Previously unpublished and recently rediscovered, this oil sketch can be identified with the small panel that appeared at auction in Paris on 23 February 1778, as part of the property of '[Marquis] De Nogaret et autres amateurs: [Rubens] - Une superbe composition de huit figures, represéntant un Guerrier accompagne de l'Hymen, & de plusieurs Amours qui sont prêts a couronner une femme qui est assise sur un lit: cette esquisse avancée est du plus beau de ce maître'.
Some thirteen years later it reappeared at the celebrated Lebrun sale in Paris, now accurately identified as depicting the marriage of Alexander and Roxana. Jean Baptiste Pierre Lebrun (1743-1813), husband of Elizabeth Louis Vigée, was a painter, art dealer and critic. He was also garde des tableaux to the Comte d'Artois (brother of the guillotined Louis XVI) and the Duc d'Orléans. The present work was sold alongside 19 others given to Rubens including some of the artist's finest oil sketches such as The Abduction of Prosperine (lot 72; Petit Palais, Paris), Samson and Delilah (lot 73; Cincinnati Art Museum) and Charity (lot 78; Mead Art Museum, Amherst College). The panel was then included in the posthumous sale of another leading Parisian dealer, Vincent Donjeux at Lebrun in 1793, at the height of the French Revolution.
Rubens painted several versions of the subject of the marriage of Alexander and Roxana and there has been debate as to the hierarchy and chronology of the surviving canvases. Professor Elizabeth McGrath published the canvas now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem as representing Rubens's first large scale treatment of the subject but not necessarily the prime original (E. McGrath, Rubens Subjects from History, II, pp. 80-84, no. 14). A number of studio versions and later copies of this pattern are recorded including one formerly in the Hannover collection (sold Sotheby's, Schloss Marienburg, 6 October 2005, lot 415). Professor McGrath identifies as a later but closely related type, the half-length composition at Schloss Wörlitz, which Rubens painted for Amalia van Solms, Princess of Orange.
The present modello exhibits a number of significant differences to any of the other known versions of the subject produced by Rubens or his studio and is closest to his likely textual source, Lucian's Herodotius or Aetion (4-6). These variances are particularly evident in the pose of Roxana and the cupid who, in a reversed position to other works, unties her sandal. Other changes include the placement of the putto hiding under Alexander cloak and the one removing Roxana's veil. These elements were modified in later productions while the artist added further details such as a small dog cowering under the table which has additional paraphernalia on it.
The support of the present work is a panel of complex construction consisting of a core section of two pieces of oak that are horizontally joined. This has been enlarged by strips 2 cm wide at the top and the right hand side, and by 4 cm at the left edge. This type of multipart support is consistent with a number of other oil sketches produced by Rubens. The painting is executed on a light colored ground with a thin grey stripy imprimatura the brush marks of which run both horizontally and vertically. Intervention by a later hand, principally in peripheral areas such as the curtain and the edge of the bed would explain contrasting levels of quality in the present work. This may have occurred either to address areas of damage or to bring it to a higher level of finish.
Rubens's illustrations of the theme of Alexander and Roxana have been linked with both the artist's own marriage and that of his brother. However, the subject also held more general appeal whether as a story from the life of Alexander, a portrayal of the union of East and West or as an image of the power of love. Alexander married Roxana, the daughter of Oxyartes of Balkh, a chieftain of Sogdiana, in 327 B.C. Balkh was the last of the Persian Empire's provinces to fall to Alexander, and the marriage was arranged primarily as a means of reconciling the Bactrian governors to Alexander's rule. However, Plutarch commented that Roxana was 'the only passion which he, the most temperate of men, was overcome by' (Life of Alexander, 33:47). She accompanied him on his campaign in India in 326 B.C., and bore him a son, Alexander IV Aegus, who was born after Alexander's sudden death in Babylon in 323 B.C.
We are grateful to Gregory Martin and Dr. Peter Sutton for confirming the attribution to Rubens on inspection of the original.