PURSUING AND POSSESSING PASSION:
Two Hundred Years
of Collecting Rubens's Oil Sketches
by Marjorie E. Wieseman
A week after Peter Paul Rubens's death on May 30, 1640, a detailed inventory was made of the more than one thousand works of art found in the artist's home on the Wapper. From this inventory (now lost), a selective list of approximately three hundred items—known as the Specification—was drawn up and printed by the bookseller Jan van Meurs to advertise the forthcoming sale of paintings and sculptures from Rubens's collection. 1 The works of art were sold at auction between March and June 1642, although some private sales had evidently been arranged prior to this date. 2 While by no means a complete description of Rubens's collection, the quality and variety of artworks listed in the Specification give insight into Rubens's artistic taste, aristocratic ambitions, and far-ranging intellectual pursuits. 3
Unfortunately, the Specification provides almost no information about the contents of the artist's studio or the eventual fate of the countless drawings, oil sketches, and other visual resources employed in the realization of commissioned paintings and other, more diverse enterprises. Various other contemporary sources yield limited information about the dispersal of the studio contents. For
example, Rubens's last will and testament specified that his vast collection of drawings—both his
own and those by other artists he had collected—was to be retained for use by any son or son-in-law who might practice the art of painting, or until his youngest child reached the age of eighteen. 4 The drawings were finally sold by the family in 1657, after Rubens's youngest child, Constantia Albertina, entered a convent. 5 They found a ready buyer in Johannes Philippus Happaert (d. 1686), a canon of
the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (and an art dealer as well), who seems to have purchased the bulk of the lots at the sale. 6 Happaert in turn sold the drawings to noted connoisseurs such as the French-German collector Everard Jabach (1618-1695) and the English artist and collector Prosper Henricus Lankrink (1628-1692); from these and other collections the drawings were eventually dispersed throughout England, Europe, and the rest of the world. 7
The early history of Rubens's oil sketches is more difficult to trace, in part because the objects themselves are somewhat harder to define. Although oil sketches had been a viable and highly
regarded part of artistic practice in both Italy and the North since the sixteenth century, there was—and is—considerable uncertainty about how properly to categorize these small preparatory paintings
on panel (or, more rarely, on paper or canvas) that encompassed everything from fleeting bozzetti to fully developed modelli. The varied terminology used to describe oil sketches in contemporary documents in the Netherlands reflects their ambiguous standing: dessein, disegno, teekeninge, dissegno colorito, and schets (schits, scheyts) are all terms regularly encountered in this context. 8 Nor can we be
sure that all works thus described would fit our current definition of an oil sketch. Many of these same terms were simultaneously used to describe drawings on paper; similarly, small unfinished paintings, replicas, or copies might also have been grouped among the desseins, teekeningen, and schetsen mentioned in seventeenth-century documents. 9 What information we can now glean about the collecting and appreciation of oil sketches (particularly those by Rubens) in the seventeenth century undoubtedly
gives a rather blurred impression of the actual situation. Yet it is clear that by at least the middle of the seventeenth century there was an effort to distinguish oil sketches from either drawings or finished paintings in art treatises, collection inventories, and other documents; and that this corresponded to
a growing appreciation of the oil sketches—if not as completely autonomous works of art, then as valuable records of the artist's original and eigenhändig design for a work.
This essay focuses rather narrowly on the appreciation and collecting of Rubens's oil sketches in
the two hundred years following his death and, to a lesser degree, on the influence these sketches
had on later artists. Most of the examples discussed here are from Northern Europe. An equally
vibrant tradition of painting oil sketches existed in Italy, from the works of Tintoretto in the sixteenth century to Tiepolo's brilliant example in the eighteenth century and beyond, but that development flourished independently of Rubens's achievement and is thus tangential to our discussion here.
Many of the points raised in this essay were first set out in Julius Held's admirably succinct survey
of the appreciation of Rubens's oil sketches, contained in the introduction to his 1980 catalogue. 10
Although direct evidence of critical attitudes toward Rubens's oil sketches during the artist's lifetime and immediately after is limited, 11 a few writers made an effort to describe the importance of the oil sketch in Rubens's working process and its visceral visual appeal. The Danish physician Otto Sperling, then a student at Leiden University, visited Rubens's studio in 1621 and described the use of sketches in the workings of the atelier (see also Sutton, "Introduction"). 12 Later in the century Rubens's great champion, the French critic Roger de Piles, who received much of his information from the artist's nephew Philips Rubens, spoke eloquently of the oil sketch's function in the preparation of a finished painting and distinguished different categories of sketches and life studies:
. . . one sees almost as many little paintings by his hand as large ones, of which they are the first thoughts and sketches. Some of his sketches are very slight and others rather finished, according to whether he knew more or less clearly what he had to do or whether he was in the mood to work. There are even some which served him as originals: for whenever he had studied from nature the objects that he had to represent in the large work, he would only make such changes as he found appropriate.13
Even more important and influential were de Piles's perceptive remarks on the pleasurable appeal of
the oil sketches to the sophisticated viewer. 14 He observed that while in a finished painting everything was clearly defined, leaving little to the imagination, a sketch encouraged, even required, an active imagination to supply what was not described or defined by the artist. This more active viewing resulted in an intimate engagement with the work of art and a closer communion with the creative impulse of the artist, a factor that (as will be discussed below) had considerable impact on the eighteenth century's admiration for the oil sketch.
Rubens himself clearly placed great value on these spontaneous and highly personal manifestations of his own fertile imagination. He guarded the oil sketches as the practical and creative core of his artistic practice and was fiercely protective of them. We know, of course, of his disinclination to surrender the thirty-nine sketches made for the plafonds of the Jesuit church in Antwerp, preferring
to paint an additional altarpiece to fulfill the terms of his contract with the Jesuit fathers. 15 This proprietary, even secretive, attitude toward the sketches remained constant throughout his career: in 1638 Rubens wrote a letter from his country house at Steen to his young assistant, Lucas Fayd'herbe, who was looking after the Antwerp studio during his absence. Rubens urgently requested Fayd'herbe to send him "a panel on which there are three heads in life size, painted by my own hand, namely: one of a furious soldier with a black cap on his head, one of a man crying, and one laughing." It would be a good idea, he added, "to cover it with one or two panels, so it may not suffer in any way, or be seen." He expressed similar concern for works left in the studio: "Take good care, when you leave, that everything is well locked up, and that no originals remain upstairs in the studio, or any of the sketches." 16
Despite Rubens's determined conservation, not all the oil sketches remained in the artist's studio during his lifetime. By 1627 sketches for the Life of Constantine series (see Triumphant Entry of Constantine into Rome and The Labarum) had become the property of the tapestry manufactory of Marc Comans and François de la Planche in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel in Paris; they were probably retained by the manufactory for the continued production
of additional sets of tapestries. 17 At least one sketch—a design for a printed title page—has been the property of the Plantin Press in Antwerp since the artist's lifetime. 18 A few fortunate patrons seem to have managed to retain the modelli connected with commissioned works: the inventory made in 1639 of Charles I's collection describes a sketch for the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall, ". . . don in oyle Cullors the—Moddle or first paterne of the paintinge—wch was sent by Sr Peter Paul Rubin to yor Maty to know yor Mats approveing therof painted upon Cloth in a wooden gilded frame upon the right light." 19 Rubens's modelli for the stages and ceremonial arches erected for Archduke Ferdinand's triumphal entry into Antwerp in 1635 were retained by the city of Antwerp and subsequently engraved by Theodoor van Thulden for a sumptuous volume that also included lengthy descriptions of the decorations by Caspar Gevartius. 20 In France, the noted collector (and amateur artist) Claude Maugis, abbé de Saint-Ambroise (1600-1658), who had played a key role in negotiating the commission for the Marie de Médicis cycle, had managed to acquire a set of original oil sketches for the series by 1630. 21 Other of Rubens's oil sketches may have been retained by pupils or collaborators, or given as gifts by the artist. 22 Four sketches by Rubens (and four copies after sketches by him) are listed in the 1657 inventory of Elizabeth Waeyens (d. 1657), widow of the sculptor Hans van Mildert (1588-1638). 23 Van Mildert was a close friend, neighbor, and frequent collaborator of Rubens; many of his sculptures
were based on Rubens's designs (see St. Norbert Overcoming Tanchelm). One of the sketches, described in the Waeyens inventory as "Een schets van Rubens van de aultaer van de Vrouwenbroeders," has been identified as Rubens's
design for the high altar of the Calced Carmelite church in Antwerp (probably the oil sketch for the Glorification of the Eucharist now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Van Mildert died in
the middle of the project, and work on the tabernacle was completed by his son, Cornelis; the sketch remained in the family's possession and at a certain point was transferred from the workplace to the living area of the home. 24 Even these isolated instances suggest that during Rubens's lifetime his oil sketches were coveted not only for their utility in the production of works of art based on his designs
or as handy mementos or documents of less accessible projects, but for their aesthetic properties as well. Their primary appeal surely lay in the fact that they represented the artist's original design, a direct and spontaneous record of his intellect and imagination.
With few exceptions, the bulk of Rubens's oil sketches remained in the studio and was probably sold at auction in 1642 along with the other paintings from his estate. Unlike the finished works of art they are not listed individually in the Specification but are instead grouped together in an unnumbered lot at the end of the catalogue under the heading "Vne tresgrande quantité des desseins des plus notables pieces, faictes par feu Mons. Rubens" (A great parcell of draughts, of many fayre notable peeices made by Afflymghen [sic]). 25 The lot immediately preceding, described as "Vne quantité des visages au vif, & fonds de bois, tant de Mons. Rubens, que de Mons. van Dyck" (A parcell of Faces made after the life, vppon bord and Cloth as well by sr Peter Rubens as van Dyke), undoubtedly refers to the numerous expressive head studies (tronies) done from life and kept on hand to aid in composing larger works (see Head of a Youth, Head of a Young Warrior, and Head of a Negro). There is some evidence that the oil sketches and tronies were individually catalogued in the more detailed inventory made of the artist's estate in 1640. In a list of purchases made from Rubens's estate, the art dealer Matthijs Musson noted several items with numbers higher than
the 314 numbered lots listed in the Specification.26 Items numbered 352 and 362 are described as "tronijen," presumably corresponding to works included in the "parcell of Faces made after
the life." Musson's list also includes "De vier Evangelisten van Rubens" (no. 1072), "St.
Thomas van Aquinen van Rubens" (no. 1067),
and "Hemelvart van Mariae. Schets" (no. 1083). Although only one of these is explicitly described as a sketch, it is reasonable to assume that all three were among the "tresgrande quantité des desseins" that in all likelihood encompassed the oil sketches found in Rubens's studio.
Once again, there is little direct evidence about the buyers of the oil sketches at the sale in 1642,
but details drawn from Antwerp probate inventories and other contemporary documents permit us to make some general observations about collectors of Rubens's oil sketches in the seventeenth century.
In the years immediately following the sale, groups of sketches turn up in the collections of a number of Antwerp artists and art dealers, as well as friends of the artist and members of his extended family.
Of buyers at the sale, we know that Rubens's brother-in-law, Arnold Lunden (d. 1656), purchased a number of paintings from the estate; an inventory of his collection made in the mid-1640s includes several sketches (esquisse) by Rubens, and it seems likely that he purchased those from the estate as well. 27 A painted sketch mounted on panel ("op panneel geplackt") depicting the Circumcision was given by Rubens's heirs to the printer Anthonis Vrancx "for services rendered to the deceased." 28
The painter Abraham Matthijs (d. 1649) owned an oil sketch and a tronie by Rubens; 29 Jan van Balen (1611-1654), son of the painter Hendrick van Balen (1574/75-1632), a friend and occasional collaborator of Rubens, owned five oil sketches by the master. 30
Although Rubens's pupil and collaborator Erasmus II Quellinus (1607-1678) owned at least one oil sketch by the master, he appears to have focused his attention instead on amassing a vast collection of drawings by Rubens and other artists. In the artist's workroom (Contoir) at the time of his death were nearly two hundred crabellinghen (scribbles), tronieken, and schetsen by and after Rubens. 31 The glass engraver (glasschrijver) Jacques Horremans (d. 1678) owned ten schetsen by Rubens, although once again, we cannot be certain that these were painted oil sketches and not drawings. 32 Horremans's collection also included hundreds of prints by and after Rubens and other artists, possibly used as inspiration
for his engraved designs.
Large groups of oil sketches are found in the estate inventories of several artist-dealers active in Antwerp in the mid-seventeenth century. Herman de Neyt (c. 1605-1642) was a minor painter of landscapes (possibly a pupil of Rubens) and, at the time of his death, one of the most important art dealers in Antwerp. 33 He owned twelve original paintings by Rubens, including four oil sketches for
the plafonds of the Jesuit church. De Neyt's inventory also lists thirty-seven copies after the master, including five copies after sketches. 34 De Neyt is known to have purchased a painting by Correggio
at the Rubens sale and probably acquired the oil sketches at the same time, although he may have acquired the other paintings by Rubens at an earlier date. 35 Like de Neyt, Victor Wolfvoet (1612-1652) was a painter, art dealer, and former pupil of Rubens. The inventory of his sizable estate—running to more than seven hundred items—lists twenty sketches by Rubens, including several designs for the ceilings of the Jesuit church and six bozzetti for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series. 36 There are also sketches by other artists, many unattributed sketches and framed grisailles ("van wit ende swert
in lystken"), and a number of sketches after Rubens. The collection belonging to the painter and art dealer Jeremias Wildens (1621-1653) was no less rich in works by Rubens. Jeremias was the son of the landscape painter and art dealer Jan Wildens (1585/86-1653), who frequently collaborated with Rubens and was one of the executors of his estate. In 1624 Jan opened a picture gallery, which was subsequently operated by Jeremias. Among the more than seven hundred paintings inherited from the elder Wildens and included in the inventory of 1653 are twenty oil sketches both large and small ("schetsen" and "schetsken") by Rubens, and fourteen sketches after Rubens.
The de Neyt, Wolfvoet, and Wildens inventories all include a substantial number of copies after sketches by Rubens, denoting a lively market for such works. 37 Some of the copies reprise themes depicted in autograph works by Rubens within the same collection, suggesting that at least a portion were produced by the artist-dealers themselves; 38 others may have been created in Rubens's studio by pupils or assistants. Trafficking in copies was an accepted practice in the seventeenth century, provided it was conducted honestly and openly. Yet there was always a fear on the part of a novice collector
that she or he might be duped—no less so, apparently, with Rubens's oil sketches than with his larger, finished paintings. In 1644 Ignatius de Meulenaere traveled to Antwerp from his native Bruges specifically to purchase paintings from the dealer Matthijs Musson and bought from him a hunt
scene by Frans Snyders and an oil sketch by Rubens. After showing the paintings to various experts,
de Meulenaere determined that the two paintings were copies and wrote a scathing letter to Musson, accusing him of "open thievery": it was "not the action of an honorable man, to sell [copies] to one
who knows little about painting." 39 In fact, Musson had worked for a time in Rubens's studio and was surely well acquainted with the master's work. Musson's reply has not been preserved, but in 1671,
some twenty-five years after the initial accusation, de Meulenaere wrote again to the dealer, stating more generously that the pictures had now been proven to be originals by Snyders and Rubens. 40
In the latter half of the seventeenth century many Antwerp collections large and small, from Archduke Leopold Wilhelm's celebrated gallery to more modest collections, held one or
two examples of oil sketches or tronies by Rubens. 41 No doubt others are hidden among the countless unattributed schetsen or cleijne schilderijkens (small paintings) cited in less loquacious inventories. Larger groups of oil sketches by Rubens are encountered as well; some significant holdings are found in the rich collections formed by several canons of the Catholic Church. Canons were regular priests who lived together in community; many were noted scholars, and as a group they often took a leading
role in the intellectual life of the Church. The large collection of paintings formed by Guilielmus (Guillaume) van Hamme (before 1600-1668), a law graduate, chaplain of the Antwerp St. Luke's guild, and a canon of the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk in Antwerp, included a sketch by Rubens of St. Francesco de Paula, "Derthien Troniën . . . soo Rubbens als van Van Dyck," and several unattributed sketches, including "Seven schetskens van tappijten." 42 The more modest collection of van Hamme's colleague Hendrik van Halmale, canon of the diocese of Antwerp, included a grisaille by Rubens of the Five
Wise Virgins and another of St. Cecelia; the paintings were listed as missing after the home of the canon's relation Hendrik van Halmale was plundered and pillaged ("geplundert ende ghespolieert")
on September 30, 1659. 43 Five oil sketches by Rubens (in addition to eight other paintings by his
hand) are found in the estate inventory of Joannes Philippus Happaert (d. 1686), a canon of the
Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk in Antwerp and a former schepen (city alderman) who was also active as
an art dealer. 44 Happaert, it will be recalled, was the main buyer at the sale of Rubens's drawings in 1657—more than three hundred lots of drawings (teeckeningen) by Rubens and other artists are listed
in the inventory—and he surely appreciated the spontaneous draftsmanship of the oil sketches as well. Happaert also owned several sketches by the animal and still-life painter Johannes Fyt. Jean-Henry Gobelinus (d. 1681), a canon of the church of St. Goedele (Saint-Gudule) in Brussels and a habitué
of Spanish court circles, assembled an impressive collection of paintings that included at least five paintings by Rubens (among which three sketches), nine sketches by Anthony van Dyck, and "Huict pièces de l'histoire d'Achilles." 45 Although no artist's name is given for this last entry, the citation is traditionally thought to refer to Rubens's eight oil sketches for the series of tapestries devoted to
the Life of Achilles, now divided between the Detroit Institute of Art (see Studies for a Figure in Larder) and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. It is presumably these same sketches that later appear in the collection of the Antwerp postmaster Joan Baptista I Anthoine (d. 1691), where they are described as "De Historie van Achilles bestaende in acht stucxkens van Rubens" and valued at the substantial sum
of 1,200 florins. 46 Anthoine owned several other paintings and possibly sketches by Rubens as well;
the Swedish architect Nicodemus Tessin visited his collection in 1687 and admiringly noted "viele Schilderyen und schitzen" by Rubens. 47
In the absence of written testimony, it is difficult to estimate in concrete terms the contemporary regard for Rubens's oil sketches in his native land. Only occasionally do probate inventories or other documents inform us about the monetary values placed on the oil sketches, and only in rare instances can we connect the information with known paintings. The limited size of the available sample therefore permits only very general observations. A survey of priced probate inventories and other documents (published by Denucé, Duverger, and others48) suggests that seventeenth-century prices for Rubens's oil sketches generally ranged between 20 and 80 florins. Unattributed schetsen fetched just a fraction of these prices, as did copies after sketches by Rubens. To cite one well-known example, in
the 1627 inventory of the Saint-Marcel tapestry shop in Paris the twelve large painted cartoons for the Constantine series tapestries (executed by Rubens's studio) were appraised at 500 livres (about 42 florins each), less than half the value assigned the twelve small panels painted by Rubens himself (1,200 livres, or about 100 florins each). 49 At the other end of the scale, the values placed on finished paintings by Rubens in these same inventories varied greatly, depending on the size, complexity, and Eigenhändigkeit of the work, and could run anywhere from 100 to 2,000 florins. The handful of documents from the 1690s that mention oil sketches by Rubens record a startling jump in prices, although the sample is
far too small to allow any definitive conclusions to be drawn: eight modelli for the Achilles series were valued at 1,200 (150 florins each) in the Anthoine inventory of 1691; the equivalent of about 1,800 florins (£180, about 300 florins each) was paid for six oil sketches for the Triumphal Entry of
Cardinal Infante Ferdinand at the Lankrink sale in London in 1693; and another sketch of an
"Arcke Triumphalis" by Rubens was valued at 250 florins in Utrecht in the same year. 50
An examination of the placement of Rubens's oil sketches within a domestic setting may offer another indicator of the relative esteem accorded these works. Although seventeenth-century probate inventories are reticent in divulging monetary valuations, they are a bit more forthcoming in describing, room by room, the locations of paintings and other movable goods within the home. 51 By far the vast majority of oil sketches by Rubens described in seventeenth-century Antwerp inventories were kept in the most important public rooms of the home: the (groote) neercamer ([large] downstairs room), often located at the front of the house (designated as "aen de straet" [facing the street] or voorneercamer [downstairs front room]), or the (groote) Bovencamer ([large] upstairs room). 52 Even in
the case of oil sketches by Rubens owned by fellow artists or artist-dealers, the sketches are generally recorded as being in the public rooms together with other, finished paintings (the neercamer, voorcamer, bovencamer, or constcamer). Only rarely are they found in rooms designated as the artist's studio or workplace: the werckcamer, schilderscamer, or comptoir (office or workroom), although these rooms
did often house quantities of undescribed and/or unattributed (and therefore inferior?) schetsen. 53 (It
will be recalled that Rubens's oil sketch for the altar in the Calced Carmelite church, listed in the posthumous inventory of Hans van Mildert's widow, was—some fifteen years after the completion of the commission—moved to the domestic space of the home ["de Bovencamer boven de Salette"]. 54)
The evidence seems to suggest that even among practicing artists, oil sketches by Rubens were soon prized as works of art rather than as utilitarian objects necessary to the execution of the painter's craft.
BEYOND THE BORDER
The presence of Rubens's oil sketches in prestigious collections across Europe during the latter part
of the seventeenth century is a testament not only to Rubens's lofty reputation but also to Antwerp's leading role in the lively international commerce in works of art. In Le meraviglia dell'arte (1648), the Italian writer and painter Carlo Ridolfi described a small painting of Mars and Bellona by Rubens in the possession of Nicoló Renieri (Nicolas Regnier, 1590-1667), a Flemish painter and art dealer resident in Venice. By 1659 the sketch had apparently entered the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm; the painting mentioned by Ridolfi is now tentatively identified with Rubens's The Crowning
of the Victor in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (inv. 659). 55 In 1671 Francesco Airoldi, papal nuncio in Brussels, sent a grisaille oil sketch of the Three Graces as a gift to Cardinal Leopold de' Medici (1617-1675) in Florence. 56 A generous patron of the arts and natural sciences and a discerning collector and connoisseur, Leopold systematically assembled an encyclopedic collection
with particular attention to classical antiquities, drawings, and artist's self-portraits. Airoldi may
have specifically selected the Three Graces for Leopold because its limited palette and superb draftsmanship, as well as its classical subject matter and sculptural presence, were in harmony with the cardinal's specific collecting interests.
In Spain, eight modelli for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series were in the collection of one of the greatest collectors of the seventeenth century, Gaspar de Haro y Guzmán, marqués
de Carpio (1629-1687). Haro owned as many
as sixteen other paintings by Rubens, as well as drawings and—possibly—six of the cartoons for the Eucharist tapestries produced by Rubens's atelier. 57 It is possible (but not certain) that
Gaspar inherited the modelli from his father, Luis de Haro (1598-1661), who had played a key role in acquiring paintings for Philip IV in England and elsewhere, managing in the process to retain many important pieces for his own collection. On a more modest scale was the collection of the Madrid painter Felipe Diricksen (1590-1679, grandson of the Flemish painter Anton van den Wijngaerde), which featured three vorrones, or sketches, by Rubens. 58 As in the Southern Netherlands, copies after Rubens's sketches proliferated in Spanish collections: as just one example, the inventory of the Spanish painter Claudio Coello (1642-1693) lists copies (painted by Coello himself?) after eight of Rubens's modelli for the Triumph of the Eucharist, and one after a sketch of the Adoration of the Magi. 59
To the north, only isolated examples of oil sketches by Rubens can be traced in the United Provinces during the seventeenth century and then only late in the century. Indeed, apart from the collection formed by the stadholders Frederik Hendrik and Amalia van Solms at The Hague from
the 1620s through the 1640s, there were remarkably few collectors of Rubens's work in the North. 60 Cornelis Dusart (1660-1704) owned a grisaille by Rubens in addition to some drawings and prints by the artist; 61 more intriguing is a reference to a painting of "de Arcke Triumphalis, geschildert door P. Ribbens" (very likely a sketch for the Triumphal Entry of Cardinal Infante Ferdinand), sold in Utrecht by one Maria Hulshout to the merchant Floris de Reder. Apparently Hulshout had second thoughts about the transaction and in a document of 1693 desired to buy back the painting for the 250 florins
de Reder had given her for it. 62 Dutch collections formed in the early years of the eighteenth century begin to reflect the more cosmopolitan, international taste of the era. Jaques Meyers (c. 1660-1722),
an enormously wealthy shipowner and wine merchant, was one of the most important collectors and
art dealers in Rotterdam in the first decades of the eighteenth century. 63 He maintained contacts in artistic circles in Paris, London, Brussels, Prague, and other cities, where he both bought and sold art. Among the ten works by or after Rubens listed in the posthumous sale of Meyers's collection was the highly finished modello of Christ Carrying the Cross now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (inv. A344).
In England, the collection formed by the Flemish-born painter Prosper Henricus Lankrink (1628-1692) contained numerous works by Rubens: about 120 drawings, a dozen paintings, and "Six Triumphs by Sir Paul Rubens." 64 These "Triumphs," identified as six oil sketches for the Triumphal Entry of Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, were sold for £180 at Lankrink's posthumous sale in 1693; they later entered the collection of Sir Robert Walpole and
were eventually sold to Catherine the Great of Russia. Lankrink probably acquired most if not all
of the Flemish works in his collection prior to his move to England in the mid-1660s.
By the standards of the great collections formed in Madrid or London, the collection assembled
by Armand-Jean du Plessis, duc de Richelieu (1629-1715) was comparatively modest. Richelieu was
the great-nephew of Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), who had served as artistic advisor to Marie de Médicis and Louis XIII. The duke's early acquisitions reflected prevailing classicist taste, but in the 1670s, with the advice of Roger de Piles, he avidly pursued works by Rubens, continually buying and selling paintings to create a veritable anthology of the artist's oeuvre. 65 Richelieu acquired a number
of paintings from the artist's nephew, Philips Rubens, via the Parisian art dealer Michel Picart. Among the works in his collection was a sketch for the Descent from the Cross (probably the modello now in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London), which was described in great detail by de Piles. De Piles's account makes it clear that the sketch was prized for its high degree of finish as well as its affective power: "the painter has entered so fully into the expression of his subject that the sight of this work has the power to touch a hardened soul and to cause it to experience the sufferings that Jesus Christ endured. . . ." 66
Several of the paintings by Rubens in Richelieu's gallery found their way into the collection of Maximilan II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria (1662-1762). Governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1692 to 1706, Max Emanuel amassed an impressive collection of Rubens's work during these years.
He purchased more than a hundred Flemish paintings from the Antwerp dealer-speculator Gisbert
van Colen (who was related by marriage to the family of Rubens's second wife, Hélène Fourment)
and acquired sixteen modelli for the Marie de Médicis cycle (formerly in the collection of the abbé
de Saint-Ambroise[?] and now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich) probably in Paris during the early
years of the eighteenth century. 67
APPRECIATING OIL SKETCHES IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY: THEORY AND PRACTICE
The sensitive appreciation of the oil sketch evidenced in de Piles's biography of Rubens and his description of Richelieu's collection are often cited as inaugurating a greater critical regard for the painterly and spontaneous oil sketch, which subsequently spread throughout eighteenth-century Europe. The circulation of treatises by de Piles and other critics that defined and validated the
aesthetic of the informal and/or unfinished work of art profoundly influenced not only contemporary art but also the study and pursuit of the art of the past. While direct references to oil sketches by Rubens (or by any other individual artist, for that matter) are encountered only sporadically in art literature and criticism of the period, the debate eventually played a key role in the collecting and appreciation of oil sketches by the Flemish master.
Recognition of the singular appeal of the oil sketch was not entirely new, of course, as Peter
Sutton also notes in his introduction to this catalogue. Ultimately it can be traced to
the writings of Pliny the Elder, who wrote that unfinished paintings were "more admired than [an artist's] finished works, since they are beheld as the surviving documents and the very thoughts of the artist. . . ." 68 Although Pliny was primarily referring to works left unfinished at an artist's death, his admiration for art that laid bare the artist's creative process was paralleled in the sixteenth century by Giorgio Vasari's predilection for the unfettered nature of an artist's preparatory works: "Many painters
. . . achieve in the first sketch of their work, as though guided by a sort of fire of inspiration . . . a certain measure of boldness: but afterwards, in finishing it, the boldness vanishes." 69 The appeal of the sketch (whether drawn or painted) was twofold: not only did it offer an intimate glimpse of the artist's creative process, but the swiftness and sureness of his stroke betrayed the divine spark of inspiration, which endowed the sketch with something more passionate and spontaneous than was evident in a finished work of art. A century and a half after Vasari, de Piles was one of the first to characterize paintings that possessed this elusive but infinitely desirable quality of chaleur (passion, ardor) or feu (fire). As de Piles defined it, chaleur or feu was essentially the visible manifestation of the painting's "soul," the pure expression of the artist's imagination that spoke directly to the emotions and imagination of the viewer. The fire demonstrated in the oil sketch provided life to the skilled and thoughtful execution (the "body") of the finished painting. This distinction is, of course, directly linked to de Piles's equation
of color (colore, coloris) with the more sensual, visual aspects of painting; and of draftsmanship (disegno, dessin) with its more rational, intellectual aspects. 70
Also during this period, artists began to paint oil sketches not just in preparation for larger works
of art but also as autonomous demonstrations of improvisatory power and bravura technique, never intended to be followed up with a larger or more finished piece. From early in the century, oil sketches of both sorts were regularly exhibited at the biennial Paris Salons and scrutinized as evidence of the artist's capacities of invention. 71 In his reviews of the Salons of 1765 and 1767, Denis Diderot reflected eloquently on the appeal of the oil sketch:
Why does a beautiful sketch accord greater pleasure than a beautiful painting? Because it has more life and fewer forms. The more forms one introduces, the more life disappears.
For Diderot and other eighteenth-century amateurs, much of the appeal of the spontaneous oil sketch or unfinished work of art was this perceived communion with the imagination of the artist. As de Piles had noted a half century earlier, sketches required sophisticated knowledge and imagination on the part of the viewer to "complete" the artist's design. The ability to do so distinguished the connoisseur: "The man of genius and the true connoisseur get the most pleasure out of sketches. . . . [T]hey animate the poetic and reproductive faculties of the soul, which finish and complete in an instant what has only been sketchily rendered; in this respect they are very similar to the arts of oratory and poetry. . . ." 73 This same impulse was simultaneously manifested in the realm of print collecting, as the avid scrutiny, collecting, and cataloguing of preliminary etching states took hold in the eighteenth century (the relative spontaneity of the etched medium also had strong parallels with the oil sketch), 74 and in the rising taste for sculpted terracotta models. 75
Sketches frequently have a fire that the finished paintings lack; they're the moment of the artist's zeal, his pure verve, undiluted by any carefully considered preparation, they're the painter's soul freely transferred to canvas. The poet's pen, the skilled draftsman's pencil seem to frolic and amuse themselves. Rapid sketches characterize everything with a few strokes. The more ambiguity there is in artistic expression, the more comfortable the imagination. . . . [I]n a painting I see something that's fully articulated, while in a sketch there are so many things I imagine to be there that in fact are scarcely indicated!72
The sophisticated intellectual charm of the oil sketch ensured that significant groups of sketches
by Rubens (and by other artists as well) found their way into the carefully assembled cabinets of some of the most discerning amateurs of the eighteenth century. Others can be traced to the more modest but no less revealing collections of artists whose own work was inspired by the formal inventions and bravura technique of Rubens's oil sketches. The sheer volume of material documenting the presence of sketches in collections of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries requires, in the present context, singling out just a few cases to indicate broader trends in the collecting and appreciation of Rubens's
oil sketches during the period.
RUBENS'S OIL SKETCHES IN THE COLLECTIONS OF ARTISTS . . .
Although countless eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists flirted with "Rubenism" at some point
in their careers, 76 a specific debt to the oil sketches—whether formal, stylistic, or procedural—is more difficult to establish. In some instances it can be confirmed by the presence of sketches by Rubens in the collection of the artist; in others we must rely on the artist's writings or on the visual evidence of his or her works. 77 Dubbed "the Rubens of the eighteenth century," Jacob de Wit (1695-1754), a decorative painter active in Antwerp and Amsterdam, exemplifies the vibrant and immediate link that existed between Rubens's oil sketches and eighteenth-century taste and artistic practice. 78 As a youth (between 1709 and 1715), de Wit resided in Antwerp under the protection of his uncle, the international art dealer, wine merchant, and collector Jacomo de Wit (c. 1650-1721). Jacomo de Wit's impressive personal collection, sold in Antwerp on May 15, 1741, featured grisaille oil sketches by Rubens
for The Last Supper and its pair, The Raising of Lazarus (now lost). The younger de Wit's artistic training was grounded in the assiduous study of paintings by Rubens and his contemporaries so abundant in the churches and public buildings of Antwerp. Without question, it was Rubens's cycle of thirty-nine paintings for the plafonds of the Jesuit church that had the most profound and lasting impact on the young painter. In 1711-12 de Wit made quick drawings after the compositions, presumably to master Rubens's adroit handling of perspective and foreshortening; after the original paintings were destroyed by fire in 1718, de Wit created a set of
more finished drawings intended for reproduction in print.
Much of de Wit's own prolific career was given over to decorative paintings for ecclesiastic and secular patrons that reveal his many-layered debt to Rubens. He created preliminary oil sketches on both canvas and panel, fresh and impressionistic in style, for many of these projects. Like Rubens, he retained nearly all his oil sketches in the studio for future use, although unlike Rubens
he does not seem to have employed a fleet of assistants to work up finished paintings from these modelli. 79 De Wit also acquired works by Rubens for his personal collection: sixteen paintings by Rubens, including at least three oil sketches (two for his beloved Jesuit Ceiling) were featured in
the posthumous sale of de Wit's collection held in Amsterdam on March 10, 1755. The sale catalogue
also notes "Een groote Partij Modellen of Schetsen door Rubbens, Van Dyk, de Wit en andere beroemde Meesters," which probably refers to a group of drawings rather than additional painted oil sketches by these artists. 80
The decorative work of de Wit's senior colleague, the peripatetic Venetian Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675-1741), was also grounded in his study of Rubens's oil sketches and paintings.81 As
early as 1706 Pellegrini was painting spirited modelli that reveal a close knowledge of Rubens's work in this medium; he continued the practice of painting oil sketches—on canvas, or on paper mounted on canvas or panel—throughout his career. In 1713-14, while in the employ of the Elector Palatine Johan Wilhelm at Düsseldorf, Pellegrini painted a series of large wall canvases depicting scenes from the Elector's life for the audience room of his palace at Bensburg. From overall conception to specific detail, the cycle is dependent on Rubens's projects for Marie de Médicis at the Luxembourg Palace, which Pellegrini probably knew through engravings. 82 Pellegrini would also have been familiar with
the several fine oil sketches by Rubens in the Elector's collection. He himself owned one oil sketch by Rubens, Romulus Carrying the Trophy of Acron, part of an important collection of Netherlandish art that was purchased at his death by Joseph Smith, the British consul in Venice. The Rubens sketch was sold to George III and eventually entered the collection of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.
The decorative paintings of Jacob de Roore (1686-1747) are less specifically influenced by Rubens's oil sketches, although he avidly pursued examples of the artist's work in this medium. Active in
Antwerp and The Hague, de Roore painted imitations and copies of Rubens and other seventeenth-century masters, as well as ceiling paintings and tapestry designs, often in collaboration with his Dutch colleague Gerard Hoet (1698-1760). Hoet and de Roore also formed a successful partnership to deal
in works of art, many of which they imported from the Southern Netherlands. The posthumous sale of paintings in de Roore's posession, held in The Hague on September 4, 1747, lists forty-seven paintings by Rubens. This included seven sketches for the ceiling of the Jesuit church (among them The Last Supper) and at least four additional oil sketches (see The Road to Calvary). The sketches for the Jesuit Ceiling were purchased at the de Roore sale by the Hague publishers Anthoni and Stephanus de Groot. By 1771 the de Groots owned a total of nine sketches for the Jesuit series and three other small paintings by Rubens, possibly sketches as well, although not explicitly described as such in the catalogue of the sale of their collection in that year.
French artists also sought out Rubens's oil sketches for inspiration, emulation, and acquisition. Author of sparkling, quintessentially Rococo confections, François Boucher (1703-1770) owned two oil sketches by Rubens. Both, appropriately, reveal the Flemish painter's lighter, more decorative touch in approach and subject matter: The Daughters of Cecrops Discovering Erichthonius; and Charity, for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series, the latter attributed to Jordaens in the 1771 sale of Boucher's collection.83 Inspired at least in part by Rubens's example, Boucher painted swift and fluent oil sketches throughout his career, working with a liquid, loaded brush in brilliant color or more frequently in monochrome, both en grisaille and en camaïeu brun.84 Like Rubens, he painted sketches for paintings, engravings, and the many tapestries he designed for the Gobelins tapestry manufactory over the course of thirty years' association. Despite a lifelong debt to Rubens's work, however, only late in life (1766) did Boucher visit the Low Countries—a trip the Goncourt brothers described as "à la patrie de Rubens"—in the company of the collector Pierre-Louis-Paul Randon de Boisset (1708-1776). Boucher acted as advisor to Randon de Boisset, whose collection included Rubens's oil sketch for
Decius Mus Relating his Dream.
Boucher's talented pupil, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), understood well the impassioned, sensual appeal of the oil sketch. We do not know that Fragonard owned works by Rubens—indeed, his financial situation during and after the Revolution probably precluded it—but his admiration for and emulation of the Flemish painter are well documented, and appropriately noted here.85 Fragonard made numerous drawn and painted copies after Rubens throughout his career and in 1767 was granted special permission to make copies (none of which has survived) after the Marie de Médicis cycle
in the Palais de Luxembourg. He copied Rubens's sketch for an Adoration of the Shepherds (Rubenshuis, Antwerp) in a small oil sketch now in the the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille. More significantly, Fragonard's own spirited sketches demonstrate a seemingly effortless mastery of the essential vitality and élan that distinguished his Flemish model. The economy and elegance of Fragonard's quick brushwork and the luminosity of his palette caused the Goncourts to remark that "Fragonard recalls Rubens by way of the brilliance of Boucher." Despite his bow to the past, Fragonard thoroughly modernized the idea of the oil sketch by obliterating the distinction between sketch and finished painting. In small, light-hearted paintings executed with chaleur and breathless bravura, he paired the tactile appeal of the painter's touch with sensual, often deliberately titillating subject matter: provocative in both aspect and content, deliberately gauged to entice the sort of close, knowledgeable examination and private delectation central to the concept of a refined amateur's cabinet. 86
Painter, writer, collector, and first president of Britain's Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was a ubiquitous player in the eighteenth-century reception of Rubens's oil sketches. Reynolds's relationship with the art of Rubens was complex and often seemingly contradictory. He routinely disparaged the artist's work in formal Discourses given annually at the academy, reserving
his praise for the theoretical ideals of the Italian schools and ceding only that the best works by
Rubens, as titular head of the (inferior) Flemish school, deserved to be "valued higher than the second-rate performances of those above them: for every picture has value when it has a decided character, and is excellent of its kind." 87 Yet Reynolds's personal taste was rather more catholic: almost a third of the pictures in his collection were Dutch or Flemish, and the thirty-four paintings by or attributed to Rubens were the most by any single artist. 88
As a practicing artist, Reynolds had great admiration for Rubens's technique and was determined
to learn all he could from the physical evidence of the paintings themselves. He famously wrecked a portrait by the master to discover its secrets, 89 and in 1785 ruefully wrote to an Irish collector, "tho I have offered so great a sum [300 livres] for the Pictures [by Rubens] they are by no means worth half that sum to anybody else. . . . [T]hey are worth nothing . . . but to a Painter." 90 His fascination with Rubens as an artist and his professed interest in the didactic value of his art engendered a specific regard for the oil sketches; he recommended that (based on Rubens's example) the initial plan for
a picture be sketched in color and not merely drawn on paper, and at least occasionally made preliminary oil sketches for his own compositions.91 Although Reynolds maintained that it was
"only in large compositions that his [Rubens's] powers seem to have room to expand themselves,"
his consistent praise for the "eccentrick, bold, and daring" genius, which "pervades and illuminates
the whole," and the seemingly effortless "freedom and prodigality" of Rubens's invention, echoes the essential attributes of chaleur and feu imputed to the rapidly painted oil sketch. 92 In a similar vein, he admired finely finished works yet was quick to acknowledge the compelling power of unfinished or sketchily rendered paintings. 93
In travels to the Continent, Reynolds viewed Rubens's paintings and oil sketches with greater appreciation and a more open mind than his Discourses would indicate. He visited the collection of
the late Louis-Antoine Crozat, baron de Thiers, in Paris in 1771 and—unaware that negotiations were already under way to sell the paintings to Catherine II of Russia—expressed interest in acquiring five Rubens oil sketches from the collection (of about a hundred desiderata). 94 In his account of a journey
to Flanders and Holland undertaken in 1781, he noted three sketches in the collection of J. B. Horion in Brussels (The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy in Adoration, and two others which he subsequently purchased), but reserved highest praise for sketches of The Rape of the Sabines and The Reconciliation of the Romans and the Sabines then in the Danoot collection in Brussels: "Both these pictures are admirably composed, and in every respect excellent; few pictures of Rubens, even of his most finished works, give a higher idea of his genius."95 Reynolds owned at least one oil sketch by Rubens, a design for the Whitehall Ceiling (The Bounty of James I Triumphing over Avarice), as well as two copies after designs for the project from the Horion collection, which he believed
to be autograph. 96
Although most of his career falls outside
the chronological parameters of this study, Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was deeply and volubly inspired by Rubens's oil sketches. On
one occasion he recounted in his Journal his reaction to viewing two sketches by Rubens
at the museum in Nancy: "I went from one to
the other but without being able to leave them.
There is enough to write twenty volumes on the particular effect of these works." 97 Like many of his colleagues, Delacroix was stimulated by the suggestive properties of the première pensée: "I see Mars or Bellona in their fury in the first stroke of Rubens's brush upon his sketch. . . . In these brief outlines my mind seems to run ahead of my eye
and to seize the artist's thought almost before he gives it shape." 98 But he also made a very specific and intent study of Rubens's oil sketch technique, particularly his use of middle tones, and observed their relationship to Rubens's finished works: "How strange that I never noticed until now the extent to which Rubens proceeds by means of half-tone, especially in his finest works! His sketches ought to
have put me on the track." 99 Following Rubens's example ("The sketch must have been very good to have allowed him to proceed with the picture itself . . . with such perfect assurance" 100), Delacroix made vigorous oil sketches in preparation for his larger paintings. He owned one oil sketch by Rubens, a Crucifixion now in the Rococxhuis, Antwerp (Held no. 353). He also painted a copy after Rubens's
oil sketch for the Allegory with the Duke of Buckingham, a painting then (1825) in the collection of the Scottish painter Sir David Wilkie. Although Delacroix made dozens of small copies after paintings by the Flemish master, the copy after the sketch is almost exactly the same size as the original and, quite unusually for Delacroix, closely imitates its style. 101
. . . AND IN THE CABINETS AND GRAND GALLERIES OF THE AMATEUR
Eighteenth-century collectors of Rubens's oil sketches were a diverse lot. While some pursued the sketches in a drive to amass a representative body of Rubens's work in all forms, others built their collections modestly, perhaps seeking out the oil sketches as the most accessible and affordable examples of paintings by the master. Still others were primarily drawings collectors, no doubt
attracted to the spontaneous graphic qualities of the oil sketch. Many collectors appreciated the inherently didactic function of the oil sketch as it exposed Rubens's creative process, a consideration that often bore fruit in the eventual dispersal of their collections.
One of the largest gatherings of Rubens's oil sketches in the Southern Netherlands in the
eighteenth century was to be found in the collection formed by M. van Schorel, lord of Wilrijk and onetime burgemeester of Antwerp. Van Schorel was actively involved in the artistic life of Antwerp
and in the early 1740s played an important role in the reorganization and financial support of the
city's Academie voor Schoone Kunsten. His splendid art collection featured twenty-eight paintings by Rubens; the seventeen sketches included a grisaille of Christ Carrying the Cross and two sketches for the Life of Henry IV cycle commissioned by Marie de Médicis (sale Antwerp, June 7, 1774). Other prominent collectors of oil sketches included Joseph Sansot, "Licentié des Loix" and steward of the prince of Issinghien (nine sketches; sale Brussels, July 20, 1739); the Antwerp canon Pierre André Joseph Knijff (nine sketches; sale Antwerp, July 18, 1785); François Pauwels, a wealthy brewer in Brussels (seven sketches; sale Brussels, July 22, 1803); and François-Corneille-Gislain de Cuypers de Reymenam (twenty-eight sketches; sale Brussels, April 27, 1802). Cuypers's seventeen sketches for the Jesuit Ceiling—undescribed in the 1802 sale catalogue—were purchased by the Ghent painter and art dealer Philippe Lambert Joseph Spruyt (1727-1801). Most of these sketches passed, together with the rest of Spruyt's collection or stock, to his son Charles (1769-1851), like his father a painter and one of the most important art dealers in the Netherlands in the first half of the nineteenth century. "Quatorze Esquisses en grisaille première pensées [sic] . . . pour les plafonds de l'église des Jésuites à Anvers," as well as a number of other oil sketches by Rubens were dispersed in sales of Spruyt's collection held between 1803 and 1815.
The French treasurer and financier Pierre Crozat (1665-1740) was the epitome of the sensitive connoisseur. Crozat was a noted patron of the arts and one of the most important collectors of his age, primarily of drawings—at his death, his collection numbered nearly 19,000 sheets—but also, if to a lesser degree, of paintings. 102 Although his collection was heavily weighted toward the Italian schools, he gathered an impressive group of more than a dozen paintings by Rubens, including five oil sketches by the master. Crozat's taste for the light, fluid brushwork and improvisatory chaleur characteristic of the sketches was undoubtedly colored by his penchant for Rubens's drawings, of which he owned some
320 examples. 103
Crozat's collection of drawings was sold at auction in 1741, but the paintings eventually passed to his nephew Louis-Antoine Crozat, baron de Thiers (1699-1770). 104 Louis-Antoine continued to refine and add to the collection, particularly in the areas of Dutch and Flemish painting. Among the several works by Rubens that he acquired were three bozzetti for the Marie de Médicis cycle. In
1751, the Mercure de France announced that the Crozat collection, housed in the family hotel in the
place Vendôme, would be open on request to visits from "tous ceux qui vaudraient étudier les grands modèles pour former leur goût et pour perfectionner leurs talents."105 A catalogue of the collection published in 1755 guided the visitor through the various galleries and appartements of the hotel; although the catalogue does not explicitly describe the oil sketches in qualitative terms, it is clear
from the hanging (paired, in symmetrical ensembles, with finished pieces by other artists) that the sketches were regarded as small paintings by the master rather than as informal working documents. 106 After the death of baron de Thiers, the collection was sold en bloc to Catherine the Great of Russia, whose unparalleled gathering of Rubens's oil sketches will be discussed below.
Other noted French drawings collectors also possessed oil sketches by Rubens. Jean de Julienne (1686-1766), for example, a publisher and art collector perhaps best known as the friend and patron
of Antoine Watteau, owned nine oil sketches and several larger paintings by Rubens. The print dealer, publisher, collector, and writer Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774) may have lacked the great wealth of many of his colleagues, but he built a collection of drawings and some paintings distinguished by its consistently high quality and careful connoisseurship. Mariette owned just one, singularly appropriate, sketch by Rubens, a design for a printed title page.
In England, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), first prime minister of Britain, amassed one of that country's finest art collections in the brief span of a mere twenty-five years. 107 Walpole's collection of about four hundred paintings was the epitome of Grand Tour taste, a calculated assertion of wealth
and political stature. Although Walpole tended to favor large canvases, he also owned fine cabinet pieces and some outstanding oil sketches by Rubens, including the six designs for the Triumphal Entry
of Ferdinand sold from P. H. Lankrink's collection in 1693, and a sketch of The Apotheosis of James I
for the Whitehall Ceiling. The latter had a prestigious provenance, having come from the collections of Charles I and Sir Godfrey Kneller. Horace Walpole took pains to emphasize this history in the Aedes Walpolianae (1752), noting that Kneller had "studied it much, as is plain from his Sketch
for King William's Picture in the Parlor."108 The Apotheosis initially hung in the upstairs Great Room
in Walpole's house at 10 Downing Street in London. Located just a stone's throw from Rubens's finished version installed at the Banqueting House, it was a powerful statement of royal dynastic
links and political might. 109
Incidentally, Robert Walpole's close friend and attending physician, Dr. Richard Mead (1673-1754), was also a collector of considerable renown, as well as a patron of the arts, an accomplished classicist, and physician to King George II. Mead assembled an outstanding collection of rare books, coins, gems, antique sculpture, and contemporary and old master paintings, including Rubens's eight sketches for
the Life of Achilles tapestry series. Quite unusual for the age (but entirely in keeping with his generous philanthropic instincts), Mead's collection was housed in a purpose-built gallery beside his London home and opened to the public for study.
However grand the display of Walpole's collection at Downing Street and at his country house, Houghton Hall, at his death the estate was shackled by immense debt. In 1779 Walpole's grandson,
the eccentric George Walpole, Lord Orford, sold more than two hundred pictures from the collection (including eight oil sketches by Rubens) to Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796). The transaction was roundly regarded as an irreparable loss to the British nation, as great a national misfortune as the sale of the Crozat collection from France some seven years earlier.
As part of a calculated bid for recognition and prestige among the courts of Western Europe, from the outset of her reign Catherine systematically assembled a most impressive collection of European art.110 Most of her acquisitions came by means of purchasing entire collections, but this omnivorous roster nonetheless included some of the most prestigious cabinets in Europe and England—among them the collections of Cobenzl (acquired 1768), Brühl (1769), Crozat (1772), and Walpole (1779)—
an indication (despite her "bulk buying" approach) of her concern for the artistic quality of individual works. Catherine had a decided taste for Dutch and Flemish paintings, and a particular interest in works by Rubens, 111 perhaps seeing in him a striving ambition and search for aristocratic glory that matched her own. Her purchases brought more than twenty oil sketches by Rubens to the Hermitage, along with dozens of finished paintings and drawings. 112
At the other end of the spectrum from Catherine's spectacular and imperious collection building were a number of more focused private collections of Rubens's oil sketches, which, though smaller,
still generated considerable impact through their astute disposition. Throughout the early 1790s the French dealer and collector Noël Desenfans (1744-1807) and his protégé Peter Francis Bourgeois (1756-1811) devoted much of their energies to assembling a collection of old master paintings for the Polish king Stanislas Augustus Poniatowski (1732-1798). 113 The collection's great strength was in Dutch and Flemish painting and included twenty works by Rubens. Stanislas, however, was deposed in 1795 and the paintings remained with the dealers in London. Over the next decade they made several public attempts to sell the "royal collection" in its entirety, while quietly selling off individual works from the stock and replacing them with others. Desenfans bequeathed his share of the collection jointly to his wife and Bourgeois, with instructions to locate an appropriate institution to exhibit and preserve the collection in its entirety. In 1811 the collection went to Dulwich College; six oil sketches by Rubens (including Three Nymphs with a Cornucopia and The Three Graces) thus became a treasured part of England's first public art gallery.
On the Continent, Count Anton Lamberg-Spritzenstein (1740-1822) spent much of his career as ambassador of the Austrian empire at the courts of Naples and Turin.114 He amassed formidable and internationally respected collections of antiquities and old master paintings, the latter all scaled to fit the intimate spaces of his Viennese apartment. Though small, the paintings in Lamberg's collection demonstrate his preference for virtuoso exhibitions of brushwork, completely counter to prevailing
taste at the turn of the nineteenth century. Eleven of the sixteen original paintings by Rubens in his collection were oil sketches. In 1822 Lamberg bequeathed his collection to the Akademie
der bildenden Künste in Vienna (of which he had been president since 1818) to secure the proper conservation of the objects in his collection and to ensure that it be preserved together in its entirety and available to young artists for study. In a similar spirit, the German banker Johann Friedrich Städel (1728-1816) bequeathed his home and art collection to the city of Frankfurt, to be maintained (thanks to an additional monetary bequest) as a public art collection and school to promote the free education of artists regardless of social class. 115 Between about 1770 and 1805 Städel assembled a collection of mostly German and Netherlandish paintings, drawings, prints, and important publications on the arts. Taken as a whole, the collection—which included two oil sketches by Rubens—reflected Städel's twin concerns of instilling proper artistic training and documenting the history of the arts.
Louis La Caze (1798-1869) was a Parisian physician and amateur painter of comparatively modest means, whose taste for small, freely painted works that emphasized coloris over dessin was also—like that of Lamberg in Vienna—in opposition to the dominant aesthetic. 116 La Caze was one of the first French collectors to appreciate the vigorous brushwork of paintings by Frans Hals, for example. He acquired paintings for small sums at auction and from dealers in secondhand goods, and at his death bequeathed more than five hundred paintings to the Musée du Louvre and the provincial museums of France. The collection was particularly strong in paintings and oil sketches by eighteenth-century French artists and in seventeenth-century Netherlandish works. A half dozen fine oil sketches by Rubens included four sketches for the ceiling of the Jesuit church in Antwerp, one for the Whitehall Ceiling, and The Recognition of Philopoemen.
The Reverend Thomas Kerrich (1748-1828) was an accomplished amateur draftsman, painter,
and lithographer, antiquarian, collector, and librarian of Cambridge University. He formed a large collection of prints, drawings, and some (mostly Netherlandish) paintings that were bequeathed by his son, the Reverend R. E. Kerrich, to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 1872. The gift included eight oil sketches by Rubens, seven bozzetti for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series (an eighth, the Triumph of Hope, was retained by the family) and Rubens's grisaille sketch for the engraved frontispiece to Caspar Gevartius's publication of the Pompa Introitus Ferdinandi (Held 1980, no. 306).
The forward-thinking philanthropy of these and many other collectors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries brought attention to the unique power, energy, and inventive genius of Rubens's oil sketches by placing them in the public collections of museums and academic institutions. The most exemplary manifestation of this trend in the twentieth century is the collection of Rubens's oil sketches formed by Count Antoine Seilern (1901-1978). 117 In the 1930s in Vienna, Seilern embarked on a study of Rubens that culminated in a dissertation on the Venetian sources of Rubens's ceiling paintings. His interest in artistic sources, as well as in the artist's technique and creative process (not
to mention his close study of Rubens's works in Viennese collections), led him to build a collection of 127 old master paintings and some 350 drawings especially rich in preparatory works. Among these were over thirty paintings (mostly oil sketches) and two dozen drawings by Rubens. In contrast to the eighteenth century's poetic quest for the chaleur and feu of the oil sketch, Seilern's approach was more scholarly, seeking to understand Rubens's technique and the evolution of his pictorial ideas through paintings in the finest possible state of preservation. During Seilern's lifetime the collection was readily available to scholars and connoisseurs for study; at his death the collection was bequeathed to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London to ensure access for future generations.
A FOOTNOTE ON VALUE
Sales of oil sketches (and paintings) by Rubens increased exponentially in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, making a thorough and reasoned analysis of prices paid for the sketches during the period an unwieldy enterprise best left for future study by a scholar with greater expertise in the intricacies of economic history. A few remarks on the commercial "values" placed on the oil sketches
at the time would, however, give some additional perspective to the history of collecting of these
works. Running parallel to the intellectual and idealized discourses on the delights of the oil sketch were the more pragmatic (and often quite insightful) commentaries on individual works presented in sale catalogues and published handbooks specifically geared to the collector and rising connoisseur. Despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that these commentaries are often thinly disguised articles
of salesmanship, they are quite revealing of current taste. Descriptions of oil sketches by Rubens frequently touted the fine finish of a modello ("esquisse bien terminée") or marveled at the light and swift execution of a preliminary bozzetto. Rubens's palette/coloration was also consistently praised, whether as "frais" or "éclatante"; so too was the inspired freedom of his brushwork: "peint avec ce feu
et cette heureuse facilité si naturelle à ce peintre," rhapsodized a typical comment in a 1806 sale. The description of The Recognition of Philopoemen, sold from the Knijff collection in 1785, notes the powerful effect of Rubens's judicious if perhaps unorthodox use of color and brushwork: "This colored sketch posesses astonishingly vigorous and bold brushwork; the whole presents an array of pure colors spontaneously placed, but which blend, depending on one's distance from the picture; objects become three dimensional, they charm and ravish the viewer." 118
A proven relationship to a finished work of art—painting, tapestry, sculpture, or print—obviously lent stature to even the slightest oil sketch. In describing two sketches for plafonds of the Jesuit church at Antwerp, the catalogue of the Julienne sale (Paris, March 30-May 22, 1767, lot 100) stressed that these were "the only originals in existence," the large paintings having been destroyed by fire in 1718. Similarly, the discussion of Christ Carrying the Cross in the van Schorel sale catalogue of
1774 notes that the grisaille sketch served as the modello for the print by Paulus Pontius, made under Rubens's watchful eye: "thus, as one can well understand, everything is correct, expressed, finished,
and with the most beautiful result." 119 From time to time the description of a particular lot directs the reader's attention to the sketch's role in the creative process and its relationship to the finished work,
as in the comments on a sketch of St. Theresa Interceding for the Souls in Purgatory, sold at Ghent in 1840: "One notices the changes that Rubens introduced in the [finished] painting, especially in the lower part, where figures representing the souls in purgatory and several angels are no more perfect than in the sketch. It is a joy to come across compositions like this, in which one can sense the pure inspiration of the painter's genius in the bold strokes of his brush."120
The writings of some of the most prominent art dealers of the early nineteenth century—guidebooks, personal memoirs, and exhaustive catalogues raisonnés—also offer an interesting mix
of commercial savvy and finely honed aesthetics. For François Xavier de Burtin (1743-1819), unlike many of his contemporaries, authenticity was a key determinant in assessing the value of a picture.121 For this reason, in his popular vade mecum for the amateur, published in 1808, Burtin consistently praises Rubens's oil sketches as the truest expressions of the artist's intent. He especially admired Rubens's highly finished modelli and on more than one occasion noted that such finely painted works could carry the same impact as a finished painting. The catalogue raisonné of Rubens's works, published by the art dealer John Smith in 1829, indicates that he, too, tended to value Rubens's sketches based on their degree of finish. While Smith's comments on the aesthetic appeal of a given painting were often remarkably astute, they by no means eclipsed his sharp commercial eye. He kept a fascinating running commentary on the current market value of paintings sold in the past or then hanging in public collections:
Whether a detailed and highly finished presentation piece or the most ethereal whisper of a nascent idea, Rubens's oil sketches were (and continue to be) most admired and coveted for their ardent, fluent display of the artist's genius. As much as they embody the elusive, instantaneous spark of invention, they also show evidence of the artist's carefully calculated approach to formal design and narrative. Visually, technically, and functionally challenging, they are also, and most importantly, transcendently beautiful works of art. Across the centuries the richly seductive and suggestive properties of Rubens's oil sketches continue to work their transformative charm over the eye and intellect of the viewer.