Master Paintings Evening Sale

Master Paintings Evening Sale

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 23. SIR PETER PAUL RUBENS | THE LAST SUPPER, EN GRISAILLE.

Property from an Important New York Collection


Auction Closed

January 30, 12:05 AM GMT


1,500,000 - 2,000,000 USD

Lot Details


Property from an Important New York Collection


Siegen 1577 - 1640 Antwerp


oil on panel

24¼ by 19 in.; 61.5 by 48.5 cm


Jacques de Wit, Antwerp (c. 1650 -1721), by 1722;

His sale, Antwerp, 15 May 1741, lot 102 ( for 265 fl. to Bostraeten with pendant, The Raising of Lazarus);

Jeronimus Tonneman, Amsterdam;

His sale, Amsterdam, 21 October 1754, lot 7 (for 1,350 fl. to Braamcamp, with pendant lot 8);

There purchased by Gerrit Braamcamp;

His sale, Amsterdam, 31 July 1777, lot 196 (for 1,700 fl. to Bruin, with pendant);

There purchased by Jacob J. de Bruyn;

His sale, Amsterdam, 12 September 1798, lot 44 (for 944 fl. to Beekman, with pendant);

William Troward;

His sale, London, Christie's, 5 May 1826, lot 49 (where unsold, with pendant);

Anonymous sale, London, 1849;

There acquired by John Smith, London;

By whom sold to Thomas Gambier Parry, 1850 (according to a note in Smith's own copy of his catalogue raisonné, see Literature);

Anonymous sale, London, Christie's, 17-18 June 1864, lot 90 (for £45, to Smith);

Sieland family collection, Leipzig, circa 1880 - 1922;

Theodor Patscher, Düsseldorf, by 1922;

By whom sold to Wassily Mertens, Leipzig, 1937;

His sale, London, Sotheby's, 25 June 1969, lot 14 (where withdrawn);

Peter Mertens, Frankfurt am Main;

By whom sold, London, Sotheby's, 12 December 1984, lot 47;

There acquired by the present collector.

G. Hoet, Catalogus of naamlyst van schilderyen met derzelver pryzen..., vol. II, The Hague 1752, p. 39;

J. Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters, vol. II, London 1830, p. 180, cat. no. 624;

P.J. Mariette, "Abécédario de P.J. Mariette et autres notes inédites...sur les arts et les artistes," in Archives de l'art français, vol. 5, Paris 1855-56, p. 70;

C. Blanc, Le trésor de la curiosité, tiré des catalogues de vente..., vol. I, Paris 1857, p. cxxi;

M. Rooses, L'oeuvre de P. P. Rubens: Histoire et description de ses tableaux et dessins, vol. II, Antwerp 1888, p. 48, under no. 265 bis; 

R. Oldenbourg, P.P. Rubens, Des Meisters Gemälde, Stuttgart 1921, p. 462;

L. van Puyvelde, Les Esquisses de Rubens, Basel 1940, p. 97, under cat. no. 78; 

C. Bille, De Tempel de Kunst of het Kabinet van den Heer Braamcamp, Amsterdam 1961, vol. II, pp. 47-47a, cat. no. 196;

J. Müller Hofstede, "'Rubens' Grisaille für den Abendmahlsstich des Boetius à Bolswert," in Pantheon, vol. XXVIII, no. 2, 1970, pp. 110-115, reproduced p. 110, figs. 2 and 4;

J.S. Held, The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens, Princeton 1980, vol. I. pp. 468-469, cat. no. 341, and vol. II, reproduced pl. 335;

D. Bodart, Rubens, Milan 1985, p. 194, cat. no. 790c;

I. Pohlen, Untersuchungen zur Reproduktionsgraphik der Rubenswerkstatt, Munich 1985, pp. 89-93, 190-191;

M. Jaffé, Rubens: Catalogo completo, Milan 1989, p. 330, cat. no. 1067;

X. Yegorova, Peter Paul Rubens: Paintings from Soviet Museums, St. Petersburg 1989, pp. 144-145;

D. Freedberg in Peter Paul Rubens: Oil Paintings and Oil Sketches, exhbition catalogue, New York 1995, pp. 80-84, no cat. no;

K.S. Egorova, Niderlandy XV-XVI veka, Flandriia XVII-XVIII veka, Bel'giia, XIX-XX veka: sobranie zhivopisi, exhibition catalogue, Moscow 1998, p. 247;

J. Judson, Rubens: The Passion of Christ, Turnhout 2000, pp. 52, 54, reproduced fig. 13 (as After Rubens, The Institution of the Eucharist); 

P. Sutton and M.E. Wieseman, Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, New Haven 2004, pp. 214-217, cat. no. 30, reproduced p. 215.

K. Bulckens, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, VI: The Life of Christ before the Passion, vol. 2: The Ministry of Christ, 2017, p. 155, reproduced fig. 166.

This extraordinary sketch appears here at auction for the first time since it was purchased by the present owner over thirty-five years ago. Executed mainly in grisaille, it was made in preparation for an engraving (fig. 1) by the printmaker Boëthius A. Bolswert (1580-1633), which reproduced the composition of Rubens’s altarpiece for St. Rombouts Cathedral in Mechelen. Grisaille sketches like this played a role in disseminating and protecting Rubens’ ideas for major compositions, because the wide distribution of ensuing prints would act as a de facto copyright over his designs.1  

Catherine Lescuyer commissioned Rubens to paint the Last Supper altarpiece to decorate the altar of the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament in the Church of Saint Rombouts in Mechelen. The painting, now in the Pinacoteca Brera in Milan (fig. 2), was already installed by 1631, because it is mentioned in an inventory of the chapel drawn up in that year. The grisaille sketch was probably executed in 1630, when the painting was still most likely in the studio.Rubens began his work on the project with a small colored sketch, now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow (fig. 3). Rather than preparing a larger scale modello, as was customary in Italy, Rubens probably used this sketch alone to seek approval from the patron.3 Our grisaille was then copied after the altarpiece, and finally Bolswert produced the engraving in mirror image. This print must have been completed in any case before 25 March 1633, when Bolswert died.

Although Ludwig Burchard doubted the attribution of the Last Supper,4 the attribution has reached universal scholarly consensus in all subsequent publications, including Julius Held's magisterial and comprehensive study of Rubens' oil sketches in 1980, a 2004 exhibition with catalogue by Peter Sutton and Marjorie Wieseman, and a recent volume of the Corpus Rubenianum. Finally, several key scholars from the Rubenianum, including Arnout Balis, Ben van Beneden, Hans Vlieghe, Koen Bulckens and Brecht Vanoppen, have recently examined our sketch in great detail in Antwerp, and they all regard the work as by Rubens in collaboration with a gifted studio assistant, who prepared the copy by blocking in the composition and working up the figures to some extent.5

The complex proposal of the Rubenianum scholars, that our sketch was first worked up by a talented pupil, then reworked by Rubens in the final stages, is commonplace when dealing with Rubens’ vast production of paintings, but not yet widely acknowledged in the literature on the sketches. In the beginning stages, the painter of our grisaille sketch copied the altarpiece in the Brera quite faithfully, but only up to the prepared surface of the panel, leaving bands or borders of what seem to be unprimed areas surrounding the grisaille painting. A careful look at these “expanded” areas, more pronounced under infra-red reflectography, reveals the distinct hand of Rubens himself. Three other instances have recently been noted where an assistant’s copy was worked up by the virtuoso hand of the master, all of which relate to prints published in the 1630s.6 This being the fourth example, other cases may well surface, and they will be essential towards a more specific understanding of the master’s working process when collaborating with printmakers after his designs.

Careful analysis of the the initial sketch, the large altarpiece, the cabinet-sized sketch in grisaille and the similarly-sized print after it7 reveals some subtle but important discrepancies. First, the foremost apostle on the left rests his left hand on the table in the sketch, while this hand has disappeared in the altarpiece. High density images of the altarpiece, however, reveal a pentimento in precisely this location, suggesting that Rubens first included the hand, then eliminated it because he regarded it as distracting in the composition on this large scale. Surprisingly, he reintroduced it in the sketch in grisaille, and of course the hand appears again in the final print in reverse. Likewise, the bare arm of the apostle on the far right in our painting does not appear in the initial colored sketch, nor is it seen in the completed altarpiece. Moreover, this white-haired and bearded apostle kneels on his seat and rests his right hand on the table, a detail that is only barely indicated in the colored sketch and does not exist in the altarpiece at all. Rubens even went to the extent of removing the Eucharistic plate that was indicated in the initial colored sketch; this element would not reappear in any of the later incarnations of the composition. Similarly, in the grisaille Rubens has introduced a third source of light, a candle whose flame is barely discernable to the left of the head of the young beardless apostle seated in the left foreground. Like the hands of the apostles on the table, this idea goes back to the initial colored sketch, while it is removed in the altarpiece. 

The colored sketch and the altarpiece both show one jug of wine in the lower right corner, while the grisaille sketch shows half of a second jug, both standing in a metal cooling container. In raking light, one large pentimento can be discerned in our sketch: the curtain at first conformed to the arrangement in the altarpiece, hanging down almost to the heads of the apostles seated on the left, but it was later painted out, creating a loftier feeling of space. Finally, the altar in the upper right contains barely an indication of the open book in the colored sketch, while this area is more fully realized in the altarpiece, with two candles in brass candlesticks on either side of an open book. Rather than crowding these elements into the colored sketch, the altarpiece and the grisaille position the right candle further from the book and supported on an extended wing of the altar. 

As noted above, the altarpiece design was copied onto a board that was larger than necessary, and the completion of the edges, as well as direct intervention into the body of the work, was executed by Rubens himself. The master used this opportunity to address subtly various iconographic elements of the subject of the Last Supper. It is furthermore clear that Rubens touched up the sketch rather extensively, so that it would be regarded ultimately as a work fully from his hand.Held and others observed that the heads of two apostles next to Christ had been switched in the sketch, so that when the print reproduced them in reverse, they would appear as they do in the altarpiece, with the young St. John to Jesus’ left. As Rubens had often done in drawings with great facility, he is capable of executing figures in mirror image, seemingly without effort. The candle on the right side of the table has also been raised significantly, so it burns right next to Judas’s eye, as if it were revealing the precise moment of his mental betrayal of the Savior. The left hand of one of the apostles points at Judas, who looks out with a guilty expression. In the Gospel of Matthew (26:25), the identification of Judas as the betrayer is described immediately preceding the blessing of the bread. 

The Last Supper is significant as the institution of the Eucharist, which in Catholic dogma involves the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Rubens paid special attention to the gesture of Christ blessing the bread. Numerous pentimenti in this area of the grisaille sketch (including an extra finger!) show that Rubens must have had Christ bless the bread with his left hand, so that in the print this act would be reversed and he would be blessing correctly with his right, the hand that welcomed the blessed into the Kingdom of Heaven. A round area of overpaint on the chest of Christ presumably indicates that the bread was once in this position, and then lowered, so that the blessing could take place properly again with the right hand. Clearly Rubens labored over the blessing of the bread, because he was fully aware that the engraving would be seen by many. 

This sketch was for many years paired with a false pendant, also in grisaille, of the Raising of Lazarus (formerly Schloss Collection, Paris).9 The initial colored sketch for this other altarpiece survives (Musée du Louvre, Paris), although the painting was destroyed in World War II (formerly Berlin, Gemäldegalerie). Similarly, the grisaille sketch of the Raising of Lazarus served as the basis for an engraving in reverse by Boëthius A. Bolswert. The difference is that the corresponding altarpiece was executed at least a decade before the grisaille sketch, rather than just before.10 Several drawings or sketches are mentioned in Rubens' estate without individual descriptions (dessein, disegno and tekening could refer to oil sketches).11 It is likely that this and many other sketches and drawings remained in Rubens’ possession until his death in 1640, after which they were to remain intact until one of Rubens’ sons became an artist or one of his daughters married an “artist of renown.”12 Whenever possible, Rubens retained the sketches for his various projects, as he did for the 39 sketches for the Jesuit Church in Antwerp. As Held points out, no sketches by Rubens appear in Antwerp inventories before the artist’s death in 1640; yet beginning in 1642, they proliferate in the major collections of the city.13

Rubens is well known for drawing inspiration from various artistic sources and transforming them into a language all his own, and the Last Supper is no exception. The painting’s initial inspiration probably stems from a triptych by Rubens’ teacher, Otto van Veen, then and now on display in Antwerp Cathedral. Here the apostles are seated in a circular arrangement around Christ, who blesses the bread, as in Rubens’ painting. However, the stiffness and tabletop perspective of the earlier painting is replaced by a flowing dynamic between the figures. A compositional drawing shows Rubens thinking along the same lines as his teacher, with the apostles arranged around a table in proper perspective; this drawing was made in preparation for a print by Theodore Galle that would appear in the Breviarum Romanum, published 1614 by Balthasar Moretus.14 Another drawing, which was probably executed in Italy around 1600-1604 (fig. 4), shows that even earlier in his career, Rubens investigated the interrelationship and reactions of the apostles gathered around the table to witness the miracle of the Eucharist. This drawing has been linked to various Italian sources, from Raphael to Leonardo to Caravaggio,15 yet it is remarkably Rubensian in its execution. Various stains on the drawing indicate that it remained in the studio in Antwerp, where undoubtedly it was pulled out of a portfolio after Rubens received the commission for the Last Supper

1. On the question of copyright in printmaking see J. Rutgers, “Rubens’s Early Involvement in Printmaking,” in Early Rubens (see note XX), p. 106 and 166-168. 

2. The undated contract as well as the 1631 inventory is transcribed in full in Judson, 2000, pp. 50-51.

3. We note that only small sketches were required of Rubens under contract for the 39 paintings executed for the Jesuit Church in Antwerp. These were referred to as teekeninge in’t cleyne, or small drawings or sketches (See J.R. Martin, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, I, The Ceiling Paintings for the Jesuit Church in Antwerp, New York/London 1968, p. 32. For the use of sketches as modelli, see Held 1980, p. 5.

4. See Judson 2000, p. 52. Burchard thought that the sketch was most likely by Erasmus Quellinus (letter of 30 December 1932, in the Rubenianum archives: “Die vorliegende Grisaille dürfte am ehesten von der Hand des Erasmus Quellinus herühren; für Rubens selber ist die Malerei zu dicht und deckend, zu sorgfältig und vorsichtig.”).

5. Since the hand of this pupil is difficult to discern, the proposal is of course partially subjective. Yet it makes perfect sense that at the top of his game and with an extremely busy schedule in 1630, Rubens would have employed the help of a studio assistant to prepare the grisaille sketch. 

6. Koen Bulckens observed that this phenomenon exists in at least two other sketches by Rubens, the Miraculous Draught of Fishes the National Gallery, London, and the Raising of the Cross in The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. See K. Bulckens 2017, pp. 116-122, cat. no. 26, figs. 108 and no. 111, respectively. Moreover, the same phenomenon was observed in The Feast of Herod, a drawing by Rubens in a private collection (see A. M. Logan and M. Plomp, in Peter Paul Rubens: The Drawings, exhibition catalogue, New York 2005, pp. 187-189, no. 57). 

7. The sketch measures 61.5 by 49 cm., while the print is slightly taller, at 63.6 by 49 cm. See Judson 2000, p. 52, copy 1 and p. 53, copy 7.

8. This analysis is supported in the words of Rubens himself; when he wrote to Sir Dudley Carleton in 1618 and offered a painting that was prepared by a pupil, but so radically reworked by him that it could serve as a work fully by his hand: “A Last Judgment, begun by one of my pupils, … not being finished, would be entirely retouched by my own hand, and by this means would pass as original.” Rubens also offered Dudley Carleton an “Achilles clothed as a woman, done by the best of my pupils, and the whole retouched by my hand,” as well as “The Twelve Apostles, with a Christ, done by my pupils, from originals by my own hand, which the Duke of Lerma has; these need to be retouched by my own hand throughout.” See R.S. Magurn, ed., The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens, Cambridge 1955, p. 61 (letter of 28 April 1618).

9. See K. Bulckens 2017, pp. 154-156.

10. The fact that these two grisaille sketches first appeared together in the early 18th century could lead one to believe that they came from the estate of the printmaker. Ger Luijten is developing a theory that many of Rubens’ grisaille and brunaille sketches relating to prints were actually executed by painters working for the printmaker and not Rubens himself, and this would include the sketch in question. Two elements advanced as proof of this theory are not directly related to the sketch of the Last Supper, but they should be mentioned. First of all, Bellori said that Rubens found it a stroke of luck to have found a pupil [Van Dyck] who suited him, who was able to translate his inventions into drawings to be engraved.” (G.P. Bellori, The Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Rome 1672, transl. and ed. by A. Sedgwick-Wohl and T. Montanari, Cambridge 2005, p. 215). So at least in this case we know that Rubens employed a pupil to copy his designs for printmakers. Second, it is known that Abraham van Diepenbeeck signed a contract with the engraver Hendrick Snyers in 1642, so that the printmaker would make engravings after “rare and ingenious pictures” that Van Diepenbeeck had been making “for some years.” One of these sketches by Van Diepenbeeck has survived and is now in Karlsruhe. It appears in the will of Van Diepenbeeck’s daughter Anna Theresa of 1701, which refers to “some copperplates after Rubens” as well as “The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament of the Dominican Fathers.” The sketch in Karlsruhe is a copy in brunaille after the altarpiece by Rubens that remains in the Church of St. Paul in Antwerp (see H. Vlieghe, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Saints, I, London/New York 1972, pp. 73-79). The engraving by Snyers after Van Diepenbeeck’s sketch is dated 1643. The sketch is an excellent example of Van Diepenbeeck’s talents, but it falls far short in quality when compared to the present Last Supper, and the attribution of our sketch to Van Diepenbeeck cannot be entertained. 

11. See J. M. Muller, “Oil-Sketches in Rubens’s Collection,” in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 117, no. 867, 1975, p. 372. See also note 3 above.

12. See M. Rooses, Rubens, vol. II, transl. by Harold Child, Philadelphia/London 1905, p. 623. The precise wording for this painter of renown is een vermaerden schilder (see Muller, 1975 [note 12], p. 372, note 6). 

13. On the matter of the sketches remaining in the estate, see Held 1980, pp. 11-12, as well as Muller 1975 (note 12), pp. 371-374, and J.M. Muller, Rubens: The Artist as Collector, Princeton 1989, p. 145. In the summer of 1638, when he was spending most of his time in his country house of Het Steen, Rubens took care to make certain his sketches were safely locked up in the studio in Antwerp (see J. M. Muller, “Rubens as a Collector of Drawings,” in A House of Art. Rubens as Collector, exhibition catalogue, Antwerp 2004, p. 311). 

14. Rubens, Last Supper, 1613-14. Pen and brown ink, with brush and brown wash, heightened with touches of white opaque watercolor, over traces of black chalk, on cream laid paper, incised for transfer, 302 by 197 mm. Art Institute of Chicago, inv. no. 202252, Promised gift of Richard and Mary L. Gray.

15. See J.S. Held, Rubens. Selected Drawings, London 1958, vol. I, p. 96, cat. no. 7, reproduced vol. II, plate 7; L. Burchard and R.-A. d’Hulst, Rubens Drawings, Brussels 1963, vol. I, pp. 61-63, cat. no. 35; A-M. Logan and M. Plomp, Peter Paul Rubens: The Drawings, New York 2005, exhibition catalogue, pp. 78-80, cat. no. 8, reproduced p. 79.