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Rubens - an introduction to works in the Courtauld Gallery

Rubens and his work in progress

These three works were brought together by Antoine Seilern, who later bequeathed them along with the rest of his considerable collection to the Courtauld Institute. Seilern’s academic interest in Rubens led him to focus particularly on works that cast light on Rubens’ working method. These three works comprising as they do a drawing, an oil sketch and a finished painting which provide us with a visual record of changes made to a composition during the course of its creation.

If we compare first the drawing and the sketch we can see the figure of St Paul is the same in both. The group of figures on the left of the drawing is repeated in the oil sketch with one of the camels, the woman with a baby strapped to her back and the man stretching his arm out above her all included. If, however, we compare the sketch to the painting we find few similarities. The structure of the composition is similar with a central group surrounded by a larger circle of figures but each of the figure groups differs in detail. It is in fact the drawing that bears a closer resemblance to the finished painting than the oil sketch, with the horse and young groom at the centre right of the former corresponding to the horse and groom at the centre of the latter. In addition to this, the serpentine line and the centre of the composition formed by the body of St Paul, the horse and groom and the figure group immediately above the groom is repeated in the finished painting. This has led scholars to conclude that instead of a preparatory process in which Rubens started with the drawing, went on to the oil sketch and concluded with the finished painting, a more complex series of events occurred.

If we examine the drawing we find that it is on two separate sheets of paper. These two halves of the drawing were not re-united until Seilern correctly identified them as belonging together and purchased the second sheet to complete the half he already owned. The left hand page of the drawing is the one that bears the closest similarity to the oil sketch. The half on the right page includes the figure of the groom and horse that relate to the finished painting. Seilern’s theory was therefore that Rubens returned to the drawing when unsatisfied with the composition in the oil sketch and, as the drawing was in a sketch book, simply tore out the right hand side of the page and redrew the right side of the composition on the clean sheet of paper below, which is how they ended up on two separate sheets. Further changes to the drawing were made when a square of paper was pasted onto the far right side of the page and drawn over, and a further rectangular sheet added just above the pasted square.

It is interesting finally to compare the abandoned composition in the oil sketch to the finished painting and consider the changes that were made. The oil sketch has a much higher viewpoint, offering the viewer an almost bird’s eye perspective of the startled entourage and St Paul. The body of St Paul is horizontal to the picture plane and is being dragged by his panicked horse as his companions try to rescue him. The final composition on the other hand shows St Paul in a perfectly static position at right angles to the picture plane with his arms thrown out in a gesture that echoes the crucifixion. The figure of Christ appears immediately above him on the vertical axis of the composition and the viewpoint is extremely low. The viewer therefore does not look down on the dramatic narrative of St Paul being dragged helpless across the ground, but instead, like St Paul, we look up from the still face of the saint, through the chaos of the army in the centre ground to the open armed figure of Christ.

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