Oud Holland

Review of: ‘The drawings of Peter Paul Rubens’ (2021)

March 2023


Review of: Anne-Marie Logan and Kristin Lohse Belkin, The drawings of Peter Paul Rubens. A critical catalogue, vol. 1 (1590–1608), 2 volumes, Turnhout [Brepols] 2021

The book under review is one of the latest complete oeuvre catalogues to be published on the drawings of one of the great masters of Renaissance and Baroque art: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). As early as 1928, the Viennese art historians Gustav Glück and Franz Martin Haberditzl presented a first comprehensive work on Rubens’ drawings. In addition, their book photographically reproduced all the drawings (241 cat.nos), thus giving space to a much more finely-tuned connoisseurship.However, the focus remained largely on the major European collections. When Julius Held (1905-2002), as well as Ludwig Burchard (1886-1960) and Roger Adolf d’ Hulst (1917–1986), published their studies on Rubens drawings, they were expressly concerned with only a selection.2 The reasons why it took so long for a catalogue raisonné of Rubens’ drawings to be published are manifold. While the need for exhibition catalogues for the increasing critical assessment of the artist's drawings has been repeatedly acknowledged, Erwin Mitsch (1931-1995) (Albertina) in 1977 doubted whether the time had come to compile even a collection checklist of Rubens’ drawings.3 This skepticism was well founded: it was difficult at that time to discern a clear, let alone final overview of Rubens' extensive drawn oeuvre, all the more so as significant new finds repeatedly came to light indicating that research was still very much in flux. Almost 50 years have passed since the four major Rubens exhibitions took place on the occasion of the artist's 400th birthday, in 1977, and some of the drawings that Haberditzl and Glück had described as Rubens have been eliminated by Rubens scholars from the artist's oeuvre.

The contours on Rubens’ surviving drawn oeuvre gained such a clear profile that Anne-Marie Logan’s and Kristin Belkin´s catalogue raisonné lifts Rubens scholarship to a new level at an opportune time. The importance of this catalogue, which now is available in the first volume and will embrace a total of six (four currently in print), cannot be overestimated. The first volume of this opus magnum, which is dedicated to Rubens’ early draftsmanship (1590-1608), reveals an artist who first intimately became involved with the inventive power of the Northern print, and who then, in Mantua and Rome, studied the great Renaissance painters and many paradigmatic masterpieces of antiquity, with particular focus on the human body. In his drawings we can follow his various reactions to other artists, his metamorphoses of traditions and above all ­– in the most varied of refractions – the emergence of his innovative genius.

Cover of: The drawings of Peter Paul Rubens. A critical catalogue, vol. 1 (text)

Cover of: The drawings of Peter Paul Rubens. A critical catalogue, vol. 2 (plates)

Middle right: fig. 1, Rubens, St. George and the dragon, c. 1575-1650, pen with brown ink and brown wash, 33.7 x 26.7 cm., Musée du Louvre, Paris

Right: fig. 2, Rubens, Centaur tormented by Cupid, seen from the back turned to the left, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud

The authors have spent a long scholarly life of research on the art of Rubens' drawings and published prominently in this field. In her catalogue for the New York exhibition in 2004/05, Logan explored selected aspects of Rubens as a draughtsman, according to major subject areas like ‘Compositional studies’, ‘Copies after the antique’ and ‘Portraits’.In the present publication, by contrast, the drawings are arranged chronologically. The concept of chronological order was conceived in 1965, when the project first took shape. It goes back to Roger Adolf d'Hulst, professor of art history at the University of Ghent, who founded the Centrum Rubenianum and presided over the organisation for some time, as well as Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann (1923–2017), former curator of prints and drawings at the Art Museum at Yale University. Since 2016, Logan has been significantly assisted in editing the publication by Kristin Lohse Belkin, herself an internationally renowned expert on Rubens.5

Instead of providing an introductory essay about Rubens as a draughtsman – in this context the authors recommend the reader to consult what they consider as an unrivalled text, by Julius Held.6 The authors decided to contribute a chapter on the history of the scholarship of Rubens’ drawings. The history of earlier attributions traced here, reflects a connoisseurship, which, up to the mid-nineteenth-century, still hesitantly sought an aesthetically solid ground to separate Rubens’ draughtsmanship from his assistants, followers and imitators.

Each volume consists of two books: the catalogue and the colour plates. The catalogue entries are flanked by small black-and-white illustrations. These illustrations serve only as visual reminders, whereas the other volume offers, besides the colour plates, important comparative illustrations, such as sculptures, paintings and prints to which Rubens referred in his drawings. The catalogue of the present volume comprises a total of 204 numbers and is devoted to the artist's early Antwerp period, as well as his years in Italy. During this period of about 15 years, Rubens was trained in the Southern Netherlands, then worked as a court artist for the Gonzaga family in Mantua, twice visited Rome and travelled to Spain. Therefore, in this volume, the authors’ focus is on Rubens’ engagement with the art of earlier masters, and his intense copying of North Alpine woodcutters and engravers of the sixteenth century, such as Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543) and Tobias Stimmer (1539-1584) (c. 1590), the great Roman artists of the Renaissance, as well as the most celebrated sculptures of antiquity discovered in Rome. His first important commissions that emerged from these studies show how quickly Rubens transformed everything he had seen into his own ideas: the drawings he executed in Spain for the equestrian painting of the Duke of Lerma (1553-1625) (cat. 125) as well as his sketches for the painting St. George and the dragon (cat. 159; fig. 1). Drawings of other significant commissions should be mentioned: his studies for the early altarpieces of the Raising of the cross (cat. 114-116; S. Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome), for the Circumcision of Christ in the Jesuit Church SS. Andrea e Ambrogio, Genoa (cat. 157) and the Adoration of the shepherds, an altarpiece for the Oratorian church in Fermo (cat. 198). Finally, the authors focus on the group of six pen drawings that the artist created for an altarpiece commissioned in Rome two years before Rubens left Italy: The vision of Mary and child (cat. 201-203; S. Maria in Vallicella, Rome). Rubens himself described this commission as, ‘the finest and most splendid opportunity in all Rome’.7

The authors’ decision to include illustrations of engravings that may have inspired the artist is particularly useful. The Entombment engraved by Giovanni Battista Franco (1510-1561) could have inspired Rubens to draw both the Washing and anointing of Christ’s body (cat. 63) and the especially significant St. Petersburg drawing The descent from the cross (cat. 64), as far as the eye-catching motif of taking Christ’s shroud between the teeth is concerned. The same applies to the rapid sketch Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Christ (1601/02), which was copied from an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi (cat. 117, verso) and the drawing Petrus healing the Paralytic, which reflects a lost painting by Ludovico Cigoli, only known to us by a print of the French engraver Nicolas Dorigny (cat. 166).

Rubens’ methods as a draughtsman
The authors offer nuanced insights into the artist's drawing techniques, which can only be touched upon here: some groups of drawings bring together various pictorial sources according to a particular thematic leitmotif. For example, on a sketch in Berlin (cat. 21, 1598/1600, presumably from the collection of Matthias Merian the Younger) we find figures by Raphael (1483-1520) and Holbein the Younger, now united by the key topic of emotion and gesture, c terror, horror or despair. Rubens also adds text quotations from ancient historians whose dramatic narratives evoke equivalent situations. For an understanding of the origin of motifs in such a sketch, it is of great advantage that the authors place the pictorial sources, from which Rubens quotes below the illustration: three engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534) after Raphael’s compositions from the Vatican stanze (cat. 21).

Rubens’ drawing techniques included literally cutting out figures from his own drawings and then reassembling them into new compositions, which reflects a procedure that we can observe twice in these early years, in both cases in the context of battle scenes: a sketch after an engraving by Barthel Beham (1502-1540) (cat. 25; 1598–1600) and a powerful large-format drawing in which Rubens recalled Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari (cat. 153, 1602/05). Highly interesting are the drawings that were used by Rubens on both sides, albeit at intervals of several years, so that recto and verso reflect different artistic phases. One example is the red chalk drawing of the Torso Belvedere (cat. 106), discovered only 20 years ago which Rubens used decades later for a pen-sketched Sacra Conversazione.8 Another example is the light sketch of the Hercules Farnese (cat. 86), which the artist used four years later to sketch the Farnese bull on the reverse (cat. 179).

As concerns his drawings after antique sculpture, one that is also stylistically highly untypical for Rubens stands out: in 1601/02, Rubens copied a sarcophagus relief with the depiction of a Resting Hercules (cat. 91). The unusually fine execution of the chalk drawing suggests that Rubens first made a coarser copy of the relief before he created, on this basis, a second, finer one. Logan rightly recalls in this context the drawing techniques used by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617): indeed the Haarlem master worked very similarly in some of his drawings after antique sculpture, which Rubens may have known (cat. 103). Concerning material-technical issues, the authors give attention to watermarks, which are addressed for example in connection with the drawings that Rubens executed after Michelangelo (1475-1554) (cat. 71-78) as well as his anatomical drawings (cat. 126-151).

Copying other artists
Up to c. 1600 Rubens’ main ambition was to study and copy other masters. Based on studies by Lohse Belkin,9 the authors demonstrate how lasting an impact Holbein the Younger's woodcuts had made on Rubens (cat. 1, Fol. 1-44). The artist, who started to copy Holbein´s woodcuts at a very young age, returned to this master decades later, then reflecting Holbein's images in some of his most extraordinary late paintings, such as The garden of love, the Wise rule of King James I – for the Banqueting Hall ceiling paintings and The horrors of war. In 1601/02, during his first stay in Rome, he saw Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel for the first time. All of the eight large-size drawings that Rubens executed after some of Michelangelo’s Prophets, Sibyls and some figures of the Last judgement are reproduced by the authors in full page and can be compared with the corresponding figures of Michelangelo. 

Rubens’ evolution from accurately copying to a more free-flowing style of capturing the figures can thus be easily traced. The authors approach of reconstructing lost drawings by including copies executed by other artists from these Rubens’ drawings proves its worth several times in this study. In the context of battle scenes – one of the key topics in the artist´s later career – this approach leads us to a lost drawing of his after a woodcut of Jost Amman showing racing, tumbling and falling horses. Here, the authors include a drawn copy by an unknown master reflecting the lost study by Rubens after Amman´s woodcut (cat. 4, fig. 47). These early copies are the basis for the artist's own inventions in this genre, such as his first drawn battle scene, the Battle of Greeks and Amazons (cat. 60).

Anatomical studies
The extent to which Rubens, in his Italian years, was concerned with the study of antique sculpture is impressively shown by his several drawings after the Laocoon, the Dying Seneca, the Hercules Farnese and the Centaur tormented by Cupid (fig. 2). Sixteen drawings of the Laocoon alone can be reconstructed by Logan, partly via drawn copies by Rubens’ close pupil Willem Panneels (c. 1600-after 1632) after lost Rubens originals. In addition, 14 sheets with 16 anatomical drawings by Rubens have survived.10 Until 1966, they were known only through the prints of Paulus Pontius engraved and published without any text after Rubens’ death. The original drawings, predominantly done in pen, have only appeared in the last six decades. It is particularly noteworthy that a complete overview of the entire known range of anatomical drawings appears in this book, as Logan places the surviving originals in a group with additional drawings that can only be reconstructed through the copies by Willem Panneels. Opinions differ considerably on the dating of these drawings. Like other scholars, Logan suggests a date in the earlier Italian years, herself specifying the period of creation as the three Mantuan years c. 1602-05. While it is accepted that they formed part of a loosely bound booklet devoted to human anatomy and kept by Rubens in his cantoor, the drawings’ possible function remains the subject of debate. Some scholars assume that Rubens wanted to publish them as an instruction for young artists and intended the drawings to be engraved; others express objections to this idea, as does Logan herself.11 Rather, she considers it possible that Rubens used the drawings as teaching aids for his students. What makes these studies special is that they are based on écorché figures,12 constructed by the mannerist artist Willem van Tetrode (Delft, 1530-after 1587), a pupil of the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571).

In order to increase understanding of these drawing, it might have been useful to insert in this study an illustration of Tetrode’s écorché figure.13 Rubens approaches these drawings in a similar manner as his drawings after antique sculpture: the aim is to capture as many different viewpoints of the figure as possible, in preferably extreme postures. Fusing the high pathos of masterpieces of antique sculpture with these exaggerations of mannerist ecorché figures – an ideal emerges that is far from the anatomical veracity that guided the dissecting interest of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)14 – an understanding moreover, which is also rooted in Renaissance art theory.15 Several times the nudes in Rubens’ paintings, no matter how lifelike, can be traced back to ecorché figures by Tetrode and are reflected in Rubens’ anatomy drawings.16 A rare exception is the artist’s red chalk drawing of a naked youth in the pose of the thorn puller (cat. 111). The chronological order of the book under review makes it very clear how closely Rubens’ studies of antique sculpture and his anatomical studies follow on from one another, and how much both are actually to be understood as two complementary angles of Rubens’ approach to the human figure. Concerning Rubens’ anatomy drawings, Logan may be questioned, in one point. She doubts that Rubens created the pen drawings, which emulate line engravings with astonishing precision, as models for engravings, but rather sees them appropriately in line with the ‘Federkunststücke’, the virtuoso line drawings invented by the Haarlem engraver Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1616). Goltzius, however, did not keep these extravagant and in some instances large-scale works for himself, but sold them as bravura pieces to create a stir and draw attention to his art, whereas Rubens kept these sheets for himself.

Artistic caesura
Two drawings are considered by Logan prominently. She argues that they occupy a special, caesura-like significance for Rubens early career. One of them has probably always been honoured this way: the extraordinarily large-sized preparatory study for The baptism of Christ, executed in 1604 for the altarpiece commissioned by the Gonzaga in Mantua, which is now only preserved in parts. Rubens' studies of antique sculpture and Italian Renaissance art are monumentally crystallised in this drawing (cat. 154; 486x767 mm.). The remarkable quality and significance of a second drawing, The descent from the cross (cat. 64), is also beyond question. The drawing is the first time the young artist confronts this topic. However, up to now, the opinions on the drawing´s dating have not reached a unanimous consensus, which would strengthen the special status of this sheet. Bialostocki was a proponent of a very early date, suggesting it was created before Rubens's departure for Italy,17 while Judson recently dated it after Rubens’ return from Italy to his hometown, in the context of the famous triptych in Antwerp cathedral (1611/14), as did Burchard/d´Hulst in 1963.18 Logan, like several other scholars before, argues that the drawing was made in the early Italian years (c. 1601). However, the divergent quality of the drawing – reminiscent of Rome and loosely anticipating the monumental altarpiece in Antwerp Cathedral – remains puzzling, and makes its dating difficult. Rubens himself noted on the sheet that he refers to Daniele da Volterra’s (c. 1509-1566) fresco in Rome (‘Ex Daniele Volterrano’). Only a few drawings that the artist made during his Italian period after Renaissance masterpieces were inscribed (cat. 30, 82). The inscription on the Descent from the cross, however, goes far beyond those on the other ones: first and foremost, the words describe the act of carefully lowering Christ from the cross, tenderly held by many assisting hands. This was what preoccupied Rubens in his study, this was what he was inspired by from Volterra’s fresco, then developed in pen and ink, and, most astonishingly, reflected upon in writing. Logan, as well as other scholars before her, points out that there is another singular aspect concerning the Descent from the cross that differentiates it from the mentioned copies after other masters. Starting with Volterra, Rubens created a new drama in this large-scale and yet detailed composition, and simultaneously harked back to northern narratives. In the end, the drawing’s position remains somewhat ambiguous, all the more so because it cannot be directly related to any of Rubens’ surviving paintings.

Exceptional inventions
One of the most exceptional sketches in terms of subject matter is undoubtedly Alcibiades interrupting Agathon's banquet, based on Plato's Symposium (cat. 118), which Rubens found in a sixteenth-century Latin translation that his brother Philip had probably given to him during their common stay, in Verona (1602). Elizabeth McGrath had already associated this humorous drawing with Plato's Symposium, together with a similarly tuned drawing of Socrates and Xantippe (cat. 197).19 It is tempting, together with the authors, to assume that this sketch, which is so unique in Rubens’ oeuvre, was a gift from Peter Paul to his brother Philip when they met in Verona.

Problems of attribution
The complexities of attribution are perhaps best illustrated by some drawings claimed for Rubens by Logan in the 2004/05 New York catalogue and now judged by the author to be copies by unknown artists of lost originals by Rubens, such as the pen study for Hero and Leander of c. 1601/03 (cat. 62 and cat. exhibit. New York 2004/05, cat. no. 10). Other drawings are reattributed by Logan to Rubens, such as the black chalk study Male Nude seen from the back (cat. 81), after Michelangelo's Last Judgement, executed in Rome 1601/2. The sheet (Sacramento, Crocker Collection) was first attributed to the artist by Michael Jaffé in 1953, however, his attribution was not accepted by Jeremy Wood.20 There are also changes of opinion by the author concerning painted works closely related to drawn studies. This applies to the altarpiece of the Circumcision of Christ, which Rubens executed for the Jesuit church, in Genoa, in 1604 (cat. 157). Whereas in her New York catalogue (cat. 17), Logan agreed that the oil sketch in Vienna was the Modello for the altarpiece, she now shares the view that this oil sketch was created by Rubens, as a Ricordo, after the completed altarpiece.

Previously unpublished drawings
The reader will find some previously unpublished drawings in this catalogue, such as the pen drawing A horse and turbaned rider (cat. 113, 1601/02), which was only discovered in 2016. Another drawing has been published for the first time, just recently, too late to be included: the pen drawing showing a satyr, copied from the engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534) after an antique sarcophagus (recto) and the figure of killed Pentheus after Daniele da Volterra (1509-1566) (verso).21

Rubens’ artistic span
The authors splendidly bring out Rubens’ artistic span. To understand his versatility, unrivalled already during these early years, one may compare the carefully and meticulously executed drawing for the equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma (cat. 125, September 1603) with the bold pen and ink drawing of St. George fighting the dragon (cat. 159; 1606/07), a drawing that was still described by Frits Lugt, as being too wild (trop sauvage) in its style to be by Rubens, and even in the current Louvre database described as ‘école de Rubens’. The differences are so distinct that a few decades ago these two drawings would not have been attributed to one and the same artist by Rubens’ connoisseurs.

Logan and Lohse Belkin have provided us with a systematic reference study of all of Rubens’ drawings between 1590 and 1608. The reader is bound to be impressed by their lucid analysis of the drawings, each honored individually and threaded into the larger context, from which we gain a panoramic view of Rubens’ artistic biography. That controversies may continue, with regard to dating, attribution or function of some particular drawings by no means lessens the authors´ scholarly accomplishment. Lastly, reading the two volumes side by side is a true pleasure, which is why the editorial effort deserves laudatory attention; editing this monumental work was surely no modest undertaking, and has contributed significantly to the clear presentation that guides the reader. This is supported by the uncongested, visually well-balanced layout of the two elegantly slim volumes created by the designer Paul van Calster. Close attention was paid to image quality, and loving attention to detail is evident also in the use of discrete visual markers that allow us to differentiate copies from Rubens' original drawings. Content and presentation have entered a happy union here that adds to the pleasure of reading. Overall, this first volume will be indispensable for Rubens research and will increase our curiosity for the remaining volumes to be published.

Hans Jakob Meier, Stuttgart


1 G. Glück and F. M. Haberditzl, Die Handzeichnungen von Peter Paul Rubens, Berlin 1928. 

2 J. Held, Peter Paul Rubens. Selected drawings, with an introduction and a catalogue, Oxford 1959, revised edition, Oxford 1986. L. Burchard and R. A. d´Hulst, Rubens drawings, Brussels 1963.

Die Rubenszeichnungen der Albertina, Vienna 1977, p. VIII: Ein Œuvrekatalog sämtlicher Zeichnungen, der die neuen Forschungsergebnisse berücksichtigt und das vor vier Jahrzehnten erschienene Buch von Glück-Haberditzl ersetzen könnte, ist noch ausständig. Führt man sich diese Situation vor Augen, den reichen Fluß des Geschehens, so stellt sich die berechtigte Frage, ob es zum gegenwärtigen Zeitpunkt überhaupt sinnvoll ist, den Katalog einer Sammlung erscheinen zu lassen.

4 A. M. Logan and M. Plomp, Peter Paul Rubens. The drawings, New York/Antwerp 2004/05.

5 K. Lohse Belkin, Rubens. Copies and Adaptations from Renaissance and later artists. German and Netherlandish artists, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, XXVI.1, 2009. See footnote 9.

6 J. Held 1986 (note 2).

7 R. S. Magurn, The letters of Peter Paul Rubens, Cambridge (MA) 1955, Letter no. 14 (Rome, 6. 12. 1606), p. 39.

9 Logan and Plomp 2004/5 (note 4), cat. 34. 

10 See also: Michael W. Kwakkelstein, Study heads and anatomical studies. Anatomical studies, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, XX. 1, 2022.

11 For a most recent critical point of view see: N. Büttner, E. McGrath and B. Schepers, ‘Rubens s so-called Livre à dessiner’, in Kwakkelkstein 2022 (note 10), pp. 111-127.

12 écorché: small-sized mannequins (h. ca. 50 cm.), movable in all parts, which expose the human anatomy by removing the skin.

13 Kwakkelstein 2022, illustrates this écorché figure in different perspectives corresponding to Rubens’ drawings.

14 Leonardo notes in his manuscripts that he has dissected at least ten corpses: Ò disfatti piu di dieci corpi umani, distruggendo ogni oltri membri, consumando con minutissime particulare tutta la carne (…), see J. P. Richter, The literary works of Leonardo da Vinci, London 1970, II, §796.

15 See: Kwakkkelstein 2022, pp. 30-42, p. 34.

16 U. Heinen, Rubens zwischen Predigt und Kunst. Der Hochaltar für die Walburgakirche in Antwerpen, Weimar 1996. According to Kwakkelstein, it is conceivable that Rubens actively avoided drawing from the living nude, see: Kwakkelstein 2022, p. 39.

17 J. Bialostocki, ‘The descent from the cross in the work of Peter Paul Rubens and his studio’, The art bulletin 46, 1964, pp. 511-24.

18 L. Buchard and R. A. d’Hulst 1963 (note 2), cat. 38, p. 70. J. R. Judson, Rubens. The passion of Christ, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, VI, 2000, pp. 170-72.

19 Elizabeth McGrath, "'The Drunken  Alcibiades'. Rubens' picture of Plato's Symposium", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 46, 1983, pp. 231-32, notes 23, 24, fig. 43a.

20 J. Wood, Rubens. Copies and adaptations from Renaissance and later artists, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, XXVI. 2, 2011, p. 450, R27.

21 A. Balis, Ein Blatt aus Rubens theoretischem Studienbuch, in: Rubens. Becoming famous, Stuttgart 2021, pp. 158-165.


Hans Jakob Meier, ‘Review of: The drawings of Peter Paul Rubens. A critical catalogue’, Oud Holland Reviews, March 2023.