Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640): The Drawings

January 15–April 3, 2005


Rubens created a large group of portraits on paper as well as on canvas. They have always been admired for their expressiveness, lifelikeness, and spontaneous facial expressions. Nevertheless, the artist seems to have made them reluctantly. Early on, during his service as court painter in Mantua, he wrote that he would paint portraits only if this work led to "greater things."

After returning to Antwerp from Italy in 1608, Rubens was able to avoid official portraiture for some time. From the 1620s, when his career as a diplomat took flight and he was often visiting foreign courts, the demand for painted portraits by him—which he, in his role as a painter-diplomat, could not refuse—began to rise.

In general, all his portrait drawings were made in preparation for painted portraits. The artist used two distinct types of preliminary drawings: studies of the sitter's pose and costume, and studies of the head.

The portrait drawings that Rubens made of members of his family—his two wives, his children, and other close relatives—seem to have been intended as private studies, probably largely for the artist's own enjoyment. Only occasionally were these personal documents translated into oil.