Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen 1577–1640 Antwerp)
The Virgin and Child, oil on panel, 70.5 x 54 cm, framed
Provenance: Belgian private collection until 2011.
Literature: J. Richard Judson, in: Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, vol. VI, The Passion of Christ, London 1984, cat. no. 65. Comparative literature: M. Rooses, L’Oeuvre de P. P. Rubens, Antwerp 1886, cat. oo. 190, pp. 327–32; M. Jaffé, “Rubens’ Le Christ à la Paille reconsidered”, in: Apollo, 1972, 95, pp. 107–114; Idem, Peter Paul Rubens, Catalogo Completo, Milan 1989, no. 383.
Certificate: Prof. Dr. Justus Müller-Hofstede, Bonn (as an autograph work).
The present painting offers insights into the working practice of Peter Paul Rubens. It was probably produced in connection with one of his most celebrated altarpieces. The widow of an Antwerp merchant, Jan Michelsen, ordered a winged altar from Rubens in 1617 in memory of her husband. This altar is known as Christ à la Paille (Antwerp, Museum voor Schone Konsten) after the theme of the central panel. This shows the Lamentation of Christ, with the figure of Christ laid out on straw. The right-side panel of the altar shows John the Baptist with his gaze cast upwards, a gesture that is close to van Dyck, proving that he was most probably working in Rubens’ workshop at this time. Mary, with the standing Christ Child, appears on the left wing. As Jaffé has demonstrated, there must have been many preparatory studies and stages in development for the composition. Even early on, some elements of this altar were already attributed to workshop collaborators, who executed the composition after models supplied by the master, who then revised them. This procedure probably allowed the artist to deliver the altar before the end of 1617. At this time, the differentiation between the work of the master and a product of a workshop was not so important. Works were commissioned from a master in the knowledge that they could only be produced with the help of his collaborators.
Rubens was innovative in the invention and composition of new pictorial ideas, which led to a final fleshed-out painting after an extensive creative process. Even after a commissioned painting had been delivered, Rubens often continued to work on a composition, using it as an object of study or for further new projects. The fact that the involvement of workshop colleagues is assumed for the side panels of this altar makes it all the more plausible that Rubens also produced further versions, and indeed this was common practice. Jaffé identified two further versions, which he classified as being from Ruben’s own hand, as preparatory studies for the left panel. He noted that the type of the standing Christ Child draws on examples from the Venetian Renaissance, in particular Giovanni Bellini. The version owned by the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen in Munich (formerly in the Kurpfälzische Galerie, Düsseldorf) is considered to be one of the earliest workshop variations. This painting clearly shows an earlier stage in the development of the composition. Different from both the painting in Antwerp and the present composition, the Munich Madonna does not rest her hand on the hip of her son, but cups his feet in a motherly gesture instead - it is said to protect the boy as he takes his first steps. Jaffé has been able to prove that besides the Munich painting two other variations on the theme, identified by him as being by Rubens, have survived. The first was once in the Duke of Marlborough’s collection (Washington D.C., the National Gallery). In its case, Jaffé managed to determine that a considerable compositional change had been made: like the Antwerp painting, the Madonna in the Washington piece once also originally had her hand on the hip of her son, who originally wore a loincloth. These changes are significant for the assessment of the painting in question. The so-called Cumberland Madonna (Paris, private collection), the second version published by Jaffé as autograph, demonstrates a compositional alignment similar to that of the present painting, which may hence represent a variation in the compositional development. It was published together with the Cumberland Madonna and the Washington painting by J. Richard Judson in volume 6 of the Corpus Rubenianum. Worth noting is that all versions deviate from the composition of the altar. The Washington version proves that the original conception envisaged the positioning of the hand on the hip of the Christ Child, but that this was abandoned. Rubens also forewent the loincloth, as can also be seen in the Munich workshop variant. The present painting, which may have been produced in the course of these changes to the concept, already shows the changed position of the Virgin’s hand, but the cloth around Christ’s hips remains. Together with the “Cumberland Madonna”, on comparison with which a number of differences exist in the hair of Christ, this painting effectively represents an intermediate stage in the development. Whether or not this stage came before the commission is uncertain. The painting is, however, probably rather a subsequent variation on the theme. The smaller format of this panel in comparison with the other versions also makes it probable that this image was for private devotion. For the time being it is impossible to resolve to what extent the hands of the master and his workshop collaborators can be distinguished from one another. This painting thus reproduces an intermediate stage in the composition between the side panel of the Antwerp altar and the Washington Madonna. The Christ Child is possibly a portrait of Rubens’ son Albert, and the stance seems to be after a small sculpture.
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