Sir Peter Paul Rubens

Sir Peter Paul Rubens
(Siegen 1577 - 1640 Antwerp) and Assistant 

Portrait of a Lady

Oil on canvas, 62.2 x 53 cm1

Dreyfuss-Wurmser, San Gallo, Switzerland, 1965 (according to Müller Hofstede); Private collection, Switzerland.

Leeds, National Exhibition of Works, 1868.

Julius Müller Hofstede, ‘Bildnisse aus Rubens’ Italienjahren’ in Jahrbuch der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen in Baden-Würtermberg, 1965, pp. 137-9, figs. 86-7 and note 163 (as Portrait of a Widow, and dated to 1607-8);
Michael Jaffé, Rubens. Catalogo completo, 1989, no. 52, p. 157, where dated to 1606-7.



First published in 1965 by Julius Müller Hofstede, this vibrant portrait – painted during Peter Paul Rubens’s trip to Italy in the first decade of the seventeenth century – has only recently emerged from a private collection, having not been exhibited publicly since 1868. The eight years that Rubens spent in Italy from June 1600 to October 1608 were to have a transformative effect on the young artist from Siegen.2 Although his classical education and the Italian experiences of his third and final master, Otto van Veen, may have prepared him in some way for what he was to see south of the Alps, the extent of his travels – sometimes made at the request of his patron Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua – gives the impression of an artist with an insatiable appetite for all that Italy had to offer. Arriving in Venice in June 1600, Rubens was introduced to Gonzaga, who was looking for court painters, and the artist was duly employed at the Gonzaga court in the duchy of Mantua in north-east Italy. In the years that followed, Rubens visited Florence, Verona, Parma, Treviso, Padua, Bologna and Genoa with two extended stays in Rome (1601 and 1606-8), all of which enabled him to study in person masterpieces of classical, Renaissance and contemporary art.

In March 1603 Rubens was sent by Gonzaga to the King of Spain’s court in Valladolid with gifts for the King and the Duke of Lerma. The trip resulted in the first masterpiece of the artist’s career, the magnificent Portrait of the Duke of Lerma on horseback.3 This work is of interest for the dating of the present portrait since it marks a significant leap in the artist’s ability as a portraitist, showing as it does that he had successfully absorbed the lessons learnt from Titian and Tintoretto. Two female portraits executed in Italy prior to Rubens’s trip to Spain are known: a rather damaged Portrait of a lady (‘La dama delle licnidi’) dated 1602 (Museo de Castelvecchio, Verona) and Portrait of Margherita Gonzaga (formerly in the Ruppacher Collection, Zurich) dated to c.1602 by Michael Jaffé,4 both of which appear stiff and awkward when compared with the portraits made by the artist after his Spanish sojourn. Back in Mantua in early 1604, Rubens painted the large-scale Gonzaga Family in adoration of the Trinity (1604-5; Museo del Palazzo Ducale, Mantua), from which a number of portraits of members of the Gonzaga family were cut. These fragmentary portraits, which include the three sons of Vincenzo Gonzaga – the Princes Vincenzo, Ferdinand and Francesco – and Princess Margherita,5 have a vibrancy in the presentation of the sitter that stands in marked contrast to the earlier portraits. In these works, there is greater animation in the eyes and mouth of the sitters, achieved through a more delicate yet assured use of the brush, such that Rubens communicates to the viewer a more palpable sense of the presence of each figure. These qualities may also be admired in the present Portrait of a Lady, with the rosebud lips, flush cheeks and confident gaze conveying the vitality of the young woman, and as such there can be no doubt that our work was painted after Rubens’s return from Spain. It may also be compared with the impressive large-format portraits the artist painted in Genoa in 1605-7. Rubens had passed through the city on his way back to Mantua and presumably he made contacts there that would result in commissions the following year. Among these Genoese portraits is the magnificent Portrait of the Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria (signed and dated 1606, National Gallery of Art, Washington)6 and, while the present portrait does not share the same dazzling dress of the Washington picture, there is a similarity in the treatment of the hair and the overall presentation of the two women. The poise and self-assurance of our young lady – transmitted through her steady, confident, almost alluring gaze – suggest that she, like most of Rubens’s Genoese sitters, was a member of the ruling classes. On this basis, and given the lack of information concerning the identity of the sitter and the circumstances of the commission, the present portrait should be dated to c. 1605-7, that is during Rubens’s second Mantuan period or Genoese sojourn, a dating that corresponds closely to Michael Jaffé’s suggested dating of 1606-7.7

An x-radiograph of the present picture has revealed that below the present ruff and black shawl there was previously a larger, more ostentatious ruff.8 Technical analysis has determined that the modification was made almost contemporaneously with the original ruff9; however, the execution of the second ruff and shawl10 – when compared to the quality of the rest of the picture – is such that it can have been executed not by Rubens himself but most likely by an assistant. While it is obvious that Rubens did not, at this early stage of his career, have the sort of workshop that he was later to establish on his return to Antwerp, it seems fair to assume he would have had some help, for example, in the preparation of canvases and pigments, as well as for some of the several large-scale commissions he received such as the Gonzaga Family in adoration of the Trinity. There is little documentary evidence of Rubens’s practice at this time but it is known that he travelled to Italy with a pupil five years his junior, Deodatus der Mont (or del Monte). Little is known about del Monte,11 but his presence in Italy with Rubens shows that the latter was not without some form of assistance at the time, and it is possible that someone like del Monte – or even a local artist – could have been asked to make the change to the portrait. As to why the change was made, one is left to speculate in the absence of any documentation. Certainly the final version gives the picture a more restrained air, and in this regard it is interesting to note that Julius Held, who was the first to publish the portrait in 1965, describes the sitter as a widow. It may thus be that the young lady was suddenly bereaved shortly after she first sat to Rubens, and, with her ostentatious ruff now deemed inappropriate for someone in mourning, it was replaced by a more modest ruff and black shawl that was more befitting her widowhood.

We are grateful to the following scholars for confirming the attribution to Rubens and an assistant following first hand inspection: Dr. Christopher Brown, Peter Sutton, Prof. Hans Vlieghe and Prof. dr. Katlijne Van der Stighelen, who will include it as such in the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, PartXIX.3. Portraits of Unidentified Sitters.

1 These dimensions include additions of approximately 1 ½ in. (4 cm.) on the left and right sides; for a discussion of this, see footnote 8.

2 For a recent study of Rubens’s time in Italy, see the exhibition catalogue, Rubens. A Master in the Making (ed. D. Jaffe and M. Moore Ede), National Gallery, London, 2005-6.

3 Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

4 Jaffé, Rubens. Catalogo completo, 1989, cat. nos. 22 and 23, respectively.

5 Jaffé, op. cit., nos. 41c, 41D, 41E & 41F.

6 Jaffé, op. cit., no. 56.

7 Jaffé, op. cit., no. 52.

8 An analytical report of the picture carried by Art Access Research (1 September 2012) is available. The x-ray also shows that the portrait was cut slightly on the left edge (the edge of original ruff has been lost) and along the bottom edge (also confiremd by the lack of cusping on the se two edges). The canvas was subsequently remounted and expanded with its overall dimensions increased by c. 4cm on the left and right sides.

9 Art Access Report (p. 4): ‘Between the white layers of the original ruff, and the superimposed layers of paint of the added ruff and the darker background and drape around the sitter’s shoulders, there is no evidence of either a consistent, discreet layer if varnish, or of accumulated dirt, either of which would suggest the passage of time between the completion of the first version of the ruff, and the present composition.’

10 Inspection of the execution of the sitter’s clothing suggests that the bejewelled cloak around the young woman’s shoulders may be original. Therefore the intervention of the assistant may have been been aimed at covering (with the smaller ruff and black shawl) only the area of the paint surface occupied by the original large ruff, ie the central part of her robes and not the extremities (the shoulders). .

11 See H. Vlieghe on Monte in the Dictionary Art (ed. J. Turner), 1996, vol. XX, p. 7.

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