in a third drawing, in Oxford, a half-length study for the man standing right in the middle of the scene, do we see little change in the pose between the oil sketch, the drawing and the finished painting.7
In the present drawing, however, the changes are considerable, and also seem to indicate a slightly different chronology in relation to the oil sketch and the final painting. In the other drawings mentioned so far, there is no sense that the artist was working out the pose as he went along, and even though the figures are not identical to the corresponding painted versions, they are drawn without any revisions or alterations. Here, on the other hand, Rubens explores, within the same drawing, two different positions for the figure’s left leg, but only works one of the options up to the same degree of finish as the rest of the figure, indicating that that was his preferred solution. This position of the leg, further back and closer to the figure’s right leg, is, as already mentioned, more effective from the point of view of the narrative, but unlike the other three figure drawings, this change does not represent a rethinking of the version depicted in the oil sketch, as the figure’s leg is in more or less the same position both in the oil sketch and in the finished painting. That would seem to indicate that, unlike the other three sheets, the present drawing may actually have been executed at the same time that Rubens was working on the oil sketch, or perhaps even just before. The other fundamental difference between this drawing and the other three is, of course, that this is a study for a figure that would ultimately appear clothed, whereas the others all still appear nude or nearly nude in the final painting. Rubens clearly found the inclusion of a single armour-clad figure within a complex multi-figured composition an effective visual device, as he used exactly the same formula in the Massacre of the Innocents.
So large was Rubens’ monumental altarpiece of The raising of the Cross that he had no alternative but to paint it in situ, but despite its great scale and complexity, he finished it in less than a year. In some respects the altarpiece was conceived in a very traditional format, but in a number of others it was more unusual. Firstly, its location was hardly typical, as the high altar of Saint Walburga’s was actually very high indeed, situated at the top of a flight of 19 steps, above a projection of the church that stuck out over the street that ran round the east side of the building (fig. 3). The perspective of the scene should therefore be read with this fact in mind. The representation of space within and between the three main panels is also unusual, as although the scenes depicted in each panel do not form part of the same narrative, the landscape setting is represented so as to give an illusion of continuity between the three scenes. (When, at the end of his life, Rubens painted another oil sketch of the scene, now in Toronto8, to serve as a modello for the print by Witdoek (fig. 4), he abandoned the tripartite format entirely, and combined the three images of the altarpiece into one single composition.) In its original format, as recorded in a painting by Anton Gheringh, the triptych was surmounted by a shaped panel showing God the Father with angels either side and a sculpted gilded pelican at the very top, and had three small predella panels below. In 1733, however, this original ensemble was dismantled, and the peripheral elements were subsequently dispersed. The triptych was relocated to Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady in 1824.
Sources and influences
Although Rubens’ figure studies of this type and period do certainly reflect his knowledge of the Carracci, it is the influence of Michelangelo that is unquestionably the most evident in the attitudes, forms and poses of the immense, muscular nude figures that dominate Rubens’ painting of The Raising of the Cross. Compositionally, one can also cite other Italian sources, notably Tintoretto, but in terms of individual figures, it is Michelangelo whose approach and vision shone through most strongly at this stage of Rubens’ career, so soon after his return from Italy. There are also, of course, clear echoes of antique sculpture, not least the Laocoon, which Rubens himself copied while in Italy, in drawings now in Milan and Copenhagen9, and Julius Held and others have made the intriguing suggestion that a relief showing The Raising of a Herm of Dionysius on a Roman sarcophagus now at Princeton (fig. 5) could in fact have provided a direct source of inspiration for Rubens when he was developing The Raising of the Cross, and this figure in particular.10
Provenance and later history
The first recorded owner of this drawing is the Dutch artist Jacob de Wit (1695-1754), a great admirer of Rubens’ works, who assembled a very significant collection of the artist’s paintings and drawings. De Wit was also responsible for making a very important series of copy drawings after Rubens’ ceiling decorations in the Antwerp Jesuit church, shortly before the destruction of Rubens' great cycle by fire, in 1718, drawings which served as the basis for various prints, and constitute the most complete record of this immensely important lost decorative scheme.11 In the sale of De Wit’s collection, in 1755, among the seventy-five drawings by Rubens on offer were eight described as related to ‘t groote Kruis (‘the large Cross’), and the present drawing is generally considered to have been one of those eight. As Michiel Plomp has described, De Wit also copied at least one of the Rubens drawings in his collection and ‘finished’ others with the addition of dark ink washes and touches of additional heightening.12 All scholars agree, however, that the present work is entirely in the hand of Rubens himself.
Later in the 18th century, the drawing was owned by another leading Dutch collector, Dirk Versteegh (1751-1822)13, and after the posthumous dispersal of his collection in 1823, it passed to Sir Thomas Lawrence, who owned at least 130 sheets by Rubens, including a major group of studies relating to The Garden of Love, and many other celebrated drawings by the artist (see also the introduction on pp. xxx above). It was Lawrence’s wish that after death, his great collection should be offered en bloc first to King George IV, then to the British Museum, and after that to Sir Robert Peel and Lord Dudley. Despite a very reasonable asking price, none of the four agreed to buy the collection, and next a subscription was organised to try and purchase it for the National Gallery. Again, this effort failed, and in 1835, some five years after Lawrence’s death, the drawings were entrusted to the dealer Samuel Woodburn, who mounted over the following year or so a series of 10 selling exhibitions, each one consisting of precisely one hundred drawings, and dedicated to the works of between one and four artists. The present drawing was no. 27 in the catalogue of the first of these exhibitions, held at Cosmorama, 209 Regent Street, in May 1835, in which were presented one hundred drawings by Rubens.
The buyer of a very significant number of drawings from the Lawrence/Woodburn exhibitions was Prince William of Orange (1792-1849), the future King William II of The Netherlands, who assembled, together with his Russian wife Anna Pavlovna (daughter of the Czar Paul I), one of the most spectacular collections of paintings and drawings of the period. The introduction above describes the collection, its formation, and its ultimate dispersal in more detail, but the quantity and range of masterpieces that it contained is astonishing, particularly given that the collection was put together over a relatively short period, between the mid-1820s and the King’s untimely early death in 1849. While the great majority of William II and Anna Pavlovna’s collection was rapidly scattered to the four winds after his death, mainly through the massive sale of 1850 (see Provenance), a small number of works, including the present drawing, were bought back by the auctioneers on behalf of the family, and have remained until today in the possession of William II's descendants.
Throughout his life, Rubens made substantial, chalk figure studies, but his drawings of this type are at their most imposing and sculptural during the period immediately following his return from Italy, in late 1608. At this pivotal moment, Rubens made figure studies that are genuinely Michelangelesque in their grandeur, and drawings of this type also take on a more important role in his creative process at this point than at any other time in his career. In the 2005 Rubens drawings exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the small group of surviving figure studies for the artist’s crucial commission of this period, The Raising of the Cross, was prominently presented as something of a case study of Rubens’ capabilities as a figure draughtsman at this stage of his career. The drawing from this group that is presented here is perhaps the most revealing of all of them as regards the process by which the artist arrived at the final poses and composition, and it was more than worthy of its place within the superb ensembles of drawings by Rubens that were assembled by two of its illustrious previous owners in earlier centuries: Sir Thomas Lawrence and King William II of The Netherlands. No figure drawing by the artist of this scale or significance has been seen on the market in a generation, nor has any major drawing with this remarkable royal provenance.
1. Judson, op. cit., pp. 88-95, no. 20, reproduced figs. 61 and 64
2. Sold, from the collection of Prof. I.Q. van Regteren Altena, London, Christie’s, 10 July 2014, lot 9
3. Jusdon, op. cit., no. 20a, reproduced fig. 62
4. Anne-Marie Logan (exhib. cat., New York, 2005, op. cit., pp. 149-155) accepts five figure drawings for the painting as autograph: Judson, op. cit., nos. 20c, 20d, 20h, 20i and 20j. Judson also accepts a further four drawings as autograph studies for the Antwerp Raising of the Cross: his 20b (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Art Museums; considered by Plomp, Logan and others a copy by Jacob de Wit, after Judson 20c), and three surviving fragments from what was originally a single sheet, Judson nos. 20e, 20f and 20g (London, Courtauld Galleries; Bayonne, Musée Bonnat; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively; drawings which Logan believes were made much earlier, in relation to the lost Raising of the Cross that Rubens painted in 1601-2, for Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome)
5. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Art Museums, Inv. no. 1949.5; Judson, op. cit., no. 20c, reproduced fig. 66
6. Judson, op. cit., no. 20i, reproduced fig. 73
7. Ibid., no. 20h, reproduced fig. 72
8. Ibid., no. 20k, reproduced fig. 77
9. M. van der Meulen, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Part XXIII. Copies after the Antique, London 1994, vol. II, pp. 93-104, nos. 76-93, reproduced vol. III, figs. 145-164
10. Held, loc. cit., 1959 and 1986
11. J.R. Martin, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Part I. The Ceiling Paintings for the Jesuit Church in Antwerp, London 1968, pp. 46-51
12. Peter Paul Rubens, The Drawings, exhib. cat., New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005, pp. 51-3
13. M.C. Plomp, Hartstochtelijk Verzameld. 18de-eeuwse Hollandse verzamelaars van tekeningen en hun collecties, Bussum 2001, passim, particularly pp. 249-251, 292
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