“Drawn By the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens” explores the central role that oil sketches played in Ruben’s creative process and his successful career, and is the first exhibition in this country devoted exclusively to the oil sketches.
The national tour premieres at the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science October 2 through January 30, then travels to the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, Calif., February to April and concludes at the Cincinnati (Ohio) Art Museum, May to August.
Rubens (1577-1640) was one of the most gifted, versatile and influential painters in all of art history. Eulogized at his death as the most learned artist who ever lived, he had a seemingly infinite capacity for inventive subjects and designs, a vast repertoire of figural poses and a sparkling palette.
Contrary to the popular modern stereotype of artists as irascible, unsocialized creatures living in garrets, Rubens was also blessed with legendary personal charm, early revealing a gift for diplomacy and keen business acumen. He was surrounded by and in constant communication with admiring friends and, to all appearances, enjoyed a delightful home life. He was the confident of kings and princes who besieged him with commissions from across Europe, through which he earned all sorts of honors and amassed a sizable personal fortune, enabling him to retire as a nobleman to his own castle at the end of his life. Rubens’ astonishing success was the wonder of his international peers and an example to be emulated by no less an admirer than Rembrandt.
“Drawn By the Brush” examines how the sketches enabled Rubens to marshal and orchestrate the efforts of a sizable studio, the members of which often assisted in the creation of his vast decorative cycles, tapestry series and towering altarpieces. While the final works of art sometimes betray the labor of the assistants’ execution, covering acres of canvas on deadline, the sketches have a freshness and vitality that utterly beguiles the viewer. They were prized by collectors even during Rubens’ own lifetime as original works of art, indisputably by the master.
Rubens’ oil sketches not only show the undiluted essence of his intellect and spirit, but also come closer to the electrifying instant of creativity than virtually any other work of art by an Old Master. Jealously guarded by the master as the embodiment of his creative capital, Rubens even left instructions to safely lock the sketches away from prying eyes when he was out of town.
The exhibition surveys the development of Rubens’ use of the oil sketch and offers examples from most of the large decorative programs on which he worked. The sketches vary in their degree of finish, from a few fluid strokes on a small panel to larger, more carefully refined works to be used as presentation pieces for a potential patron. Yet all are united by their function as preparatory works for other, final works of art, not necessarily in the same medium. Some were to be translated into prints, sculpture or tapestry designers for weavers, while other sketches were executed from live models and kept on hand in the studio as a visual resource to be consulted in completing larger compositions.
An illustrated, 280-page catalog, distributed by Yale University Press, is written by the Bruce Museum’s executive director Peter C. Sutton; Marjorie E. Wieseman, curator of European painting and sculpture at the Cincinnati Art Museum; and Nico van Hout, paintings conservator at the Koninklijk Museum in Antwerp. In addition, an interactive website devoted to the exhibition will be linked to the institutional websites for each of the three venues.
“Drawn By the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens” has been organized by the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science; the Cincinnati Art Museum; and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, in Berkeley, Calif.
Admission to the exhibit at the Bruce Museum is $15. The museum is at 1 Museum Drive and is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; Sunday, 1 to 5 pm and closed Mondays.
For information, 203-869-0376 or brucemuseum.org.