press release

The first exhibition in the United States to present a comprehensive survey of Peter Paul Rubens's oil sketches, Drawn by the Brush brings together thirty works by the seventeenth-century master painter. These small, engaging studies—made in preparation for large altarpieces, ceiling paintings, tapestries, and engravings, among other public and private commissions—reveal a rare perspective on Rubens's skill, passion, and ambition as a painter. The oil sketches, which Grace Glueck of The New York Times has referred to as “the heart of Rubens,” exquisitely illuminate on an intimate scale the speed and surety of his brush, his expressive use of color, and his sensitive articulation of human form and emotion.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is BAM's own Rubens, The Road to Calvary (circa 1632). When purchased in 1966 by the museum's founding director Peter Selz, this piece was identified as one of the three most important acquisitions for the new museum, joining a sublime Mark Rothko from 1961 and Giovanni Savoldo's sixteenth-century Pietà with Three Saints.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was the most renowned artist in northern Europe in his day. Based in Antwerp, but also working for long periods in London, Paris, and Madrid, Rubens had a large and active studio—Anthony van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens, and Jan Brueghel were among the younger artists who collaborated with the master—from which he produced an astounding volume and array of monumental paintings and ambitious commissions for patrons across Europe. Eulogized at his death as the most learned artist who had ever lived, Rubens was later described by the nineteenth-century painter Eugène Delacroix, who himself owned a Rubens oil sketch, as the “Homer of painting.”

In the early 1600s, when Rubens returned to his homeland after several years of study and early work in Italy, Antwerp was emerging from years of religious and political conflict. The Spanish-controlled region had become a center for the Counter-Reformation, the struggle by the Church of Rome against an insurgent Protestant movement. It was auspicious timing for Rubens: the reconstruction of scores of churches, monasteries, and public buildings presented unprecedented opportunities for works of art that gave palpable and seductive meaning to a fervent re-energizing of Catholic faith. The oil sketches St. Gregory of Nazianzus (circa 1620–21, Albright-Knox Art Gallery) and The Last Supper (1620–21, Seattle Art Museum) belong to a cycle of thirty-nine ceiling paintings extolling the triumph of orthodoxy over heresy that Rubens created for the newly constructed Jesuit Church in Antwerp.

The Spanish regents in northern Europe, as well as Marie de Médicis of France, James I of England, and Philip IV of Spain, were among Rubens's loyal patrons. Drawing upon classical references, specifically Ovid's Metamorphoses, Rubens's oil sketch Aurora and Cephalus (1636, National Gallery, London) was made in preparation for a series of decorations for a hunting lodge for Philip IV. Two Figure Studies (Mercury and a Yeoman) (circa 1632–33, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) belong to the studies made for a series of ceiling paintings for the Banqueting Hall in London, glorifying the reign of James I.

Rubens made oil sketches for a variety of purposes—to work out the bare bones of an idea and composition; to study anatomical details and differentiate subtle physical gestures; to serve as a model or precise maquette for a large painting or tapestry, or, as in the case of BAM's oil sketch, as a template from which an engraving was to be made. He used the medium of oil sketch the way many of his predecessors and contemporaries used the medium of drawing: Rubens drew color and form directly in oils on small wooden panels. It is in these intimate and enticing works, which Rubens himself prized and is said to have often kept under lock and key, that we most vividly experience the technical and humanistic dimensions of his art. Unlike the large commissioned works that often involved studio collaborators, in the oil sketches we encounter Rubens's hand alone. Here we find the direct expression of his intent and his thinking.

Rubens painted The Road to Calvary, a theme with which he had previously worked, as the model for a print engraved by Paulus Pontius in 1632. By this time Rubens had published and distributed several of his compositions as prints. The Pontius engraving (a print of which is on view in the exhibition) mirrors almost exactly the composition and dimension of the oil sketch. Although almost monochromatic, The Road to Calvary brings Rubens's extraordinary talents into sharp focus. Svetlana Alpers, the distinguished specialist in seventeenth-century art history who began teaching at Berkeley in the early 1960s, wrote, “[It is] one of the most beautiful as well as one of the most technically interesting of Rubens' late oil sketches...[one that] reminds us that in the best Rubens works, the dazzling technical accomplishments are yoked to a full persuasive presentation of a significant human drama.”

Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens has been co-organized by the Berkeley Art Museum, the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. The Berkeley showing is complemented by a range of public programs in which visitors can join distinguished scholars and artists in exploring the continuing relevance of Rubens's themes.


Peter Paul Rubens - Drawn by the Brush
Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens