Old Master Paintings

Rubens the Italian Painter

By George Gordon
“The day before yesterday I received very bad news concerning my mother’s health. She is so ill from asthma that, considering her advanced age of seventy-two years, one can hope for no other outcome than the end common to all humanity”[1]

Rubens wrote these words in a letter to Antonio Chieppio, secretary to the Duke of Mantua, dated Rome 28 October as he set off in haste (“salendo a cavallo”)2 to travel to Antwerp with the intention of seeing his mother on her deathbed (“it will be hard for me to attend this scene”). In fact, she had already died by the time he received the letter. He had no ulterior reason nor any wish to travel north and as he makes clear he had indeed resisted the urgings of his family and friends to go sooner. He did not want to leave Italy. Earlier on in the same letter he expresses the hope that his absence would be a short one, and later on in it he is already anticipating his return: “And so on my return from Flanders I can go directly to Mantua”.

Rubens had by then been in the Italian peninsula (including a trip to Spain) for over eight years. Before he left, to judge by the meagre works that survive, he was a mediocre Flemish painter. Once in Italy he absorbed all the art of the past that he encountered like a voracious sponge, looking at and often drawing everything that he saw, from the sculpture and architectural remnants of classical Antiquity to the paintings, sculpture and architecture of the Renaissance, of the preceding Century and of the present day. Rome in the first decade of the 17th Century was a febrile hotbed of artistic creativity, but Rubens looked as much at the great Venetians such as Titian and Tintoretto as he did at Michelangelo, Annibale Carracci, Elsheimer and inevitably Caravaggio.

By the early Autumn of 1608 Rubens had become a great Italian painter: both a great painter and a wholly Italian one. Had he died on his journey north in the autumn of 1608 that is how we would think of him today. As he remarked in the letter to Annibale Chieppio quoted above, “My work on the three great pictures in the Chiesa Nuova is finished.” Rubens had been given the commission for the high altarpiece of the Oratorian church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, usually known as the Chiesa Nuova, in Rome barely two years earlier in the autumn of 1606 and the three vast canvases, which became the most public manifestation of his talents in Rome, were only completed after the Oratorians rejected his first design.3 By the time they were completed he had amply demonstrated in a sequence of public commissions in Rome and in Genoa, and in outstanding paintings such as the St George and the Dragon now in the Prado that he was an artist who had attained greatness, and who was fully self-aware.4 Above all, he had no intention of returning to Antwerp, so it is the most profound irony that having perforce done so, he was in fact never to return to Italy.

His decision to remain in Antwerp must have taken place in the course of 1609, presumably driven by the acclaim and commissions with which he was showered, but he was still prevaricating in the spring of 1609. He remarked in a letter to his doctor and friend in Rome Johann Faber in a letter dated 10th April 1609 “I have not yet made up my mind whether to remain in my own country or to return to Rome, where I am invited on the most favourable terms.”5 The letter continues in this vein, but eventually he rather wistfully writes “Antwerp and its citizens would satisfy me, if I could say farewell to Rome,” thus revealing his inner conflict.

Fig. 1. Peter Paul Rubens, Raising of the Cross and Descent from the Cross, both oil on panel, Antwerp, Cathedral of Our Lady. Bridgeman Images

It would have taken Rubens a good month to travel from Rome to Antwerp, and he is not recorded there until 11th December. Consequently, dating paintings by him to that year displays more enthusiasm than common sense. It also makes the remarkable onrush of creative energy that he unleashed in the course of the following year which continued unabated through the course of 1610-12 and includes the magnificent – and vast - triptych altarpieces of The Raising of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross in Antwerp Cathedral (fig. 1), all the more extraordinary. Despite the known dates of these works, art historians have struggled to place all the other works that he painted in this febrile period in a plausible order of execution. Quite apart from their extremely high quality, the works that he painted in this period are distinctive, and distinctively unalike the later softer style that started to evolve from the middle of the second decade of the 17th Century as the size of his workshop grew. Rubens’ early Antwerp paintings are not conventionally Rubensian: his female figures are not plump and dimple-fleshed; all his figures are muscular, energetic and often tanned; they are all vigorous of gesture in their physical movements and facial expression. He uses stock figures and faces throughout, and most of these go back to his time in Italy. Like many great artists, Rubens’ development did not take a constant linear form, and he often re-used motifs and ideas from a decade or sometimes two earlier. This trait takes its ultimate form in his habit of actually reworking and enlarging paintings decades later, such as The Adoration of the Magi in the Prado, painted in Antwerp in circa 1610, and then expanded and reworked in circa 1627-9 in Madrid. Crucially, when Rubens did this, he respected what he had created earlier, and to a considerable degree reverted to his older style when updating his work.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist, c. 1609, oil on panel, Baroque: Masterpieces from the Fisch Davidson Collection, lot 5, estimate $25,000,000-35,000,000

There are solid grounds for concluding that the present Beheading of St John the Baptist comes very early on in the sequence of paintings that Rubens painted upon his return to Antwerp, and one wonders if he might not have started to conceive it while still in Italy. It is on a characteristic oak panel of the kind in widespread use in Antwerp however, and whatever ideas were in Rubens’ head, its execution was entirely in the north. There are close similarities between it and paintings produced by Rubens shortly after his return to Antwerp, which we will examine, but this painting, more than any of the others, has close links with paintings made by Rubens in Rome, and with paintings by his contemporaries in Rome, including his friends.

Left to right:
Fig. 2. Peter Paul Rubens,Saint George Slaying the Dragon, oil on canvas, Madrid, Museo del Prado, inv. no. P001644 (detail)
Detail of Salome in the Fisch Davidson painting.
Fig. 3 Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Saint Gregory with Saints Domitilla, Maurus, and Papianus, oil on canvas, Berlin, Gemӓldegalerie (detail).

The Italian Rubens

The figure of Salome is strikingly similar to the Princess in Rubens’ Saint George Slaying the Dragon, painted in Rome and now in the Prado (fig. 2). The physiognomy of the two figures is very similar, as is the way their drapery is painted, and the use of colour. The St George is sometimes dated circa 1605-7, but is probably a little later, and perhaps as late as 1608, since it is a world away from the etiolated figures in his still Mannerist Judgement of Paris in the Prado, which has also been dated circa 1605-8, but may be even earlier. The figure of the Princess may have been the last part of the painting to be completed, since she is only indicated in a few rapid straight lines in Rubens’ otherwise finished preparatory drawing in The Louvre. She also resembles, though less closely, the torso of Saint Domitilla in Rubens’ recently completed commission for the Chiesa Nuova in Rome, who supports her drapery with her left hand in a similar manner (fig. 3).

Fig. 4 Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents, oil on panel, Ontario, Art Gallery of Ontario, inv. no. 2014/1581
Fig. 5 Peter Paul Rubens, Sampson and Delilah, oil on wood, London, National Gallery, inv. no. NG6461

One of the striking characteristics of Rubens’ early Antwerp pictures following his return from Italy is the use of a consistent range of local colour across the picture plane. In the Beheading of St John the Baptist the sequence is red in the figure to the left, blue and purple-grey in the robe of the executioner, sombre green in Herodias’ dress and both a strong yellow and a strong red in Salome’s dress. Rubens’ use of colour is the antithesis of Venetian shot colours. The same colours recur in and are used in the same way in The Massacre of the Innocents and Samson and Delilah, both of circa 1609-11 (figs. 4 and 5), and in the altarpiece of The Raising of the Cross, and a range of other paintings of this date, but they are also found in paintings from Rubens’ Roman period, such as the sketch for the Chiesa Nuova altarpiece of circa 1606-7 in Berlin (fig. 6) and the Hercules and Omphale in the Louvre, often dated 1606, but also perhaps datable circa 1606-8 (fig. 7), as well as in the St George.6 Rubens had therefore by circa 1606-7 found the organisation of particular colours in a sequence across the plane of his pictures, which he was able to transfer seamlessly to his early Antwerp output.

Fig. 6 Peter Paul Rubens, Saint Gregory with Saints Domitilla, Maurus, and Papianus, oil on canvas, Berlin, Gemӓldegalerie.
Fig. 7 Peter Paul Rubens, Hercules and Omphale, oil on canvas, Paris, Musee du Louvre, inv. no. 854

In Rome Rubens befriended the German painter Adam Elsheimer, and the contacts between them were evidently close, because Rubens was clearly very upset to receive early in 1611 news “of the death of our beloved Signor Adam……For myself I have never felt my heart more profoundly pierced by grief at this news.”7 Both the figure in red in the extreme left of the Salome and Herodias with the Head of St John the Baptist, and the King dressed in red in the Adoration of the Kings in the Prado of circa 1610 are echoes of the figures in red at the extreme left of both the St Lawrence prepared for Martyrdom in the National Gallery in London of circa 1601-1 and Il Contento, which Elsheimer painted in Rome in circa 1607, and which was still in his Estate after his death (fig. 8 and detail).8 That Rubens knew the latter picture intimately is beyond doubt, because he painted a copy after the left hand part, which is now in the Courtauld Institute (fig. 9).9 Rubens also drew copies after figures in Elsheimer’s paintings.10 Elsheimer painted his own version of this scene in circa 1606-8 in a tiny monochrome nocturne in gouache now at Chatsworth (fig. 10), which Rubens probably saw in Rome.11 Keith Andrews suggested that this may have been a preliminary drawing for a lost painting. The key similarity between Elsheimer’s treatment and Rubens’ painting, one which Rubens seems to have borrowed, is that in both the executioner’s raised right leg rests on St John’s prone decapitated corpse. Elsheimer’s friend and amanuensis Hendrick Goudt made a small oval engraving based on the small gouache, but without this motif.12 On the other hand the richly robed executioner with a plumed hat in the print resembles the figure in red at the left edge of the painting.

Top left: Fig. 8 Adam Elsheimer, Il Contento, oil on copper, Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland, inv. no. NG1607
Top right: Detail of Fig. 8
Bottom left: Fig. 9 Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Sacrifice in a Temple (after Adam Elshimer), oil on panel, London, The Courtauld, inv. no. P.1978.PG.371. Photo © The Courtauld / Bridgeman Images
Bottom right: Fig. 10 Adam Elsheimer, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, gouache on paper, Chatsworth, Devonshire Collection.

There is no doubt that Rubens was familiar with Caravaggio’s paintings, and there is plenty of evidence that he was influenced by him. Caravaggio’s great Entombment of 1603 hung in the Chiesa Nuova when Rubens was working on his own commission, and Rubens must have made drawn copies of it, because he made a painted copy on an oak panel after his return to Antwerp.13 It played a key part in the genesis of his own great Descent from the Cross for Antwerp cathedral, a triptych commissioned on 7 September 1611, the central panel installed by 17 September 1612. Their compositions differ, but what Rubens took from Caravaggio was the extreme pathos of the subject related in the interaction of the participants and especially of their heads.

Rubens did not paint a subject as violent and shocking as The Beheading of St John the Baptist until after he had returned to the north, when he painted several, probably starting with this work. That he exercised such self-restraint in Rome was probably due to the tastes of his patrons and especially of the church. He anticipates it however in the St George, where the recipient of the extreme and gruesomely depicted violence is the dragon – an uncontroversial victim. In Roman painting of the first decade of the seventeenth century, however, shock was the prerogative of Caravaggio. Rubens certainly studied Caravaggio’s painting to the point that when the time came he was able to unleash unrestrained Caravaggesque violence for the first time in this picture – painted, and there is some irony in this, at very much the same time that Caravaggio himself painted the subject for the first time.14 Where Rubens differs completely from Caravaggio is that in this painting and in his subsequent ones, his own manner of painting: vigorous, visceral, without hesitation; matches completely his subject matter.

Detail of the Fisch Davidson painting

To understand the Beheading of St John the Baptist in the context of this intense period of creativity it is surely helpful to examine the other paintings that he produced in these years 1609-12. All of them have highly distinctive and energetic brushwork throughout which is easily read, and which is also consistent with the style and execution of the smaller number of oil sketches in connection with some of them that he started to paint around this time and which were to form such a vital part of his creative process later in his career. Rubens was already adapting his painting style according to his subject matter, so that paintings such as the Education of the Virgin in the Liechtenstein collection in Vienna and the Susannah and the Elders in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, both datable circa 1609-10 are painted in a slightly softer style with slightly more muted. Nonetheless, The Beheading of St John the Baptist gives every impression of having been painted earlier, and not solely because of its Italian references. There are solid grounds for suggesting that it may have been the first work that Rubens painted upon his return to Antwerp. The intense bulging musculature of the executioner returning his axe to the fasces,15 and the body of St John, decapitated perhaps a minute earlier and still contorted in pain, tends to be muted in works that follow months or a year later. Similar characteristics however, and especially the bubbly musculature are found in Rubens’ Cain slaying Abel in the Courtauld Institute, London (fig. 11), which has been dated circa 1608, and which has an equally strong claim to be among the first works that Rubens painted back in Antwerp.16 It too is full of Italian recollections, though more of sculpture than of painting.

Fig. 11 Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Cain slaying Abel, oil on oak panel, London, Courtauld Institute, inv. no. P.1978.PG.353

Rubens’ Beheading of St John the Baptist appears to be spontaneous and sketch-like in execution, but it is both very carefully thought out and startlingly dynamic, and also steeped in Roman history. As remarked above, the execution of the Saint has just taken place, the executioner still sheathing his axe in the fasces. Rubens’ depiction of him as a lictor, whose duties protecting Roman magistrates occasionally included carrying out executions, is apparently unique in art.17 The platter bearing the Saint’s decapitated head is supported by the outstretched arms of a Black youth, who looks up at Salome: he is too young to be able to bear the combined weight and the platter is tilting away from him so that the head, lubricated with blood, is sliding off it, led by a white cloth emphasizing the movement. Its fall is only arrested by the Saint’s projecting tongue held by the aged servant between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand. Her other outstretched fingers and the tense muscles of her forearm show how much effort is needed to prevent its fall. Visually dramatic though this freeze-frame moment undoubtedly is, it has a significance in the narration of events, because her gesture and Salome’s outstretched right arm with her forefinger raised in admonishment refer to the Saint’s denouncement of the marriage between Herod and Herodias, the mother of Salome. This motif has its origins in classical history: Fulvia pierced the tongue of beheaded Cicero as a reaction to his critique of her marriage to Marcus Antonius, as related by Cassius Dio.18 Later on, around AD 400, Saint Jerome asserted that Herodias had done the same to Saint John. Rubens would no doubt have been aware of both sources.

The right lower leg of the body of Saint John lies on a step, while his knee falls off it, pinioning the left foot of the executioner, the ball of whose right foot presses down on the upper torso of the Saint, whose right arm is twisted under his body, the elbow resting on the ground below the step. Blood spurts freely from his neck over the crook of the elbow, the pressure of the executioner’s foot and the twisting of the torso of Saint John pushing this macabre image almost out of the picture frame towards the viewer. If this painting was intended as an overmantel, this would have placed the severed neck at the viewer’s head-height. The executioner, body of the Saint and the figure of Salome, together with their heads and those of the old servant, a helmeted soldier and a younger maidservant thus form a square filling most of the composition. Only the Elsheimeresque soldier in red, with plumed hat and shield, lies outside this square. As with all of Rubens’ best works, order and dramatic tension work together.

[1] R.S. Magurn, The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens, Cambridge 1955, pp. 45-6, letter no. 19.

[2] “salendo a cavallo”

[3] The Madonna della Vallicella adored by Angels, oil on canvas, 425 x 250cm, flanked by Saints Gregory, Maurus and Papianus, and Domitilla, Nereo and Achillea, each oil on canvas, 425 x 280 cm. Rubens received 300 scudi in payment on 25th October 1608, three days before his departure for Antwerp.

[4] Oil on canvas, 304 x 256, Museo Nacional del Prado, inv. PI644, see Jaffé & McGrath 2005, pp. 83-5, no. 21, reproduced.

[5] Magurn, 1955, p. 52, letter no. 20. He goes on to remark (idem, pp. 52-3) that the truce with the Dutch provinces in the north “will without doubt be ratified” imminently, thus yielding a lasting peace, and he implies that this would be a reason for him to stay.

[6] Oil on canvas, 147.3 x 120.5 cm, Berlin, Staatliche Museen, inv. Mu1486, see Suda & Nickel 2019, p. 224, reproduced; oil on canvas, 278 x 216 cm., Paris, Louvre, inv. 854, see Jaffé & McGrath 2005, p. 69, reproduced fig. 36.

[7] In a letter dated Antwerp 14th January 1611 in reply to Johann Faber, who had written to tell him of Elsheimer’s death; see Magurn, 1955, pp. 53-4, letter no. 21.

[8] Oil on copper, 30.1 x 42 cm, Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland, see K. Andrews, Adam Elsheimer, Munich 1985, p. 185, no. 19, reproduced plate 77

[9] London, Courtauld Institute, see Andrews, 1985, p. 185, reproduced p. 184, fig. 69.

[10] For example the two studies of the Christ-Child on the shoulders of St Christopher in the British Museum (inv no. Gg.2-231, see Burchard & D’Hulst, 1963, vol. II, pp. 75-6, no. 43, reproduced vol. I, plate 43.

[11] Gouache on paper, 7.8 x 6.7 cm., Chatsworth, Derbyshire, inv. 851C; see K. Andrews, Adam Elsheimer, New York 1977, p. 162, no. 48, reproduced plate 93. We are grateful to Tico Seifert for pointing this out (email 16 November 2022).

[12] 6.5 x 5.1 cm., see Andrews, 1977, p. 162, under no. 48, reproduced plate 94. Rubens also knew Goudt. He refers to “Signor Adam” (Elsheimer) and “Signor Enrico” (Goudt) in a letter to Johann Faber dated 10th April 1609, which continues “and to the other friends whose good conversation makes me often long for Rome” (Magurn, 1955, p. 53, letter 20.

[13] Oil on panel, 88.3 x 66.5 cm., Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, inv. 6431, see Jaffé and McGrath, p. 134, no. 57, reproduced.

[14] In two versions, one in Madrid, Palacio Real, the other in the National Gallery, London (see S. Schütze, Caravaggio.  The Complete Works, Cologne 2009, pp. 228-9, 281-3, nos. 60, 63. Both are usually dated circa 1609-10, but a few scholars have placed them earlier.

[15] The fasces were a bundle of rods with an axe with its blade projecting above it, together a symbol of authority borne by ancient magistrates. Here it probably means that St John’s execution was legally sanctioned.

[16] Oil on panel, 131.2 x 94.2 cm.; London, Courtauld Institute, inv. P.1978.PG.353, see Jaffé and McGrsath, 2005, p. 171, no. 79, reproduced.

[17] No doubt depicting the executioner as a lictor, with axe and fasces stemmed from Rubens’ striving for realistic depiction of antiquity. However, As tetrarch of the vassal states of Galilee and Perea, Herod enjoyed a measure of independence, was not a Roman magistrate and would probably not have had lictors in his service.

[18] Dio Cassius, Roman History, V.

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