Sir Peter Paul Rubens's Lot and his Daughters is a magisterial masterpiece by the greatest artist of the Northern Baroque. Beautifully preserved and painted with striking bravura, it has long been known about but little seen. It was first discussed in print at least as early as 1766, when Thomas Martyn saw it in the Marlborough collection at Blenheim Palace and included it in the first volume of The English Connoisseur. Prior to that it had graced the collections of European royalty and important Antwerp merchants. Since the 19th century, it has been listed in all the major catalogues of Rubens’s paintings, yet it has been hidden from public view for over a century. Known until now only from a black and white photograph, its reappearance establishes it as one of the grandest and most important private commissions of Rubens’s early maturity and one of the greatest paintings by the master to have remained in private hands.
Rubens circa 1614: A genius at work
At the time that Rubens painted Lot and his Daughters, around 1613–1614, he was already the most important and fashionable artist in Antwerp, steadily establishing the reputation that would put him at the centre of the European artistic stage.
Following eight years in Italy, where he had worked principally in Rome and at the court of Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, Rubens returned to his native Flanders in October 1608, upon the death of his mother. The conditions in Antwerp were ideal for creating exciting opportunities for the promising young artist: the start of the Twelve Years’ Truce with Spain (1609–1621) ushered in a prolonged period of political stability and economic prosperity, the likes of which the region had not experienced for half a century; churches, many of which were badly damaged during the iconoclastic outbursts of the previous decades, were in need of new decoration, and the rise of a wealthy class of patrician merchants offered good prospects for important and lucrative commissions. In 1609, Rubens was given the singular honour of being appointed court painter in Brussels to the enlightened Archdukes Albert and Isabella, while being granted the privilege to remain in Antwerp and carry out commissions for other patrons. Confident in his own abilities, Rubens’s rise to prominence was as swift as it was unchallenged, and the decade following his Italian sojourn was marked by the production of an uninterrupted string of seminal masterpieces.
These were to include his two monumental altarpieces, The Raising of the Cross, commissioned in 1610 for the church of St Walburga, and its spiritual pendant The Descent from the Cross, painted in 1611–1614 for Antwerp Cathedral. In addition, Rubens carried out private commissions, imbuing traditional religious subjects with an exciting new energy. The artist attracted and befriended a plethora of enthusiastic Antwerp patrons, such as the city’s burgomeister Nicolaas Rockox, the spice merchant Cornelis van der Geest, and the printmaker Balthasar Moretus, whose deep erudition and humanist interests the painter shared. For such patrons, he produced two of the outstanding panels of the period, which combined in a completely unprecedented manner the aesthetic with the intellectual and the sensual with the dramatic: the rich and vibrant Samson and Delilah of circa 1609–1610 commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox (fig. 1; London, National Gallery), and the highly charged Massacre of the Innocents from circa 1611–1612, the original owner of which remains unknown (fig. 2; Toronto, The Thomson Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario) (sold, Sotheby’s, London, 10 July 2002, £49,506,648). In terms of ambition, brilliance of execution and sensual appeal, Lot and his Daughters sits comfortably alongside these two contemporaneous works. Together these three pictures encapsulate the inventiveness and selfassurance of an artist who, fired up by his time in Italy, was operating at the height of his powers. As David Jaffé noted, by this time ‘Rubens had become an epic painter. He understood the power of the stories he told, and his paintings still have the power to stop us in our tracks.’ (D. Jaffé, Rubens: A Master in the Making, London, 2005, p. 165).
Between Vice and Virtue: The story of Lot and his Daughters
The story of Lot and his Daughters is recounted in the Old Testament, Genesis XIX: 30–38. Urged by two angels to flee the immoral city of Sodom before its imminent destruction, Lot and his family left their home. However, Lot’s wife disregarded the angels' command to not look back upon Sodom’s burning ruins and was thus transformed into a pillar of salt for her disobedience. Lot escaped to the desolate mountain town of Zoar with his two chaste daughters who, fearing that following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah they would remain on earth without the hope of progeny, conspired to make their father drunk and trick him into impregnating them:
“And Lot went up out of Zoar, and dwelt in the mountain, and his two daughters with him; for he feared to dwell in Zoar: and he dwelt in a cave, he and his two daughters. And the firstborn said unto the younger: ‘Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve the seed of our father’. And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. And it came to pass on the morrow, that the firstborn said unto the younger: ‘Behold, I lay yesternight with my father. Let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve the seed of our father’. And they made their father drink wine that night also: and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father.” — Genesis XIX: 30–36, The King James Bible.
The older daughter conceived Moab (‘from the father’ in Hebrew), father of the Moabites, while the younger conceived Ben-Ammi (‘son of my people’), father of the Ammonites tribe. According to the Bible, Jesus Christ was directly descended from Lot through David’s great-grandmother Ruth, who was descended from Moab.
The moral ambivalence of the story of Lot and his Daughters has long engendered passionate debate among biblical scholars. As Anne Lowenthal noted, ‘even the earliest commentators were sensitive to the complexities of Lot’s character’ (A. Lowenthal, ‘Lot and his Daughters as Moral Dilemma’, Age of Rembrandt: Studies in Seventeenth- Century Dutch Painting, R.E. Fleischer, S. Scott Munshower (eds.), Pennsylvania, 1988, p. 14). Genesis twice implies that Lot was so intoxicated that he did not know what was happening to him, which enabled commentators to find him guilty of drunkenness rather than incest. In La Vie Dévote, St François de Sales invoked the story as evidence that it is possible to secure forgiveness for sins if, as was the case with Lot, they were not habitual (St François de Sales, Introduction à la vie dévote, Lyon, 1609).
As for his daughters, they were more commonly viewed as being driven by a commendable wish to perpetuate the race, when they believed that all men had perished, rather than lust. ‘Within the framework of Old Testament morality,’ Lowenthal observes, ‘such incest was less reprehensible than childlessness’ (Lowenthal, op. cit., p. 14). Profoundly complex, the subject was nonetheless interpreted as a warning against the dangers of succumbing to the temptations and trickery of women, and was just one of a number of often recited tales illustrating their subversive power: indeed, only a few years before producing this picture, Rubens had painted the story of the Biblical hero Samson undone by the scheming seductress Delilah. Of equal or perhaps greater interest to the artist and his patrons was the fact that these moralising stories provided legitimate opportunities to depict erotic subjects and the female nude, and the abundance of paintings showing Lot and his Daughters in Flanders and Northern art in the early years of the 17th century suggests that patrons responded to this cautionary theme, in all its ambiguity and inherent sensuality.
The subject was also rooted in a long-standing visual tradition in the North, going back to the Renaissance. Lucas van Leyden made a famous and influential engraving of Lot and his Daughters in 1530 (fig. 3), and Philips Galle took up the theme in a more lascivious print of 1558. The most prestigious painted depiction of the subject made in Flanders in the generation preceding that of Rubens was the famous panel by Jan Massys from 1565 (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique). Rubens’s contemporaries undertook well-known depictions of the story at almost the same moment that he did, including three versions by Joachim Wtewael (all made around 1600: the finest version is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; fig. 4), whose frivolous Mannerist style contrasts with Rubens’s dramatic treatment of the theme. Exemplifying a naturalistic tradition that anticipated the Dutch Golden Age, Hendrick Goltzius – who Rubens had just visited in Haarlem when he embarked on painting Lot and his Daughters – also produced an impressive painting on the theme in 1616 (fig. 5; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum).
It is against the background of this rich Northern tradition that Rubens turned, on several occasions, to the complexities of Lot’s tale. Focusing on the episode that precipitated the dramatic events depicted in the present work, the artist painted The Departure of Lot and his Family from Sodom in a large canvas made around 1613–1615 (fig. 6; Sarasota, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art) and again, some years later in 1625, in a smaller painting on panel (Paris, Musée du Louvre). In addition, some four years before he painted the present work, the artist produced another depiction of Lot and his Daughters for an unknown patron. The picture, which has long been in the collection of the Staatliches Museum, Schwerin, has never been the object of particular acclaim. However, an engraving of it, published in 1612 by Willem Isaacsz van Swanenburg (fig. 7), proved quite popular and might have prompted an as-yet unidentified patron to commission a second version of the subject – much grander in scale – the result of which is the picture presented here.
It is a mark of Rubens’s genius that he employed quite different approaches in his two depictions of Lot and his Daughters. In the earlier Schwerin composition of around 1610, Lot is a garrulous drunk and not the passive victim of his daughters’ calculated actions as described in Genesis. He paws at one of the girls, pulling her blouse off her shoulder while eyeing her lustily, fully engaged in the seduction taking place. When returning to the subject several years later, probably around 1614, Rubens entirely reconceived it. Whereas a note of ribald vulgarity suffuses the Schwerin painting, the present composition is more psychologically complex. Lot is obviously very drunk: his eyes glazed and his complexion reddened by wine, he slumps on the floor of the cave, hardly able to grasp the cup that his daughter offers him. A purplish-grey, fur-trimmed damask robe provides his only cover, shielding his lap. Bald and bearded, he rests one hand on a rock to steady himself. Elderly but strong and massively built, Lot is nonetheless powerless in the hands of his determined daughters: his evident physical strength is no match for their wiles, much as the young Jewish hero of Rubens’s Samson and Delilah sprawls helplessly asleep across the lap of his beguiling lover, as he is bound, shorn and blinded by the Philistines.
Lot’s two daughters kneel beside him, one wearing a low-cut blue dress, stroking the old man’s neck as she encourages him to drink, her expression self-aware and even somewhat triumphant. Her sister, embarrassingly exposed in her nudity, focuses intently but nervously on the task at hand as she pours the wine, but seems preoccupied and emotionally strained at the thought of what will follow. The nuances of the three protagonists’ states of mind, conveyed as much through their poses as their delicately calibrated facial expressions, are masterly examples of the painter’s skill.
Rubens’s sources: Italy, Michelangelo and the Antique
Joost Vander Auwera observed that, ‘In many art-historical surveys, Rubens is considered the quintessential painter – the one who possessed the intellectual and artistic potential needed to unite diverse visual traditions in a surprising new synthesis’ (J. Vander Auwera, Rubens: A Genius at Work, Brussels, 2007, p. 66). Nowhere is this more manifest than in the dexterity and intelligence with which Rubens manipulated and incorporated into his paintings a vast corpus of sources, ranging from the ancient world and the Renaissance to the work of his Baroque contemporaries. This quality was recognised and celebrated as early as 1678, when the artist and writer Samuel van Hoogstraten compared Rubens’s working method and inspiration to the behaviour of a virtuous bee who, as described by Seneca, ‘imbibes from several of the most beautiful flowers in order to incorporate their nectar into its own honey’ (S. van Hoogstraten, cited in ibid., p. 70, note 1). Deploying a wide array of visual quotations in a powerful new composition, Lot and his Daughters is in this respect an archetypal work by the artist.
When Rubens arrived in Rome in 1601, Caravaggio was the leading artist in the city and his influence on the Flemish artist proved to be profound and lasting. In this picture, the dramatic, tenebrous lighting effects, the warm, saturated tones and the theatrically hung crimson drapery, as well as Lot’s rough and dirty feet, together constitute a clear tribute to Caravaggio.
Besides absorbing the influence of his contemporaries, Rubens’s most sustained activity during his years in Rome consisted of the copying of antique statuary. ‘In order to attain the highest perfection in painting,’ the artist wrote in a theoretical essay, De Imitatione Statuarum (1608–1610), ‘it is necessary to understand the antiques, nay, to be so thoroughly possessed of this knowledge that it may diffuse itself everywhere’(A. Aymonino, A. Varick Lauder (eds.), Drawn from the Antique, London, 2015, p. 71). In Lot and his Daughters, each figure is meticulously studied and modelled, sculptural in its monumentality yet human in its fleshy vulnerability. As Rubens himself put it, he aspired to bring the monumental quality of marble to his painted figures, yet he strived to ensure they did not ‘smell of stone’ (Rubens, cited in loc. cit.) This perceived danger was clearly averted in Lot and his Daughters where every inch of Rubens’s canvas pulsates with life.
Rubens’s portrayal of the biblical patriarch was probably inspired by a lost and unidentified Hellenistic statue of a Reclining Hercules (?), which he had copied earlier in Italy in a drawing that he retained in his study collection (fig. 8; Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana). It is likely that Michelangelo also knew this ancient sculpture: echoes of it are to be found in the recumbent figures that he carved for the Medici tombs in Florence, which Rubens had copied in a drawing now in the Frits Lugt Collection, Fondation Custodia in Paris. Michelangelo's work had a great impact on Rubens and the Italian artist was probably the most direct source for the figure of Lot. Rubens daringly lent the intoxicated old man the languorous pose of Michelangelo’s dreaming young Leda in a lost painting depicting Leda and the Swan, the famous episode in Zeus’s amorous adventures where the king of the gods turns into a swan to seduce the beautiful wife of King Tyndareus. Rubens probably knew Michelangelo’s painting from its famous engraving by Jacob Bos (fig. 9) and had already copied it – the resulting painting is now in Dresden. He would have pleased his learned patrons by referencing this prestigious Renaissance source, and in so doing he equated Lot, vulnerable to his daughters’ advances, with the mythological victim of Zeus’s lust.
An additional source may be found for the figure of Lot that underlines his moral ambivalence. A further testimony to Rubens’s profound engagement with antique prototypes, Lot’s face is closely related to that of a famous inebriated figure, The Drunken Silenus Leaning Against a Tree Trunk. Rubens copied the subject from a well-known sculpture that was in the Chigi collection during his stay in Rome and which is now in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden (fig. 10); his drawn copy is now in the British Museum in London (fig. 11). At once a licentious drunk (Silenus) and a hapless victim (Leda), Rubens’s figure of Lot is a triumph of psychological complexity.
Although Rubens produced fine life studies of the male nude in specially devised poses for many of his paintings, the social and professional decorum of the time meant that no such studies of the female nude could be made in the studio. The artist would again have relied on his knowledge of antique statuary, and, indeed, for the tensed pose of Lot’s nude daughter, Rubens seems to have turned to the famous Crouching Venus. This 2nd-century A.D. Roman marble existed in multiple copies, including a version that was displayed in the Palazzo Madama in Rome during Rubens’s years in the Eternal City. He would also have had unlimited opportunities to study another version of the Crouching Venus that was in the Gonzaga collection during his years in Mantua (later sold to Charles I and today in the Royal Collection, on loan to the British Museum; for an 18th-century copy of it, see fig. 12). This celebrated sculpture was a favourite of artists in Rome and already in the 16th century her complex pose had captured the imagination of Northern painters such as Maarten van Heemskerck. Although the Crouching Venus is a traditional image of modesty – caught bathing, the goddess curls in on herself to hide her nudity – Rubens was happy to transform it into an emblem of seduction. In fact, he would look to the same source as inspiration for female nudes in several other of his paintings of the period, including the small Susannah and the Elders of 1614 (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum), The Flight into Egypt, also of 1614, and Venus, Cupid, Bacchus and Ceres (the latter two works are now in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kassel). Rubens also produced a drawing of The Penitent Magdalene, now in the British Museum, in which the saint casts a similar pose to the goddess (fig. 13).
For the clothed sister in Lot and his Daughters, the artist could rely on the study of an actual model. For her face he employed the same model that he had used for the beautiful and virtuous Virgin Mary in several of his religious paintings, notably The Virgin and Child in a Garland of Flowers, a collaboration with Jan Breughel the Elder (fig. 14; Munich, Alte Pinakothek). Through this erudite choice of visual sources, Rubens emphasises the ambiguity of the daughters’ moral stance, endowing them with both the purity of the Virgin and the seductive lure of Venus.
Execution and technique
The fact that Lot and his Daughters, a work of significant dimensions, has survived in such good state allows for a vivid appreciation of Rubens’s technical virtuosity.
Rubens would no doubt have devised his composition in a small-scale oil modello, if not in an earlier rapid pen and ink sketch, though neither is known today. X-radiography (fig. 15) and infrared imaging examinations reveal a composition executed with breathtaking assurance and remarkably few hesitations or changes of mind. Only small pentimenti, indicating little shifts and refinements in the composition as Rubens prepared it, are evident in the profile of the head of the nude daughter (fig. 16).
The main twill weave canvas, with two weft threads to one warp thread, is a type common to large paintings of the 17th century. The way in which it was prepared, with a layer of chalk followed by a lead white priming, is also typical. Technical analysis has confirmed what is apparent to the naked eye, that narrow strips of horizontally running canvas were later added to the top and bottom edges of the original painting (about 7 1/8 in. and 4 in. wide respectively), enlarging the composition without any significant damage or loss to the original edges. These enlargements would certainly have been made after Rubens’s death, most likely around 1710–1720, when the very fine frame that is still on the picture would also have been made. The ornament of the frame is closely related to gilded furniture designed by the cabinetmaker James Moore, who took over the supervision of the furnishing of Blenheim after Sir John Vanbrugh resigned as architect in 1716. It was evidently made to fit in with the house’s interior design and furnishings. The painting retained this frame when many others were reframed as part of the remodelling and improvement of Blenheim’s interior by William Ince and John Mayhew in the 1770s.
Although the painting is discoloured by an old varnish, the paint surface, with its texture and subtle tonal gradations, is entirely legible. The rich yet elegant palette that Rubens employed in this painting is evident through the varnish, with the cooler hues – seen, for example, in Lot’s patterned drape – contrasting with the deep blues and reds of the daughter’s dress and the drapes in the background. The brilliantly modulated skin tones are brought into strong relief by powerful contrasts of light and shadow showcasing an artist in complete control of his medium. Passages of bold impasto are scattered over the remarkably intact paint surface and used to highlight key areas on the figures’ heads, perhaps most notably on the intricate plaited coiffure of the naked daughter. Rubens is equally adept in articulating form, when desired, with an extraordinary economy of means: thus the heavily impasted hair of the same daughter cascades sensuously down to below her right arm in lighter, more rapidly executed brushstrokes; a single wisp of hair falls in front of her ear and onto her cheek with just a few flecks of paint. Technical analysis has thrown light on a further aspect of the artist’s method of execution: Lot’s back and buttocks were first laid out in their entirety, with his back extended somewhat lower than it appears in the present work; the purple drapery of his robe was then added over the completed figure, after which the brown fur lining was painted in; the damask pattern was added last of all.
A condition report compiled by Simon Howell of Robert Shepherd Studios, and technical analysis (including X-ray and infra-red images) by Dr. Nicholas Eastaugh and Dr. Jilleen Nadolny of Art Access and Research, London, are available on request.