Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid partnered up and are bringing Peter Paul Rubens’ most beautiful oil sketches to Rotterdam for a spellbinding survey of the ‘god of painters’, as the Flemish master was known in his own lifetime. The exhibition, entitled ‘Pure Rubens’, will be shown upcoming Autumn in the museum’s 1500 m2 Bodon Galleries.
The most beautiful oil sketches from all over the world, supplemented by several monumental paintings by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) are coming to Rotterdam for Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s major autumn exhibition. Rubens made the costly and fragile oil sketches as preliminary studies for paintings, tapestries, sculptures and prints. Because of the importance of this exhibition, other museums have agreed to loan some works that never normally travel, such as the magnificent sketch for ‘A Lion Hunt’ in the National Gallery in London. ‘Pure Rubens' is the first survey of Rubens' oils sketches in Europe for sixty-five years. It has been organised in partnership with the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, where it can be seen until 5 August. This autumn, Rotterdam expects to welcome more than a hundred thousand art lovers from the Netherlands and abroad to marvel at this master painter known for his voluptuous women.
‘Pure Rubens’ shows who Rubens was, how he became famous, and how he was able to bring stories to life. Visitors will be taken on a journey into Rubens’ imagination and will be able, as it were, to crawl under the skin of the master painter. Curator Friso Lammertse: ‘Rubens was a born storyteller. He depicted not the vulgar or ugly side of people but rather their beautiful, higher, divine aspects. Rubens was unrivalled in letting us feel that we are part of a larger whole. The paintings transport us, as if we are lifted out of our miserable world.’
It is impossible to organise a true Rubens retrospective exhibition today because many of his major works are so enormous and so fragile that they cannot be moved. But for a survey of his compositions, we have recourse to his oil sketches, which are like miniature versions of his larger pieces. Rubens is the undisputed master of the oil sketch. He was the first artist to try out many of his important commissions in painted sketches on panel. He cherished his sketches, showing them to clients and fellow artists, and kept them in his own archive; they were not for sale. It was only after his death that the sketches came onto the market, and they were highly sought after by collectors. At the end of the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century, they became more popular than Rubens’ finished paintings. Influenced by the Romantic painters and Impressionism, modern viewers saw the ‘unfinished’ character of the sketches in a new light. Partly thanks to his oil sketches, Rubens is now seen as one of the forefathers of modern art. Lammertse: ‘The extraordinary thing about the sketches is that they are actually more beautiful than the paintings. Here we see the hand of Rubens himself, not that of his assistants. All his ideas are to be found here. The emotions leap off the surface.’
The sketches that Rubens painted in 1634 for the festive entry into Antwerp of the Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Austria, are among his most impressive. The two best-preserved works from this series, studies for the front and back of The Arch of the Mint in the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, will be displayed prominently in the exhibition. Both panels, which are among the largest that Rubens painted, are being exhibited for the first time since recently being restored to their original splendour. During the restoration process, fingerprints were discovered on the edges of the works, presumably made when Rubens moved the panels while the paint was still wet. The sketches exhibit raw, rapid brushwork. Several passages are not elaborated in oils, leaving the chalk underdrawing visible. The sketches must have been painted at great speed, as Rubens writes in a letter that he had ‘no time for life’ for this commission. Lammertse: ‘These sketches from Antwerp shows Rubens at his best: virtuoso, pure and driven. They emit an extraordinary energy.’
For many years Boijmans and the Prado have wanted to bring together the best works from their collections, supplemented with masterpieces from other collections, to create a unique survey of the artist’s work in this medium. The vast majority of the works will be shown at both venues, though each museum will exclusively show several works that are unable to travel. The Rubens collection of the Prado and Boijmans are part of the worlds most important collections by Rubens. These two Rubens collections are supplemented with loans from the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Until 5 August, the exhibition can be seen at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid under the title: ‘Rubens: Painter of Sketches’.
The exhibition has been curated by Alejandro Vergara (curator of Flemish and Northern European art at the Museo Nacional del Prado and Friso Lammertse (curator of Old Master paintings and sculpture at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen). For more than fifteen years, they have been conducting joint research into Rubens and his pupils. This research has already resulted in exhibitions about the Achilles series (2003) and the young Antony van Dyck (2012-13). The exhibition ‘Pure Rubens’ is the grand culmination of the partnership between these two curators.