This enigmatic portrait by Sir Peter Paul Rubens was sold in the Old Master Paintings Sale at Sotheby’s in London on 4 July for £5.4 Million. Acquired by the great Dutch collector Hans Wetzlar in the early 1950s, Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman has remained in the possession of his descendants ever since. This was the first time in over 60 years that it has appeared on the market.
This portrait of a Venetian nobleman is deeply inspired by the formative years the young Rubens spent travelling around Italy in the early 1600s. Rubens held a lifelong fascination in, and admiration of Italy and its artists. He studied both the classical antiquities of Rome, and the works of his predecessors Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese whose works he encountered in Venice when he visited the city. Having arrived in 1600 at the age of 22, Rubens’ time in Venice was largely devoted to assimilating the techniques of the artists working in this bustling centre of innovation, commerce and international trade. He quickly rose to a position of considerable authority and repute in his own right; in fact Rubens’ prolific output and popularity in the city resulted in his studio becoming one of the largest and most and productive.
Rubens almost certainly based this study on a Venetian prototype, quite probably by Tintoretto, but the resulting portrait and the sitters lively and enigmatic disposition is a product of Rubens’ own immensely creative imagination. Many patrons and sitters were keen to engage his modern approach to portraiture. And yet despite the seeming immediacy of this portrait, it still bears the hallmarks of great court painting, the likes of which would have been commissioned by Venetian nobility as a means to display their influence and status. Rubens himself must have been much taken with the portrait, as it’s thought likely that it remained in his private collection until his death in 1640.
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