The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum exhibits sketches by Rubens at the Bonnat-Helleu Museum in Bayonne

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The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum exhibits sketches by Rubens at the Bonnat-Helleu Museum in Bayonne
Hercules Discovering Purple. The paint in whitish and earthen tones is thicker on the left side of the scene, which Rubens outlined with a black line drawn with pencil t the loss of the woman he had been trying to seduce. Bayonne, musée Bonnat-Helleu.

BILBAO.- The Guest Work programme is on this occasion a very special event featuring one of the most important painters in history through an exclusive selection of preparatory sketches for one of the most formidable painting collections of its time, that of the Torre de la Parada. In addition to this is another large preparatory sketch for one of the 20 tapestries destined for the Descalzas Reales monastery in Madrid. Finally, with regard to the sketches by Rubens on loan from the Bonnat-Helleu Museum in Bayonne, three reproduction etchings by Paulus Pontius (Antwerp, 1603–1658), belonging to a private collection, can also be seen.

Towards the end of his life, Rubens received the most important commission of his career from Philip IV: a series of around 115 large-scale paintings to adorn the Torre de la Parada, a hunting lodge on the outskirts of Madrid that the king wanted to expand and renovate. Rubens was one of the few artists of the time who was capable of creating a series of paintings of these characteristics and finishing them within a period of approximately two years. Considering the volume of work and the time required to complete them, at his Antwerp workshop Rubens decided to use the help of other Flemish artists. Before applying each one of his compositions onto canvas he conceptualised them in small sketches painted in oil on panels, which he produced himself, around 1636. Most of the depicted themes are mythological and inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As well as highlighting Rubens’s fertile imagination and technical mastery, the works are clear proof of his creative process and his sensitivity towards classical antiquity.

The seven sketches are now on display in the museum thanks to the support of Fundación Banco Santander and the scientific guidance of Alejandro Vergara, head of the Conservation of Flemish and Northern European Paintings until 1700 of the Prado Museum.

The collection of sketches is an excellent example of this important, yet unknown to the public, aspect of the Flemish painter’s work. They belong to a prolific period, in which Rubens worked at the service of the Spanish court. Six of them are consistent with the decoration of the Torre de la Parada and, in the middle of the eighteenth century, they remained in Spain owned by the Duke of the Infantado, along with another 50 sketches. Originating from this collection, they were then acquired by the Bayonne-born officer and explorer Victor-Bernard Derrécagaix (1833–1915) on his passing through the country. In 1921 it was his widow who formalised his legacy to the Bonnat-Helleu Museum, adding another sketch by Rubens, made for the tapestries of the Descalzas Reales monastery, which Derrécagaix had also acquired in Spain.

Pedro Pablo Rubens (1577-1640)

Regarded as the most outstanding painter of the seventeenth century in Europe and one of the most important in the whole of art history, one of the numerous virtues of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) lies in his mastery of sketches. Rubens’ work stood out in this facet, which is so crucial to understanding his creative process, for both his quality and quantity—he created around 500 copies, almost one-third of his total output. His sketches also transformed and outstripped the traditional concept of previous study, which he used as an exclusively paper-based medium.

Rubens received a meticulous, polyglot, classical education which enabled him to feel at home in aristocratic milieus from a young age. During his sojourn in Italy serving as the Duke of Mantua’s chamber painter, he became familiar with the works of the Renaissance masters. In Spain, he showed his skill at creating grandiloquent portraits, and later in Antwerp he addressed religious themes with a splendour that has not yet been matched. His extensive output is due to his prodigious skill as a draughtsman and colourist, with unique expertise in capturing human anatomy and developing the broadest range of themes, and to the collaboration of the countless helpers working in his extensive atelie

Torre de la Parada

In 1636, Philip IV and the architect Juan Gómez de Mora set out to enlarge a small fortress that Philip II had built with the architect Luis de Vega on the outskirts of Madrid. The outcome of this remodelling was a small palace turned into a hunting pavilion called Torre de la Parada, and the monarch commissioned several artists to create an ambitious groups of paintings to decorate it. The most important series, which contains 60 works on mythological themes, was commissioned to Rubens that same year by the cardinal-infante Ferdinand of Austria, Philip IV’s brother, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the life of Hercules. The painter divided the series into several sections which did not have a specific programme but were related to each other by the purpose of the space in which they were located: all the paintings depicted hunting and recreational scenes. The compositions and themes were dreamt up by Rubens himself, who painted the sketches in oil on Torre de la Parada small oak boards which were later transferred to large canvases by him—he personally took charge of 14 works—and other painters he hired, including Jacob Jordaens and Jan Cossiers. We know that the work was completed by 1638–1639, but the building, along with the majority of paintings, disappeared in a fire during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, so Rubens’ sketches, which are scattered about different collections, are an exceptional testimony of this project. The six presented in this gallery show vigorous, synthetic execution, largely conditioned by the requirements of the commission, whose deadlines and volume forced the artist to deploy a display of inventiveness that guaranteed the richness and variety of the compositions, as well as their necessary narrative clarity. The clearly defined outlines and the use of very light layers of paint, which often show glimpses of the primer, are examples of the artist’s technical prowess.

Descalzas Reales

Throughout its history, the Descalzas Reales monastery in Madrid has been the residence of different royal and aristocratic ladies whose donations created an important art collection. One example is the infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, the daughter of Philip II and the governor of the Netherlands, who in 1625 commissioned Rubens the sketches to make 20 tapestries in Brussels on the theme of the triumph of the Eucharist as the main dogma of Catholicism to decorate the monastery. Based on these sketches, which are among the best in the painter’s oeuvre, his helpers made the large cartoon, which was an intermediate step. The facture of these modelli, made in oil on wooden boards, is more elaborate and larger in size than in the series in Torre de la Parada. The Prophet Elijah Receiving Bread and Water from an Angel, which is displayed in this gallery, clearly shows qualities inherent to this key figure in the Baroque, such as his loose, self-assured brushstrokes and the transparency of the colour.

Sketches for Torre de la Parada

Apollo and Daphne

Apollo fell in love with Daphne after he was hit by an arrow shot by Cupid. He pursued her, mad with desire, and almost caught her. The terrified girl implored her father—a river god—to save her, and he turned her into a laurel tree (Ovid, Metamorphoses, book I). Thereafter, Apollo had to be just by wearing leaves from this tree as a crown.

The vertical line marking the central axis of the composition is similar to many others found in the sketches in this series. Just as he did in the majority of paintings in this series, Rubens outsourced the painting itself to another artist, in this case Theodoor van Thulden (the painting belongs to the Museo del Prado).

Cupid and Psyche

The famous story of Cupid and Psyche is part of the Metamorphoses by the second-century writer and philosopher Apuleius (also known as The Golden Ass). Psyche stopped loving Cupid when she realised that he had been spying on her—she was awoken by a drop of hot oil that dripped from his candle. Rubens depicts the moment just before this incident, when the girl was still wallowing in the peerless beauty of the god of love and desire. Despite the tricks designed by the jealous Venus, the two lovers reunited.

By wisely alternating zones that are more or less opaque in the layer of brown paint surrounding the figures, Rubens contributes to the sense of spatial Depth.

cylla and Glaucus

The story of the sea god Glaucus and his desire for Scylla is recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (book XIV), just like the majority of myths that Rubens painted for Torre de la Parada. Seeking the woman’s love, Glaucus enlisted the help of the goddess Circe, who made his pain eternal because she was in love with him.

On the right, several dogs are attacking Scylla, who has her arms raised, just before she is turned into another animal. Glaucus is watching the scene, horrified at the loss of the woman he had been trying to seduce.

Hercules Discovering Purple

The story is told by the Greek Julius Pollux in his Onomasticon (book I), written in the second century. While walking with his owner along a beach in Tyre, Hercules’ dog bit a mollusc shell and stained his lips purple. This is how the most valuable dye in the ancient world, especially during the Roman period, was discovered. The city of Tyre, currently in Lebanon, is depicted in the background. The purple from this source was particularly prized.

The paint in whitish and earthen tones is thicker on the left side of the scene, which Rubens outlined with a black line drawn with pencil t the loss of the woman he had been trying to seduce. Bayonne, musée Bonnat-Helleu.

Pan and Syrinx

The hypersexual god of Arcadia, Pan, combines the features of a human and a goat. In this scene, inspired by the verses in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (book I), he libidinously and violently approaches the nymph Syrinx, who flees from him and plunges into the Ladon River. Syrinx implores the river nymphs to turn into cattail reeds to save her, which they did. Pan made his syrinx, or flute, from these reeds.

The numerous vertical lines underlying the entire composition (they are particularly visible in the upper left-hand corner) are the marks left by a thick brush used to give the board a tone before painting the scene. Rubens left this type of line visible in many of his sketches.

Selene (or Diana) and Endymion

The Greek Moon goddess Selene’s (sometimes identified with the goddess Diana) love of Endymion made Zeus jealous. When the goddess asked him to make the handsome man eternally young, Zeus instead made him fall into eternal slumber. The story is recounted by the Archaic poet Sappho, as well as other sources. Sappho’s work often inverts the male and female roles, as the goddesses seek to seduce or violate different men.

Rubens enlivened the surface of the board with the vigorous movement of his paintbrush. The goddess’s gesture makes her pain credible. On the upper right-hand part, we can see the marks of a stick that the painter used to scratch the still-wet paint on the area where he dragged it. Bayonne, musée Bonnat-Helle.

Sketch for Eucharist series

Rubens painted this sketch in preparation for one of the four series of tapestries that he designed throughout his lifetime, the Eucharist series. The commission came from Isabel Clara Eugenia, for whom Rubens worked as a court painter and diplomat. The theme of the series is the glorification of the mystery of the Eucharist, expressed here by a scene from the Old Testament in which the angel provides food and drink to the prophet Elijah. Several religious texts (including Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica) interpreted this biblical story as a foreshadowing of the Eucharist.

Rubens’ helpers used this sketch to make a large painting (cartoon) on which the tapestry weavers based their work. The scene was envisioned as a tapestry hanging from columns, trompe l’oeil style. The columns were repainted by an artist after Rubens, perhaps because he barely outlined them.

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