Masters: Rubens' Drawings: The Marks of a Prolific Master

Juggling dozens of commissions at once, Peter Paul Rubens and his staff created hundreds of dynamic drawings and oil sketches.

by John A. Parks

1638–1640, oil,
43 x 33½.

Museum, Vienna,

Born in 1577 and based in Antwerp, Belgium, Peter Paul Rubens towered over the art of the 17th century as an almost superhuman force. Not only was his work a marvel of inventiveness, glowing with color, rich in human insight, and executed with endless verve and bravura, but his output was truly stupendous. It included scores of enormous altarpieces, umpteen lavish cycles of history paintings, and numerous portraits, hunting scenes, and landscapes—not to mention book illustrations and architectural designs, as well as a plethora of copies, reworkings, public decorations on a grand scale, and whatever else came up. Rubens was also a great collector of art, particularly antique art, and made a considerable amount of money trading it. And if all this wasn’t enough, he was also a revered diplomat and man of affairs who negotiated much business for Spain and the Netherlands, including a pivotal role in the peace treaty between Spain and England, signed in London in 1630. Rubens also amassed a large amount of real estate, finishing his life in splendor, ensconced in a country castle, managing his lands, raising a second family with a new teenage bride, and painting a series of vast and grand landscapes for his own pleasure. One can feel exhausted just thinking about the man.

Add to this the production of hundreds of drawings. Two recent exhibitions presented a unique opportunity to see behind the scenes of Rubens’ vast production. The Bruce Museum, in Greenwich, Connecticut, hosted “Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens” until the end of January, when it traveled to the Berkeley Art Museum, in Berkeley, California, for viewing until May 15. Meanwhile, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, mounted a major loan exhibition of the artist’s drawings from January 15 through April 3. Apart from the sheer abundance of visual pleasure offered, these events allowed one to understand how Rubens went about the business of making first-class paintings on a grand scale.

1. The artist made preliminary sketches in black chalk on rough paper. Sometimes he also used red chalk, and sometimes he tinted the sketch with a bistre wash. Rubens would often use his vast stock of copies of the Italian masters for ideas on the composition and the figures in it.

2. Next, he made a small oil sketch of the composition on a prepared wooden panel, using black chalk, painting thinly and quickly. Rubens’ powers were such that he could conjure up a sense of the much larger picture to come with great economy and freedom. The finished sketch was presented to the client for approval and used in the studio as a guide for his assistants.

3. Once a composition was approved, Rubens would make large drawings in black chalk, using live models for the poses needed for the painting. Since female models were scarce, he often used male models for the female figures. This stage allowed him to incorporate increased anatomical information and a wealth of detail.

4. The finished painting would begin with a black-chalk drawing. Rubens would often have his assistants paint the early stages of the work before executing the finishing touches himself.

The Three Graces
ca. 1625–1628,
oil on panel,
15½ x 15½.
Dulwich Picture
Gallery, London,

The first thing to remember about both exhibitions is that Rubens himself would never have thought to present them. He would have no more exhibited his drawings than he would have appeared in public in his underwear. Indeed, for almost all artists prior to the late 19th century, the finished product was the point of the whole business, and all else made in the studio was merely supportive and often discarded after use. Rubens’ drawings and oil sketches played a variety of supporting roles in his work from the very beginning of his career, when he was apprenticed to Antwerp painter Adam van Noort, and later to Otto van Veen. Following the practice of the day, the young artist made numerous copies of masterworks, particularly the Northern painters Tobias Stimmer and Hans Holbein. In 1600, Rubens moved to Italy, where he obtained a position with the court of the Duke of Gonzaga in Mantua. There, he spent an enormous amount of energy making drawings of the work of all the Renaissance masters, particularly Titian, Michelangelo, and Raphael. The purpose of this enterprise was not simply to learn; it was actually an attempt to ransack the available iconography and compositions so that he could amass a personal library of imagery for later use. What the artist most valued in these drawings was not their personal calligraphy or quality of rendering, but simply their design information. After he left Italy in 1608 to take up permanent residence in Antwerp, Rubens continued to employ young artists to sketch whatever paintings in Italy they might find of interest. Rubens so valued his stockpile of imagery that in his will he stipulated that it be kept intact for any of his children who might wish to become painters. Sadly, none of them did.

Seated Young
With Raised Arms

ca. 1631–1632,
black and red chalk
with white
heightening, 16 x
19 11/16.
Staatliche Museen
zu Berlin,
Berlin, Germany.

The value of his image bank was immediately evident upon Rubens’ return to Antwerp. The Counter-Reformation was in full swing and the Roman Catholic Church was intent on using revamped, powerful imagery and lavish decoration to lure believers away from the new pugnacious doctrines of Martin Luther, which had swept through much of Northern Europe. In the next 11 years Rubens would receive commissions for some 64 altarpieces—large-scale works often involving several related panels—and many other religious pieces. In order to produce such an enormous amount of work, Rubens set up a studio along the lines of the Italian masters, with assistants and apprentices. Exactly how many people he employed is unknown. By securing appointment to the court of Isabella and Albert, the rulers of the Lower Netherlands, Rubens had managed to avoid the scrutiny of the Guild of Painters, which normally kept records of such things. (This freedom may have also given him a technical edge in avoiding the many petty restrictions that the guild enforced.) Whatever the actual numbers, Rubens’ drawings and oil sketches make much more sense when considered within the context of a collaborative enterprise.

Rubens approached a large work in a series of stages. First, the artist would make preliminary drawings in black chalk, sometimes in combination with brown chalk. At this point he would often refer to his extensive library of copies, but the work of his forebears always underwent radical transformation at his hand. Rubens had an extraordinary ability to breathe life and movement into figures and find new rhythms in old compositional ideas. Clearly, he used these preparatory drawings as creative adventures, and many of them bear the marks of numerous changes of pose and position as the artist’s ideas evolved. He would often change from chalk to pen-and-ink, augmenting with a light bistre (brown) wash. Sometimes, the drawing is left in a very uneven condition, with some parts heavily built up while others are left more or less open, as in The Assumption of the Virgin.

The Virgin As
the Woman
of the

ca. 1623–1624,
oil on panel,
24¾ x 19¼.
Collection The J.
Paul Getty
Museum, Los

Once he decided on the composition, the artist executed an oil sketch. These were relatively small renderings on gessoed wood panel. The artist would begin with a black-chalk line drawing and then build the image broadly in layers of thin oil paint, beginning with browns to establish the tonal structure, then laying in color. No technical description, however, can account for the almost magical way in which the artist conjured complicated scenes with such economy and freedom. Even in Rubens’ time, these works were much admired.

The oil sketch filled two roles in Rubens’ business: First and foremost, it was created for presentation to the client for approval before proceeding to the finished work. In a climate of intense competition for the souls of Europe, religious images were subjected to close scrutiny for iconographical accuracy. Rubens was a considerable scholar and fluent in Latin, attributes that he occasionally needed in arguments with his clerical clients. Once approved, the oil sketch could then be used in the studio as a model for Rubens and his assistants.

One more stage was required, however, before work on the finished art could begin. Rubens made larger drawings in black chalk from live models. This allowed him to incorporate a wealth of detail and anatomical accuracy. Many of these drawings are regarded as the artist’s finest because of the sure handling and electric sense of life they exhibit.

Exactly how Rubens deployed his assistants on final works is not quite clear. One visitor recounts that Rubens made an outline in chalk on the canvas or panel and applied one or two patches of color, leaving his assistants to work up the composition. (He was obviously fortunate to have gifted assistants, a group that for some years included Anthony van Dyck.) At the very end of the process, Rubens himself would apply the finishing touches. Most likely, there was some flexibility in approach, and there are occasions when Rubens seems to have done all of the steps himself.

The Gathering
of Manna

ca. 1626, oil on
panel, 25? x 20½.

Collection Los
Angeles County
of Art, Los
Angeles, California.

His speed as a painter was legendary. He could finish an entire portrait in a morning, and one visitor describes him painting quickly while dictating correspondence and listening to an assistant reading to him in Latin. Not surprisingly, Rubens cared little for sleep. He rose at four in the morning, attended a short Mass, and then worked until four or five in the evening, at which time he liked to take a ride on horseback outside the city walls before having dinner with friends.

Ruben’s appetite for commissions, especially large work, was voracious. In 1621, in addition to his outstanding orders for altarpieces and history scenes, Rubens contracted with Marie de Médicis—the mother of the King of France—for 24 huge canvases for installation in the Luxembourg Palace. The deadline was two years, and Rubens met it in spite of endless wrangling over imagery and the usual court shenanigans. On a diplomatic mission in London in 1629, Rubens received the ceiling commission of the splendid Banqueting Hall in Whitehall. The surviving oil sketches for this project are among his best. There was also a commission for acres of hunting scenes for the King of France. Everyone wanted his or her work ahead of schedule and nobody wanted to pay. Rubens’ claim, in 1624, that “I have become the most harassed man in the world” might very well have been true.

Apart from the methods described above, a number of sketches and drawings were made for other purposes. There are certain oil sketches that appear to have been worked up for unspecified future use. There are also several oil sketches where various unfinished sections suggest that the artist was using them to work out ideas. Among the pieces in the exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art are a number of book illustrations and some drawings for engravings. Like most artists of his time, Rubens had engravings made of his major compositions, which he could sell throughout Europe. Although the drawings for engravings were usually left to assistants, Rubens occasionally undertook these himself, as in the case of The Garden of Love. Here, we can see him employing a somewhat tighter style than in his preparatory drawings, although even with this closer control the sense of liveliness and verve is unmistakable.

With Fallen

ca. 1618, black
chalk with white
heightening and
dark brown ink
on pale buff
paper, 22 15/16
x 19¼.
Collection The
Louvre, Paris,

Also featured in the exhibition of drawings are a number of pieces depicting landscape details and farm life, such as Landscape With Fallen Tree. These seem to have been created as a reference for backgrounds of larger compositions and were obviously done from life. Because these drawings display great delight in exploring natural forms, it is hardly surprising that Rubens turned to landscape as a source of pleasure in his retirement.

Although Rubens’ drawings are remarkably consistent in being focused on the business at hand, there are a few memorable occasions when the sheer pleasure of the enterprise seems to have gotten the better of him. Most notable is a drawing of peasants dancing, in which a rough country couple is drawn cavorting in various poses, full of life as they romp across the page.

0703rube7_473x600 0703rube8_463x600 0703rube9_470x600
The Assumption of the Virgin
ca. 1612–1615, brown ink and brown wash, white
body color, and black chalk on brown paper, 11? x 9?.
Collection Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Isabella Brandt
ca. 1621, black and red chalk with white heightening, brush color, red body color on light gray-brown paper, 15 x 11½. Collection The British
Museum, London, England.
Head of a Negro
ca. 1618–1620, oil on panel,
17¾ x 14½. The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York.

A large body of Rubens’ preparatory drawings remains, but a far larger number has been lost amid the events of the world. The artist would not have been surprised that Europe would be engulfed in war and upheaval for the next several centuries. As a diplomat, he believed passionately in peace and was appalled by the cavalier way in which princes subjected the population to war. He lived in a world in which politicians cynically manipulated religious fervor to stir up trouble. “Anyone can start a war,” he wrote, “but it is much harder to end it.” Obviously he would have no trouble recognizing contemporary politics. In his painting Allegory of War, in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Rubens showed Mars, the god of war, stepping on a book and also on a crumpled sketch of The Three Graces. The fact that he chose a sketch to represent the beauties trampled by war shows his great regard for the art of drawing—and reveals the stark connection between his work as a diplomat and his work as an artist.

Related Posts:


Learn from the Masters