Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens
(Siegen 1577–1640 Antwerp)
The Judgement of Paris,
oil on canvas, 148 x 188 cm, framed
Private collection, Belgium
The painting probably served as a model for the copper engraving by Adriaen Lommelin (before 1649).
We are grateful to Fiona Healy, who has examined the present picture in the original in February 2016, for her assistance in researching the painting and for confirming that it is an excellent workshop version of the London Judgement of Paris. She intends to publish the present painting in volume XI, Mythological Subjects, 3. Pan to Vertumnus, of the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard.
This rediscovered and hitherto unpublished painting, is an important addition to the oeuvre of Peter Paul Rubens and his workshop that has previously been unknown to scholars. It is an excellent and fascinating example of Rubens’s highly professional workshop organisation. Moreover, it has an important documentary function, as it testifies to the original concept of one of the master’s most popular compositions, the Judgement of Paris. The painting is an almost literal quotation of the traditional myth of Paris according to Lucian’s Judgement of the Goddesses (Dialogues of the Gods, 20), in which Paris asked Mercury how he should be able to recognise the beauty of the goddesses when they were dressed, and Mercury subsequently ordered them to take off their clothes. It is well known that Paris decided for Venus, who had promised him the beautiful Helen of Troy in return. The latter’s abduction would then result in the Trojan War. As a gloomy allusion to this epic future conflict, Alecto, the Fury of War, appears in in the skies above, carrying a burning torch.
The present composition documents the original appearance of the Judgement of Paris preserved in the National Gallery in London (oil on panel, 144 x 193 cm, inv. NG 194, see fig. 1). The London painting seems to have come into the possession of the House of Orléans towards the middle of the seventeenth century via the collection of the Duke of Richelieu and was then sold to England in the early nineteenth century. When the London version is compared to the present painting, one notices several essential differences: apart from Cupid as an attribute of Venus, the London version does not include any putti, and the three satyrs appearing towards the upper left are lacking; moreover, Paris readily offers the apple to Venus as a sign of his decision in the London version, while in the present painting he still keeps it in his lap somewhat hesitantly. Also differing from the present version, Paris’s right leg rests on the ground in the London painting. X-ray photographs and pentiments visible to the naked eye prove that the composition of the London painting originally corresponded to the version offered for sale here (see G. Martin, National Gallery Catalogues: The Flemish School ca. 1600 – ca. 1900, London, 1970, pp. 153–163, p. 155; and F. Healy, A Question of Choice. Rubens and the Judgement of Paris, Turnhout, 1997). The London painting was modified at a very early stage, while the present painting documents Rubens’s original pictorial idea. In 2005, Fiona Healy came to the conclusion that the original London version had gone through four phases of development until it reached its present appearance. The first phase of the development of the London version is considered to have been the original invention executed by Rubens personally, in which he carried out some spontaneous changes. As is shown by X-ray photographs of the London painting, Rubens already altered important details during this first phase. Originally, a group of doves should appear near Venus’s head, and a putto was there to crown Venus. A cross-section analysis of the paint layers suggests that Rubens overpainted this putto even before the paint had dried (see L. Oliver/F. Healy/A. Roy/R. Billinge, The Evolution of Rubens's ‘Judgement of Paris’ (NG194), National Gallery Technical Bulletin, 26, 2005, pp. 4–22, p. 10). The alterations carried out during the first phase were therefore a deliberate decision Rubens had made against the depiction of the young prince’s judgement having already been made, which would have meant the crown of victory for Venus; instead, he decided to address the difficult choice preceding the judgement (see Healy 1997). An intermediate state that Rubens seems to have been satisfied with for the time being and which can be identified as the second phase had been reached with the composition rendered in the present painting. Major parts of this composition were then changed in a third phase, when the London painting was still present in Rubens’s workshop. Cross-section analysis of the paint layers evidences that substantial changes were carried before the varnish had been applied. For example, the putti undressing Minerva and Venus were overpainted (see op. cit. Oliver/Healy/Roy/Billinge 2005, pp. 11/12, and plate 3). Further modifications are visible in the hair decoration of Juno, who still wears a band of pearls in the present version that has been overpainted in the London version. The London version therefore left Rubens’s workshop showing a composition that already clearly differed from the present version. Hence the present painting documents the composition’s genesis (which Fiona Healy fittingly describes as 'evolution') the London painting went through in the relatively short period of time between its completion and the changes carried out before the varnish was applied. When the changes of the fourth phase were carried out, in which the conception of the London painting was fundamentally modified in the way in which it presents itself today, with the scene of Paris’s decision altered in favour of its having already been made (Paris’s leg was bent, while he extends his hand to offer Venus the apple), is a disputed question. The pigments used for this modification, which are characteristic of the first half of the seventeenth century, would suggest that these later changes were carried out when Rubens was still alive. Yet Healy, pointing out that the pigments in question are known to have also been used at a later period and almost exclusively in France while also directing attention to stylistic and art historical evidence, assumes that the London Judgement of Paris only received the appearance it has today when it was preserved in the Richelieu and Orléans Collections in Paris around 1680 or later.
Frequently, Rubens’s compositions were considered insufficiently classical for the strictly academic French taste and contemporary art criticism, which adhered to the 'idea dell’bello'; his models were thought to be not adequately elegant, and his allusions were felt to be too erotic. Therefore Healy convincingly argues that the London Judgement of Paris was altered in France during the second half of the seventeenth century: the scene of Mercury’s rather salacious request directed at the goddesses to take off their clothes and Paris’s contemplatively insinuating pose were meant to disappear. The same holds true for the satyrs lasciviously observing the goddesses in clandestine – a motif Rubens seems to have cleverly introduced in order to allude to the beholder in the form of a caricature and which seems to have been too bawdy for French taste (see op. cit. Oliver/Healy/Roy/Billinge 2005, p. 20). The depiction of Paris as a calculating observer of the naked goddesses that had originally been conceived by Rubens lacked the composition’s raison d’être, the decisive moment that according to French art theory had to be elementarily represented in the culmination of the scene. According to Healy, the fact that Paris, who as the Prince of Troy was known for his beauty and charm, was depicted by Rubens in the guise of a Flemish shepherd in a floppy hat must also have contradicted the sense of decorum of French Classicism (see op. cit. Oliver/Healy/Roy/Billinge 2005, p. 19). Consequently, his appearance was changed until it complied with the idea of an ancient hero. The hat and parts of the shirt disappeared, and his facial expression was modified. In his other paintings dealing with the Judgement of Paris, Rubens had similarly decided for depicting the hero’s contemplative pondering – an indecision still addressed in the present painting, while in the London version it had been replaced by a decision already made in the favour of beauty, which complied with the French understanding of art. Unfortunately only a surprisingly small number of Rubens’s studies for this important composition has come to light. Actually there is only one sketch that is explicitly related to it. Rubens drew it in the upper left corner of a sheet of sketches that is now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam (15.8 x 41.8 cm, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, inv. V92 verso). It seems that Rubens considered the London painting completed when it had reached its second phase. In line with his practice of work, it served as a model that could subsequently be used as a source of reference by him and his workshop collaborators. A smaller version of the painting whose details essentially correspond to those of the present version is preserved in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden (oil on panel, 49 x 63 cm, inv. 962 B). Until the present painting was rediscovered, the Dresden panel, which is unusually small for a workshop replica, was considered the only known work by the workshop depicting the original condition of the prototype (apart from later copies not executed by workshop collaborators and considerably weaker). In literature, the Dresden version is occasionally accepted as autograph (such as by M. Jaffé in his Catalogo Completo, Milan, 1989), even if its status as a completely autograph work had previously been cast into doubt (see G. Martin, The Flemish School, National Gallery Catalogues, London, 1970, pp. 153–163). Healy believes that the Dresden variant was made at a point in time when the London painting had reached its intermediate state, i.e., phase two: 'The existence of the Dresden painting suggests that Rubens considered the painting good enough to be copied by his workshop assistants' (see op. cit. Healy, 2005, p. 10).
The rediscovery of the present painting, whose dimensions are almost identical to those of the London version, gives rise to the assumption that it is the first replica produced by Rubens’s studio and was directly based on the London prototype before it was modified. It may have been kept in the master’s studio after the London prototype had left the workshop in its altered form and was probably used as a model for copies produced in or also outside the workshop; possibly it also served as the source on which the small Dresden panel relies. In this context it is interesting to observe that a copper engraving of the composition made by Adriaen Lommelin before 1649, yet after Rubens’s death in 1640 (see fig. 2), apparently does not show the London painting in its final state, as it clearly depicts its second phase and hence the composition of the present version. The rediscovered painting may thus also have served as a model for the engraver (for the copper engraving, see op. cit. Oliver/Healy/Roy/Billinge 2005, p. 14). In his dedication for the third edition of the copper engraving, Lommelin mentions the famous collector Diego Duarte as the painting’s owner. Fiona Healy argues that the London painting was identical to the Judgement of Paris which until its sale by the art dealer Matthijs Musson in 1676 had been preserved in the Duarte Collection, but that Lommelin had resorted to another version for a model. Later on, when a painting featuring an almost identical composition became known to have entered the Duarte Collection, he pretended in the legend that his engraving was a reproduction of Duarte’s Judgement of Paris (see ibid). Of course it is also possible that it was the present painting that figured in the Duarte Collection and that Lommelin correctly mentioned Duarte as the owner of the model for his engraving. In the latter case, the present painting would have been the model on which the engraving is based. Different from the London version, the present painting shows the great Antwerp master’s original conception and thus offers a fascinating glimpse into the practice of his workshop. As do the London prototype and the Dresden variant, it demonstrates Rubens’s maturity during the final decade of his life; this version is unanimously regarded as the most mature among several known treatments of the subject.
In 1970, Martin observed a further delicate detail: Rubens’s second wife, Hélène Fourment, might have posed for the figure of Venus, while Minerva resembles Hélène’s sister, Susannah (see op. cit. G. Martin 1970, p. 159, note 29). Peter Paul Rubens coped with his overwhelming workload with the aid of a highly professionally organised workshop, particularly during his maturity in the ̍'second Antwerp period̍'. Apart from a few exceptions it has not been possible to date to identify the individual collaborators in the works that were executed jointly. What makes it so difficult to differentiate between the respective hands is that the workshop assistants emulated to Rubens’s style to such an extent that they are no longer recognisable as individual artists. This also applies to such important personalities as Anthony van Dyck, who would later become famous for his own works. This characteristic work division involving students enabled Rubens to complete even substantial commissions in a homogeneous style and sell these collaborative efforts as autograph paintings. As a rule, the differentiation between workshop and autograph, which is common today, was not made by contemporaries then, apart from a few exceptions. What mattered most was the creative implementation of a pictorial invention and that the work originated in Rubens’s studio.
Fig. 1: Peter Paul Rubens, The Judgement of Paris, National Gallery, oil on panel, 144 x 193 cm, inv. NG 194
Fig. 2: Adrian Lommelin, engraving, possibly after the present painting, Diego Duarte Collection
Fig. 3, & 4. X-ray and detail of the London version
Fig. 5. Comparison of the London painting (left) and the present painting (right)
Fig. 6. Infrared reflectograph of lot 27 © NTK 2015 Univ.Prof. Dipl.-Ing. Dr. M. Schreiner
Fig. 7. Rubens, Skizzenblatt, Papier, 15,8 x 41,8 cm, Rotterdam, Museum Bojmans van Beuningen, Inv. V92 verso. (Detail)
Specialist: Dr. Alexander Strasoldo
realized price**EUR 868,733USD 939,000
estimateEUR 400,000 to 600,000USD 432,500 to 648,500
Old Master Paintings
Date: 19.04.2016, 17:00
Location: Palais Dorotheum Vienna
Exhibition: 09.04. - 19.04.2016
**Purchase price incl. all charges, commissions and taxes
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