Just as there was not a painter as admired as Rubens (1577-1640) in his time, there is no museum in the world today that has as many of his paintings as the Prado. The first turned the Antwerp teacher into a frenzied head of a workshop that had 25 assistants, including Van Dyck– and which produced 1,400 paintings. If 90 of them belong to the Madrid art gallery, it is due in large part to the artist’s close relationship with the Spanish royal family – he was an advisor to Isabel Clara Eugenia, daughter of Felipe II and sovereign of the Netherlands – and to the fact of being the favorite painter of Felipe IV. The king, who had Velázquez as his chamber painter, even commissioned Rubens fifty paintings for the Tower of the Parada, his hunting lodge. Then he ordered copies of all of them bound for the Alcazar of Madrid: they are the ones that adorn the walls of Las Meninas.
Traveler, polyglot, scholar, collector and bibliophile, Rubens adds to all his records that of being the most important sketch painter in the history of European art. From his brushes -without the intervention of his disciples this time- about 500 came out, 73 of which can be seen in the Prado Museum from next Tuesday to August 5 at the exhibition Rubens, sketch painter. Curated by Alejandro Vergara, head of conservation of Flemish painting at the Prado, and Friso Lammertse, curator of old painting at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, where it will stop in September, the exhibition brings together pieces from the Louvre, the Hermitage, the National Gallery of London, the Art Institute of Chicago or the Gulbenkian Foundation of Lisbon.
Although Rubens himself mainly used pencil and paper as a method to sketch future works – 9,000 of his drawings are preserved – the production of oil sketches on canvas or board became a fundamental part of his working method. Especially from the eight years that, being in his twenties, he spent in Italy. There, artists such as Polidoro de Caravaggio, Federico Barocci, Tintoretto and Veronés had started to use them sporadically. If the size of these works ranges between 9×7 centimeters and 150×120, their recipients could be three: the artist himself, a client or an assistant. Propose the composition of a future painting (or keep a memory of one already made), show a client what he will later receive finished and larger (sometimes there are two options for him to choose) or serve as a model to the weavers in charge of making a tapestry were the basic functions of a type of painting that -without losing its instrumental character- ended up becoming a genre in itself: the painted sketch.
When those responsible for the Jesuit Church in Antwerp asked the artist if they could keep the preparatory tables for the 39 paintings they had commissioned for the temple ceiling, Rubens chose instead to paint a canvas for an altar. Such was the appreciation he had for his notes. Five of them hang in the Prado exhibition along with two of his famous series for tapestries: that of the Eucharist, destined for the Madrid monastery of the Barefoot Reales, and that of Achilles, the last series of tapestries designed by an artist whose workshop he dedicated one of his most narrative canvases to the Greek hero: the imposing Achilles discovered by Ulysses and Diomedes that can be seen in the central gallery from the museum. A few meters away, in the temporary exhibition, which allows a prodigious interplay of relationships and comparisons, hang two sketches of the same moment. But only in the biggest and most finishedRubens added, lying on the floor of the palace, a fiery red heart symbol of the love between the warrior and Princess Deidamia, present on the scene.
Altars, hunting pictures, decorative cycles for palaces and churches throughout Europe, book covers, sculptures, tapestries or ephemeral constructions were at the origin of the preparatory paintings that Rubens made and kept. In his mythical private collection he also treasured the work of artists such as Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. Just a century earlier, Michelangelo had burned all of his sketches. Hence the significance of the Prado exhibition, “a trip to the creative process of one of the five or six most important masters” of classical painting, according to Miguel Falomir, director of the art gallery, who in the presentation of the exhibition established a ironic link between the flamenco artist’s workshop and the series produced in the 20th century by Warhol’s New York Factory.
For their part, the curators underline the importance of Rubens in the consolidation of a way of painting and of appreciating the painting that curdles in Titian’s Venice and that values the lack of precision. The “acceptance of an aesthetic based on the expressive use of the brushstroke and the absence of a polished finish are the precedents that made the development of the painted sketch possible”. Driven by the need to maximize his own success, Rubens “transformed this type of image into a systematic component of the preparation of his paintings.” Although some expert, Alejandro Vergara recalls, has even said that the author of The three graces could have painted some of his preparatory tables in just one hour, he prefers to leave it in that “there is a formal language that is specific to his sketches”, a language that allowed him to “define the forms and fit the compositions, describe the expressions of the figures and establish a light and color scheme, all this saving time by not bringing the sketches to the same level of finish that we see in his other works ”. Which, Vergara insists, does not mean that they are works to be finished: they are like that. Some, in fact, only differ from the final paintings in their preparatory character: “Although they are finished works, they give the impression of not being, of being works on which the painter is still working.” Hence, the Prado exhibition gives off an invaluable workshop atmosphere.
The exhibition closes with a nod to the aesthetics of the apparently unfinished: the portrait of Clara Serena Rubens, the artist’s eldest daughter, who would die at the age of 12, six after her father painted her. It is not a sketch but a sketchy painting. For Alejandro Vergara, it is a great example of the “metaphysical and transcendental” character of Rubens’ work. “He was not a realist. He always painted life improved. This is not the portrait of his daughter, no girl gives off that beauty, it is the portrait of the love with which he looks at her ”.
Next June 25, weeks before it ends Rubens, sketch painter, the Prado Museum will open eight new rooms for Flemish painting. What does not seem likely, Miguel Falomir acknowledged yesterday, is that by the end of the year, as was planned in the project of Norman Foster and Carlos Rubio, begin the refurbishment works of the Hall of Kingdoms in the neighboring building of the old Army Museum. In the General State Budgets of 2018 there is an item of one million euros for this purpose, but these accounts are still pending approval in the Congress of Deputies, where the Government is unable to add a majority to give them the green light.
On the other hand, asked about the recent attribution to Rubens of the portrait of Saint Augustine that hangs on the altar of the Church of the Immaculate from Salamanca, Alejandro Vergara answered briefly: “We will have to see the painting.” Both he and Friso Lammertse knew the sketch that was key to the find made by Matías Díaz Padrón, former chief curator of flamenco painting at the Prado. “He didn’t convince us,” Vergara said. That is why it is not in the exhibition.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.