Rubens' Oil Sketches in the Courtauld Gallery


This was first presented as a spot-light talk in January 2014 as part of the Courtauld Gallery's public programmes events (hence the somewhat odd references to place... but don't let that put you off!)  Esther      Solomon2

Hello, my name is Susannah Smith. I am a Masters student at the Courtauld Institute of Art located here in Somerset House. Courtauld students are lucky to have regular access to the Courtauld Gallery and these oil sketches are some of my favourite works currently on display here.

These works are oil on panel and were painted by Peter Paul Rubens around 1620.

To the left we have a scene of Esther before Ahasuerus and to the right we have Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba [both above, left and right]. These are both Old Testament scenes and the paintings would have recalled the associated Biblical stories for contemporary viewers.

The Jewish heroine Esther was the queen to the Persian King Ahasuerus and went before him to plead him to save the Jewish people from the massacre that his minister Haman had promised to carry out. No-one was allowed to go into the king’s throne room uninvited, under the threat of their own death, so even though Esther was his queen, she was brave to visit him uninvited. If the Persian king welcomed you into the throne room, he would reach out towards you with his sceptre. Ahasuerus did and chose to save the Jewish people from Haman. It is Esther’s true faith in God, told through her prayers in the days preceding her visit to Ahasuerus that has helped to grant her and her people’s clemency.

Rubens depicts the poignant moment of anguish and salvation as Ahasuerus reaches out his sceptre to pardon her. Ahasuerus’ gesture is used here by Rubens to also symbolise the king’s later decision to save the Jewish people. This gesture therefore encapsulates much more through its visual communication than it does in the actual Biblical text.

On the right, in an almost mirror image of this scene, we have Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba. You probably know that Solomon is remembered in the Judeo-Christian tradition as a truly wise king, chosen by God to maintain justice in Jerusalem. The parable of the “Judgement of Solomon,” in which he uncovers the real mother of a baby by suggesting the two supposed mothers split the baby in half, must be the most well-known celebration of Solomon’s wisdom.

In the Biblical narrative associated with Rubens’ work, the Queen of Sheba journeys to Jerusalem to meet with Solomon and honour his wise governance and rich kingdom with luxurious gifts of gold, spices and precious stones. Here we see the Queen of Sheba delivering these gifts with her attendants.

These two paintings by Rubens are not what he or his 17th century contemporaries would have considered a finished artwork for display. These are actually designs for ceiling paintings in the Jesuit Church, St Charles Borromeo in Antwerp. Unfortunately as there was a fire in the church in 1718, Rubens’ oil sketches are now all that remain of these particular works, but we know that these scenes would have been accompanied by 37 other scenes designed by Rubens covering the ceiling of the church.

The intended role of these scenes as designs for ceiling paintings is clear in the extreme upward perspective which creates a view of the figures from below. Rubens’ treatment of light also adds to the effect of recession by lending the figures a certain solidity and presence in space. The musculature of the figures and the luxurious fabrics worn by the central actors are delineated through depictions of shade and blocked areas of colour that are included to represent light hitting the surfaces. This is most clear in the scene of Esther before Ahasuerus, in the fabrics of Esther’s dress and in the king’s muscled attendant.

The architectural details that frame both images would have been included to reiterate the Baroque grandeur of the Jesuit Church that they were to decorate. Similarly, the canopies that hang above the thrones of the kings would have made reference to the canopies that hang above the altars in Catholic and Jesuit Churches to mark the divine space where transubstantiation happens prior to the Communion, and would have mirrored the altar in the St. Charles Borromeo Church. When Church visitors looked up and recognised the similarity they would have seen God’s presence in the judgement of each of these kings, who are known to be wise and are depicted as choosing wisely. The beneficence of these kings would have been felt to reflect that of God and the final paintings would have been revered as a way of forming a connection with God, through the worship of his divine works.

The twisted column to the right of the image of Esther before Ahasuerus like the other Italianate Baroque architectural details (such as the decorative elements on the dome), makes a strong statement of the Jesuits allegiance to the Pope in Rome as a Catholic congregation. These also mark their allegiance to the Habsburg Monarchy in Spain  who had control of the Southern Netherlands and most of Europe at that time; whilst the Northern Netherlands, which was largely Protestant, had formed its own Republic after many years of war against its oppressors.

You may be surprised to know that these oil painted designs were actually used as plans for Rubens to communicate his designs to a workforce of painters who then executed the works on the ceiling of the church. A young Anthony Van Dyck, who like Rubens was also a native of Antwerp in Belgium, was amongst the group of painters who actually made the works in the church.

We can see that Rubens has given as much visual information as necessary and he is so masterly he is able to express so much through just a few brushstrokes – look at the faces of the attendant figures in each of these works – these figures are not as important so they did not require as much attention to detail, but Rubens is able to give them life and character in just a few lines, so that the painters following his design will know how to add to his work.

We can’t be too dismissive of Rubens for not completing the ceiling painting himself as he did paint a series of very large altar paintings for the church that are displayed and rotated according to the religious calendar. Around about the same time, he also painted an absolutely gigantic triptych altarpiece for the main Catholic Cathedral in Antwerp, the Onze Lieve Vrouwkirk – you can see his design for that work (The Descent from the Cross) just over on the wall there [currently on display in the same room in the Courtauld Gallery, and well worth a look]. Also, if you are a fan of Rubens you can see a fabulous full-ceiling painting which has a similar figural group to the Esther before Ahasuerus at the Banqueting House in Whitehall not far from here.

Today we call this type of work an oil sketch not because it is quickly executed and “sketch-like,” but because it wasn't intended to be a “finished” work which could stand-alone to be contemplated in itself. Instead these were a way of constructing artworks, figuring out one’s ideas for a composition and perfecting those ideas. Now we can see look at these works anew and appreciate that perfect artistry.