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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641): Works on Paper

The seventeenth-century Flemish artists Rubens and Van Dyck are among the finest draftsmen of all times. From simple pen-and-brown-ink studies to oil sketches, each used a broad range of drawing techniques. The works they left behind probably count, respectively, some 700 and 200 sheets. Besides being draftsmen, both influenced the art of printmaking: Rubens by employing many talented reproductive engravers to disseminate his work, and Van Dyck, a gifted etcher himself, by creating a portrait gallery of prints of famous contemporaries, the so-called Iconography (50.583.4).

Peter Paul Rubens
The execution of Rubens’ drawings varies greatly depending on their function. His first design for a given composition was generally a rapid sketch, usually in pen and brown ink and wash. Such primi pensieri (first thoughts) were little more than summary outlines, as can be seen in The Virgin Adored by Saints (2002.12a, recto), the first study for Rubens’ colossal 1628 painting for the high altar of the Church of the Augustinian Fathers in Antwerp (now Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp). The pen strokes in these sketches, dashed off without much hesitation and very abstract, are often sharp and angular. (Because of their minor importance in studio terms, relatively few of these sketches have survived.) The next stage was to prepare a colored and detailed modello, or oil sketch, to be shown to the customer. The Coronation of the Virgin (1984.433.336) is an example of such a presentation piece. Finally, Rubens would work out the details by making drawings “from life,” for which models posed (Saint Catherine, Albertina, Vienna). For this kind of drawing, the artist preferred chalk—usually black heightened by softer white, but often red as well for the flesh tones. To begin the actual painting, Rubens would lay down the composition with brush and dark brown oil paint on the panel or canvas. Then he or his assistants would set about executing the work in oils with the help of the preparatory drawings.

Of course, Rubens did not always follow the same procedure in every detail. He also made different kinds of drawings that were not in a direct way preparatory for another work. For example, he occasionally made portrait drawings of family, friends, patrons, or other influential or unusual people who crossed his path, such as the Jesuit Nicolas Trigault (1999.222), who was recorded in Chinese costume. Furthermore, as one would expect from a great humanist, Rubens admired and copied antique sculpture (2002.12b, verso) and works by Italian Renaissance masters such as Raphael (1995.401). Such drawings were not merely exercises for the hand and eye: they provided a rich quarry to which the artist could return to stimulate his imagination and cull material for his work.

Rubens also made an important contribution to the art of engraving. Just like the sixteenth-century Italians, he found prints a convenient way of disseminating his work. Lucas Vorsterman was the first engraver to work for him on a regular basis: between 1619 and 1622, Vorsterman made numerous engravings after Rubens’s religious and secular compositions, such as the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (51.501.7125) after the painting now in Munich. Other reproductive engravers who collaborated with Rubens were Paulus Pontius, who specialized in portrait engravings, and the Bolswert brothers, famous for their engravings after Rubens’ landscapes. Christoffel Jegher made woodcuts of high quality during the mid-1630s, for example, after Rubens’ composition of The Garden of Love (30.53.17a). The working drawings for these prints were often carried out by the printmakers themselves. However, in some cases Rubens corrected or retouched them with pen and ink or gouache, as he did in the two working drawings for The Garden of Love woodcuts (58.96.1, .2). Some of the designs after Rubens’ paintings, made in preparation for Vorsterman’s reproductive engravings, have been attributed to Anthony van Dyck, for example the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (61.68). Rubens attached great importance to all of these reproductions. He sought and obtained a privilege or copyright entitling him to publish them in the Netherlands as well as in France.

Anthony van Dyck
Rubens’ ablest pupil and assistant was Anthony van Dyck, who worked with him on several commissions between 1618 and 1620. Compared with Rubens’ drawn oeuvre, that of Van Dyck is not as varied. For instance, he left us no designs for book illustrations or for large decorative schemes, such as tapestries or pictures in monumental series. On the other hand, drawing landscapes seems to have been more important for Van Dyck than for Rubens.

Van Dyck’s drawings fall into various categories: compositional sketches and detailed studies for paintings, portraits, and landscape studies and designs for prints. In preparing a painting, Van Dyck in his early years followed the manner Rubens had introduced in Antwerp. He made free compositional drawings in pen and brown ink and wash, such as Christ and the Pharisees (1980.515) or the study of Count Albert of Arenberg (40.91.16). The latter was the initial concept for the lifesize painting at Holkham Hall, Norfolk. This stage would be followed by chalk studies from the live model, not in trois crayons as are those by Rubens, but in black chalk heightened with white. The next stage was a modello drawing.

Van Dyck probably also collaborated on Rubens’ large-scale project to have prints made after his paintings. A group of finished black chalk drawings dating from around 1620 after paintings by Rubens have been attributed to him, among them possibly the Museum’s Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (61.68). These are all preparatory drawings for engravings by Lucas Vorsterman (51.501.7125). Van Dyck also used black chalk to prepare his portrait paintings, as seen in Study for a Portrait of a Lady (1972.118.279). Instead of the white paper of his early period, he used for these drawings—as well as for figure studies—either granular paper with gray, green, or brown tint, or the Venetian carta azzurra (blue paper).

Most of Van Dyck’s landscapes date from his later years, the 1630s. A small group comprises topographical scenes carefully and painstakingly executed in the old Flemish tradition. Most of the studies, however, show a broader sweep, a greater freedom in the handling of line and use of wash that had rarely been seen in the Northern countries (2003.27). This new conception of landscape seems to be the fruit of Van Dyck’s study of the Bolognese painters and his stay in Rome. He is also one of the first artists to use watercolor in his landscapes, which would become an influential source for the later British landscape watercolorists. It is unclear why Van Dyck produced these drawings, but in view of the many landscapes that are signed and dated, it would seem that he intended them as independent works and may have given them away to connoisseurs.

The Iconography was a collection of portrait prints made after drawings and paintings by Van Dyck. Eighteen were etched by the artist himself, among which is his self-portrait (50.583.4). The majority, however, are engravings made by a variety of printmakers. This anthology of portraits of artists, soldiers, statesmen, administrators, and scholars, a conspectus of the most distinguished men and women of his time, went through many editions. The edition published by Martinus van den Enden during Van Dyck’s lifetime consisted of eighty portraits. Van Dyck prepared these prints by making oil sketches and drawings in black chalk (see, for example, the portrait of Caspar Gevartius in the Albertina, Vienna), sometimes washed with brown ink.