Rubens' sketch

The lovely image on the catalogue of the new exhibition of Rubens’s oil sketches at The State Hermitage Rooms in Somerset House depicts 'The Union of the Two Crowns’, an allegory of the political marriage between England and Scotland in 1603. The choice celebrates three centuries of political union, but it is also highly appropriate to the new alliance between the Courtauld Institute and The State Hermitage Museums, resulting in scholarly exchange and jointly organised exhibitions. It is fitting too, that the inaugural show should comprise not only works from The State Hermitage Rooms, as in the past, but also a selection from the extraordinary collection of oil sketches and drawings by Rubens in the Courtauld Institute Galleries.

The Rubens holdings of the two institutions are highly complementary. The exhibition, set in the intimate spaces of the Hermitage Rooms, enables the viewer to explore the ways in which Rubens thought out and developed his ideas for the large-scale projects for which he was renowned. In the first room, for example, we meet Rubens soon after his return to Antwerp from Italy in 1608, confirming his reputation as a pre-eminent artist of the Counter Reformation. Through virtuoso autograph sketches of the Descent from the Cross and the Assumption of the Virgin he secured the approval of influential patrons for large new altarpieces in Antwerp Cathedral.

By the early 1620s, Rubens had gained commissions for a great series of ceiling paintings for the magnificent new Jesuit Church in Antwerp, and for a set of political allegories celebrating the achievements of the French Queen Mother, Marie de’ Medici. These are juxtaposed in the following room, revealing how Rubens developed a visual rhetoric appropriate to both sacred and secular contexts, in which classical erudition is combined with appeal to the senses and emotions. In this room, too, we see how Rubens developed his compositions through graphic work, rapid grisalle sketches and more highly wrought coloured modelli. These were presented to Rubens’ patrons and used as models for the monumental finished pictures executed with the assistance of his professionally organised workshop.

Displayed in the next room are sketches for two great projects of the 1630s, the ceiling paintings for the new palace of Whitehall in London, designed by Inigo Jones, and the Triumphal Entry into Antwerp of the Archduke Ferdinand, the new Habsburg governor of the Southern Netherlands. In the wonderful 'Glynde sketch’, generously loaned from a private collection, the viewer encounters the intense dynamism and and fertility of an early moment in the creation of the Whitehall scheme. Nearby, one can still experience the substance and grandeur of the ceiling itself, the only one of Rubens’s ceilings remaining in situ. The whole of Antwerp was involved in the street pagaent celebrating the Archduke Ferdinand’s arrival. Rubens produced the extraordinary sequence of sketches now owned by The State Hermitage Museum under pressure of time, to be realised in full-scale in the workshops of other painters in the city. With consummate skill and economy of means, the works both communicate the overall design of the triumphal arches and provide rich details of the individual compositions set into these frames.

The fourth room contains beautiful group of works through which we can trace Rubens’s sustained engagement with the power and turmoil of horses in movement. The images range from an early compositional drawing in which the graphic marks are all but detached from figuration to a dramatic finished picture of the Conversion of St. Paul. On the opposite wall there is a group of drawings and oil sketches related to the production of engravings. In Rubens’s oil sketch for an emblematic portrait of the Habsburg general Charles de Longueval, the central figure, fleshed out in naturalistic colour, is set off against a frame of allegorical figures subtly depicted in grisaille. Alongside is the virtuoso print made from this outstanding sketch by Rubens’ favoured engraver, Lucas Vorsterman.

On show at the same time is a special display of Rubens’s early Antwerp pictures in the National Gallery and an elegant and illuminating presentation of Rubens and Printmaking in the Courtauld Institute Galleries. The State Hermitage Rooms exhibition thus forms part of a veritable Rubensfest in London this autumn, accompanied by a rich educational programme.

Deputy Director