Studio of Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen, Westphalia 1577-1640 Antwerp)
Studio of Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen, Westphalia 1577-1640 Antwerp)

Hercules and Omphale

Studio of Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen, Westphalia 1577-1640 Antwerp)
Hercules and Omphale
oil on canvas
77½ x 69 5/8 in. (196.9 x 175.9 cm.)
Seen with the artist and dealer, Balthasar Beschey in Antwerp in 1771 (Mount, ed., cited below) and offered by him for sale, Antwerp, 19 June 1776, lot 1 (unsold); bought from Beschey by
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), for £300 against an asking price of £500, in the summer of 1785 (‘I have bought a very capital picture of Rubens of Hercules and Omphale...’, letter to the Duke of Rutland, 22 August 1785, quoted by Mount, ed.); (†) Christie’s, London, 16 March 1795 (=3rd day), lot 93, as Rubens, ‘Rubens in taste and elegance here surpassed himself; the colouring has all that splendid richness, which no painter but himself ever yet acquired’ (160 gns. to Angerstein; a copy of the sale catalogue has a handwritten annotation, ‘...this picture was never esteemed by Rubens but as a study by his Pupils’, quoted by Broun, work cited below, who established the provenance until 1870 given below).
Anonymous sale [The Property of Persons of High Distinction] (presumably offered by John Julius Angerstein, according to a handwritten note on a copy of the sale catalogue); Coxe, Burrell and Fosters, London, 13 May 1802, lot 56, as Rubens, ‘A grand and capital performance of this great master, the story of Hercules and Omphale: a picture highly valued by that great judge, Sir Joshua Reynolds’ (sold? 85 or 95 gns.).
with Philip Panné, London; (†) Christie’s, London, 29 March (=3rd day) 1819, lot 93 (123 gns. to Thomas Emmerson).
with Thomas Emmerson, London (cited by Smith, see below).
Inserted as an extra, unnumbered lot, presumably on behalf of Emmerson, at the end of the Sir Thomas Lawrence, P.R.A. (1769-1830) sale; Christie’s, London, 19 June 1830 (153 gns. to Gilmore).
Allan Gilmore, Portland Place, London; (†) Phillips, London, 31 May 1842 (=1st day ), lot 57, as Rubens.
Charles Auguste Louis Joseph, 1st duc de Morny (1811-1865); Phillips, London, 21 June 1848, lot 106 (unsold at £307).
Anonymous sale [duc de Morny]; Ridel, Paris, 24 May 1852, lot 20, as P.P. Rubens (unsold; a copy of the sale catalogue has a handwritten annotation, ‘douteux’).
Duc de Morny; (†) Pillet and Escribe, Paris, 31 May-12 June 1865, lot 72, as Pierre-Paul Rubens (3,500 francs to Horsin Déon for the Marquis du Blaisel; a copy of the sale catalogue has a handwritten record of it as a copy).
Marquis du Blaisel; (†) Pillet, Paris, 16-17 March 1870, lot 112, as Pierre-Paul Rubens, ‘Oeuvre capitale. Personnages de grandeur naturelle’ (8,050 francs to Paridie).
(Possibly) Anonymous sale; Heilbron, Berlin, 19-20 May 1914, lot 137.
(Possibly) Anonymous sale; Galerie Fievez, Brussels, 26 July 1930, lot 27 (listed by C. Sterling in the publication mentioned below, the measurements in the catalogue presumably inverted to read 172 x 242 cm.).
Acquired in England or France by the great-great-uncle of the present owner, possibly in the 1930s.
J. Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné etc., II, Rubens, 1830, no. 720.
M. Rooses, L’Oeuvre de P.P. Rubens, Antwerp, 1890, III, under no. 620.
C. Sterling, ‘La Découverte et L’Histoire d’une oeuvre inconnue de Rubens’, L’Amour de L’Art, 1937, p. 290, under no. 2.
F. Broun, Sir Joshua Reynolds’ collection of paintings, I, dissertation presented to the Faculty of Princeton University, Ann Arbor, 1987, pp. 158-60.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Journey to Flanders and Holland, H. Mount, ed., Cambridge, 1996, p. 207 and notes.
London, 28 Haymarket, Ralph's Exhibition of Pictures, April 1791, no. 71.

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Abbie Barker
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Lot Essay

This painting throws a fascinating light on the workings of Rubens’s enterprise when meeting demand created by the artist’s great popularity and success. We believe that it is a notable survivor, for shown is a composition selected from his earlier repertoire and reconfigured with his approval and intervention not for his own gratification but for sale on the market. A crowned head, two prominent statesmen and a celebrated artist are likely to have owned this picture, adding some social éclat to its history.

The composition is a variant painted in Antwerp – most likely in the early 1620s - of a commission executed some fifteen years earlier in Genoa towards the end of the time that Rubens spent as a young artist in Italy (see fig. 1); by the 1620s, he was the most important artist working north of the Alps. The commission was for a portrayal of Hercules in the thrall of his lover Queen Omphale to whom he had been sold as a slave in punishment for a murder. The massively-built hero, renowned for his strength and courage, is humiliated by Omphale who has appropriated his hallmark club and lion’s pelt, as he does ‘woman’s work’ by holding a distaff from which wool is spun.

Ludwig Burchard, the great Rubens connoisseur, saw the work in the 1930s and is the last specialist to have done so until now. In fact, in that decade the original was discovered in the depot of the Louvre, where it had been in store since the French Revolution. Burchard agreed with some of the previous assessments, considering the present picture to be a product of the artist’s studio.

We can only speculate as to why the artist should have decided to reconsider the composition of a painting which he had long since executed for his Genoese patron. Maybe he was reminded of it after he had devised and then helped to paint with his studio an ambitious rendering of Achilles discovered by Ulysses among the daughters of Lycomedes. This showed another Greek mythical hero, cross-dressed in the company of King Lycomedes’s beautiful daughters. An added attraction of this large work was - in translation of the artist’s own words - that it was ‘full of many beautiful young girls’. A similar and comparable group of beautiful young women was introduced to embellish the Hercules and Omphale, as was the lapdog. Another departure and new feature of the present picture was to show the main protagonists more amply covered with drapery.

It is always assumed that Rubens exerted tight control over his studio and its products even at this stage in his career when he had large, important commissions to execute and when he was embarking on a political/diplomatic role as well. And indeed it is probable that it was his decision to amplify his earlier composition, a record of which perhaps he must have kept in the form of a modello. The composition would then have been blocked in by the studio; the finished work shows varying degrees of effective brushwork, for instance there is a contrast between the cursory treatment of the lapdog and the more vividly executed head of the lion. And in the rendering of Omphale’s body, the muscled form of Hercules and the charming detail of the two kneeling girls, Rubens himself may have quickly brushed the surface to bring out a more convincing, lifelike appearance.

No mention of a Hercules and Omphale by Rubens is recorded in the numerous seventeenth century Antwerp estate inventories which have been published. Sterling amplified the list of auction sale records of such a work previously given by Rooses, both cited above: these descriptions have discrepancies in the sizes, and allowance has to be made for different units of measurement and for error, but the picture they describe is of approximately the same size as the present lot.

The earliest record appears in the catalogue of the important and large collection assembled by Thomas Count of Fraula in Brussels in 1738. Fraula (1646-1738) became director general of his Imperial-Majesty’s finances in the Netherlands, and had been an active buyer for some thirty years. At least one collector from the north of the Netherlands was represented at the sale, and it is not impossible that Fraula’s picture was acquired for Gerard Bicker, Lord of Swieten (1687-1753), the leading member of a powerful, old patrician family in Amsterdam, whose collection was offered for sale first in 1741 and then in 1755.

That this picture should have found its way to Saxony to form part of the collection of the Elector Frederick Augustus (1696-1763) seems perhaps unlikely. But a Rubens Hercules and Omphale coming from the Electoral palace Hubertusberg was sold during his successor’s minority in Amsterdam in 1765. This measured 198.3 x 177.5 cm.; it could have been the work that later came into the possession of Balthasar Beschey who, having failed to find a buyer in his sale - having had it placed first in the catalogue with a verbose description - sold it some ten years later when Sir Joshua Reynolds visited his shop during his second tour of the southern Netherlands. In support of this is the garbled Saxon provenance given in the Christie’s sale catalogue of 1795. There the buyer was most probably John Julius Angerstein; and it is curious to think that had this collector not been disabused about the picture’s status, it would have been later acquired by Lord Liverpool’s government as part of the Angerstein collection that formed the basis of the National Gallery.

The last notable owner was the count de Morny (1811-65), the illegitimate grandson of the great duc de Talleyrand and half-brother of the Emperor Napoléon III. Under the latter’s regime, de Morny played an important political role and was created a duke and granted Chambord as a residence in the last years of his life. In his posthumous sale, the painting found its last named owner.

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