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Rubens - an introduction to works in the Courtauld Gallery

Rescuing Rubens

On the 29th of March 1620 Rubens signed a contract to design the ceiling paintings for the Jesuit Church in Antwerp. He agreed to provide 39 'tekenen in t’ cleyne' (small sketches) in his own hand, which were to be used by his assistants, principal among which was Anthony van Dyck (mentioned by name in the contract) to paint the final ceiling. In 1718 the Jesuit Church was struck by lightning, and the ceiling paintings, which were on canvas set into wooden frames, were destroyed. The Courtauld Institute owns a number of works that have been used to recreate a sense of what these lost ceiling panels might have looked like, foremost among which are the oil sketches by Rubens himself. Also in the collection are a series of drawings and watercolours by the Dutch artist Jacob de Wit.

The seventeen year-old de Wit, interested in studying Rubens’ technique in foreshortening figures sketched the ceiling panels a few months before they were destroyed. On hearing of their destruction only a few months after his return to Antwerp he spotted a commercial opportunity and set about publishing firstly a set of drawings of the ceiling and then a set of watercolours. The frontispiece, de Wit’s own invention, displays a portrait of Rubens. Two putti attempt to shield it with a curtain from the flames in the background that engulf the Jesuit Church. On the right are arranged the attributes of art, a palette and brushes, a drawing, dividers for measuring and a classical sculpture (over-turned and foreshortened), together with a trumpet signifying fame. The third putto clutches in his arms a folio of drawings, which bears de Wit’s signature. De Wit thus signs the frontispiece and shows that it is his drawings that are the ‘happily rescued memorial’ described on the title page.

Rubens’ oil sketch of David and Goliath indicates that the ceilings were designed to take full advantage of the excitement that a di sotto in su ceiling offers by showing the instant before Goliath is decapitated by David. Goliath’s lifeless body lays head first towards the viewer and David has raised his sword above his head like an axe. David’s sword is shown poised to sweep through the air above us, slicing off the giant’s head that would then fall down into the space of the church and the viewer. De Wit’s watercolour explains the puzzling red horizontal stripes next to David’s leg, a space occupied in the watercolour by Goliath’s fluttering red cloak.

There are other differences however between the watercolours and the oil sketches. Rubens’ designs play with the excitement created by the illusion of strongly foreshortened figures hovering above the viewer. In Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba gold vessels are crowded along the very edge of the table spilling into the space of the viewer. A soldier casually hooks his arm around his spear thus elbowing into the space of the church and the water carrier. He peers down at us through his arms underneath the large gold water bowl he carries and we hope he doesn’t spill water on us. Rubens’ sketches offer Van Dyck and the other assistants in his studio, a stroke by stroke guide to structuring the architecture of the setting, the arrangement of the figures within the composition, and their execution in colour, right down to where the highlights need to be placed on the Queen of Sheba’s knee and shoulder and on Solomon’s collar.

De Wit, more concerned with communicating the rich narrative detail than the technical aspects of foreshortening, widens the composition from the octagonal panel (which in the case of Rubens’ sketch is almost as high as it is wide) into a rectangular format. The procession of the Queen of Sheba, instead of teetering vertiginously above us is set several steps back, a horizontal line of brightly clad women. This change however means that de Wit’s treatment of the water carrier is rendered awkward as Rubens’ strong foreshortening of the figure is maintained, and he continues to look through his arms at us, but the rest of the perspective in the image has been altered from an extreme di sotto in su perspective to a more conventional frontal viewpoint, albeit from a low angle.

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