Lot 54
  • 54

Sir Peter Paul Rubens

300,000 - 500,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Sir Peter Paul Rubens
  • Study of an old woman
  • oil on oak panel, comprising two horizontal and one vertical plank


Possibly Chevalier Gabriel-Francois-Joseph de Verhulst (d. 1779), Brussels;

Possibly his posthumous sale, Brussels, de Neck, 16 August 1779, lot 41 ('Le Buste d'une vielle Femme ridée, ayant la tête couverte d'un linge replié, vetue d'une Robe noiratre'), 230 guilders to Vandermeulen;

Anonymous sale (Verdun, Bouquet et al.), Paris, Baudoin, 26 December, 1797, lot 27;

Carl Robert Lamm (1856–1938), Näsby Castle, Stockholm;

His sale, New York, American Art Association, 21 February 1923, lot 563;

Private collection, USA;

Anonymous sale, Washington, DC, Wechslers, 18 March 2016, lot 184 (as studio of Rubens).


C. Etheridge and S. Gritt, 'Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens: Paintings in the Collection of the National Gallery of Canada', in National Gallery of Canada Review, 2016, pp. 12, 32, n. 39 (as a copy after Rubens?).

Catalogue Note

This vigorously executed and penetrating oil sketch is one of a small group of head studies made from life which Rubens painted predominantly around the years 1615–20. The model was used by Rubens for a figure of a court attendant in his large canvas depicting Queen Tomyris and the head of Cyrus, painted around 1622, probably for the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566–1633) and today in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (fig. 1).1

The painting depicts the story of Queen Tomyris's defeat of the Persian king Cyrus, whose head she bathes in blood as revenge for his treacherous role in the death of her son. The old lady appears  in the left background of the finished painting, just behind and to the left of the figure of Queen Tomyris herself. Recent cleaning has removed the addition of a grey jacket leaving only a suggestion of its collar and the plain white chemise beneath. The woman's hair is tied back and braided and held with a simple white headband. In the finished painting, she is clad in a fur-lined tunic, and now wears a transparent veil over her hair which drops over her forehead and down to her shoulders behind. Her eyes are now drawn to her left, watching the gruesome events unfolding before the assembled court.

Although oil sketches formed an integral part of Rubens' creative process in the preparation and design of his paintings, extant individual head studies such as this are relatively few in number. In his comprehensive catalogue of Rubens's oil sketches published in 1980, for example, the late Julius Held, who was unaware of the present work, published only eighteen such head studies. Another study of the same sitter is in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and was used in at least three paintings by Rubens from this decade.2 The old woman appears, for example, in the centre of Rubens's famous panel of The Daughters of Cecrops discovering Ericthonius in the Liechtenstein Princely Collections in Vienna, and again in Rubens's second treatment of the theme of Tomyris and Cyrus (Louvre, Paris) painted around 1623–25,3 or the earlier Adoration of the shepherds of 1619–20 now in Schleissheim, on both occasions appearing in profile.4 The same head also appears twice on a panel of individual head studies from the circle or following of Rubens, all of which were probably based on originals by his hand, as the originals have in some cases survived.5 A double head study by Rubens's contemporary Jacob Jordaens, is today in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nancy, whose technique and approach admirably reveals the difference in the two artists' technique.  A study of the same model seen from further to the left (with her head turned to the right) by Jacob Jordaens is on loan from a private collection to the Rubenshuis, Antwerp, where it is on display in the kitchen.

This would appear to be the only surviving study in oils that Rubens used for the Boston painting. The construction of the panel, which is comprised of two horizontal and one vertical board, is entirely typical of Rubens' practice. Recent dendrochronological analysis of the two horizontal boards by Ian Tyers reveals a probably felling date after 1601, and thus a likely date of use in the second decade of the seventeenth century.6

There were three paintings by or attributed to Rubens in the famous collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings formed by the reclusive Chevalier van der Hulst in the eighteenth century, including one of his most famous works; lot 43 was the celebrated Coronation of Saint Catherine painted in 1631 and today in the Toledo Museum of Art.  It seems more likely however that the sketch of an old woman with a more substantial white cloth headdress (linge plié) is the Ottawa painting

We are grateful to the Rubenianum in Antwerp, where the painting was studied at first-hand, for their assistance in the cataloguing of this lot.

1. See E. McGrath, Rubens. Subjects from History. Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, XIII (1), London 1997, vol. I, figs 7, 8 and 11, vol. II, pp. 14–25, no. 2.

2. J.S. Held, The oil sketches of Peter Paul Rubens, Princeton 1980, vol. I, p. 610, no. 444, vol. II, reproduced fig. 431. See also the exhibition catalogue, Masterpiece in Focus: Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa 2013–14. It is possible that the Ottawa painting rather than the present lot was that in the Verhulst sale of 1779, for the description in the catalogue would also match.

3. McGrath 1997, no. 4

4. M. Jaffé, Rubens. Catalogo completo, Milan 1990, p. 249, no. 536.

5. Sold London, Christie's, 9 December 2016, lot 116. Among those which can be identified are the Saint Jerome in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Bearded man in profile of 1613–14 at Yale, a Head of a bearded man in the Rubenshuis, Antwerp (on loan from a private collection) as well as a second profile study of the present model.

6.  A copy is available on request.  The vertical plank presented two few growth rings to permit dating.