Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen 1577-1640 Antwerp)
Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen 1577-1640 Antwerp)

An Allegory of Fortitude

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen 1577-1640 Antwerp)
An Allegory of Fortitude
oil on panel
25½ x 17 5/8 in. (64.8 x 44.7 cm.)
(Possibly) Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, Palais du Duc de Brabant, Brussels, by 1657.
Charles-Henri, Comte de Hoym, Parisian Ambassador to King Frederick Augustus of Saxony and Poland (1694-1733).
J. Pinchon, Vie de Charles-Henry, Comte de Hoym, Paris, 1880, p. 64, recorded in an inventory of his collection as '312. Quatres petits tableaux de Rubens, peints sur boir, de 2 pieds de haut sure 1 pied 4 pouces ½ de large chacun, representant les quatre vertus. La Prudence (a), La Justice (b), La Force (c), La Liberalité (d), figures de petite nature.'
N. de Poorter, Corpus Rubenianum, II, The Eucharist Series, London and New York, 1978, p. 142, under footnote 30.

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Lot Essay

The present work once formed part of a set of four panels representing the four Virtues: Prudence, Fortitude, Justice, Abundance. Two of the panels, Justice and Abundance were included in Julius Held's The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens in 1980 but the other two appeared shortly after, enabling Held to examine them as a group at which time he dated them to circa 1630.

Rubens's four oil sketches were designs for tapestries. Allegory of Fortitude was used for a tapestry woven in Brussels in the workshop of Frans and Jan-Frans van den Hecke. Justice from the same series also served as a model for a tapestry woven by the Van den Heckes. Although these tapestries were designed to complement those of Rubens's Triumph of the Eucharist, Held believed that they were not originally intended to be part of a larger cycle.

In his Allegory of Fortitude, Rubens has fused two themes, both linked to figures renowned for their courage and physical strength -- Hercules, the hero of classical mythology and Samson, his biblical counterpart. The lion skin was worn by Hercules ever since he killed the Nemean lion as the first of his twelve labors. With the head of the lion (more specifically its upper part) protecting the head, Hercules' image is found on Greek coins and is particularly common on Macedonian coins since the Macedonian kings claimed descent from Hercules. Alexander the Great, who also had engaged in mortal combat with a lion, had himself rendered on coins with Hercules'slion head. One such coin, reproduced by Rubens in a delicately penned drawing, is now at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

In this Allegory of Fortitude Rubens also alludes to another incident from the life of a mythical hero. Samson, who had been blinded by the Philistines, implored God to give him back his former powers. When his prayer was heard, he 'took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood', occupied by his enemies, 'one with his right and the other with his left' and collapsed the structure burying himself and his adversaries. The fractured columns in this allegory, held as Samson had done with both arms, is clearly intended to evoke that episode.
It has also been suggested that the present painting can further be interpreted as an allegory of the Spanish monarchy. Fortitide and all virtues related to Hercules were associated with the Spanish royal family, particularly in the 17th century. Furthermore, it was believed that the Royal family's lineage descended directly from Hercules. Philip IV installed during the 1630s a series of paintings by Zurbarán representing the Deeds of Hercules in the Hall of Realms of his newly built palace of Buen Retiro in Madrid. Together with the set of tapestries of the Triumph of the Eucharist, the Allegories can possibly be interpreted as the fortitude of the Spanish monarchy in defending Catholicism against Protestantism.

All four panels are first securely recorded in the 1727 inventory of Charles-Henri, Comte de Hoym, Ambassador in Paris of King Frederick Augustus of Saxony. Although listed as a group, they were not in fact hung together but the inventory suggests that two were hung in 'le cabinet aux tableaux' and the other two in 'le petit cabinet sur terrasse'. In 1739, Justice and Abundance were acquired by James Harris and passed from him into the collections of the Earls of Malmesbury before appearing on the art market in 1972. Prudence and Fortitude remained untraced until the early 1990s when they were rediscovered.

All four panels are of identical size and each support is made of two vertically joined panels. The reverse of each has the coat of arms of the city of Antwerp with the panel maker's mark of Nicholas Vriendt.

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