Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen 1577-1640 Antwerp)
These lots have been imported from outside the EU … Read more PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE NORTH AMERICAN COLLECTION (LOT 163)
Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen 1577-1640 Antwerp)

The Adoration of the Magi

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen 1577-1640 Antwerp)
The Adoration of the Magi
oil on panel, unframed
15 1/8 x 12½ in. (38.4 x 31.6 cm.)
by family descent for three generations until offered for sale; Christie's, New York, 6 June 2012, lot 82 ($446,500).
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Sale room notice
Please note that this painting is offered for sale unframed. We are grateful to Paul Mitchell Ltd for the loan of this frame. If you would be interested in buying the frame please contact the Old Master Paintings department.

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Lot Essay

This unpublished work is an important addition to the corpus of oil sketches by Sir Peter Paul Rubens. It functioned as a compositional study for a large canvas painted by the master in circa 1626-1627 for the high altar of the Cloister of the Annunciation in Brussels (fig. 1). The altarpiece was most likely commissioned by Barbara-Maria Boonen (d. 1629), the widow of Pieter Peck (Peckius or Pecquius) (1562-1625) (see J. Foucart, Catalogue des peintures flamandes et hollandaises, Paris, 2009, p. 223, no. 1762). Pieter Peck had a distinguished career at the court of the Archdukes, serving as ambassador to the King of France, Henri IV, and later as Chancellor of the Sovereign Council of Brabant in 1616. He was also a benefactor of the Convent of the Annunciation, which was founded that same year, and three of his daughters would reside there. The Chancellor met Rubens on several occasions, and, in fact, sometime in the second decade of the seventeenth century, the artist painted his portrait, possibly on the occasion of his appointment as Chancellor (see H. Vlieghe, Rubens Portraits of Identified Sitters Painted in Antwerp, New York, 1987, pp. 144-145, no. 128, fig. 160). In 1777, the Cloister of the Annunciation would sell Rubens’s altarpiece to Louis XIV of France, and it is now displayed in the Louvre, Paris.

The Adoration of the Magi was frequently interpreted by Rubens throughout his career: he painted this subject more often than any other story from the life of Christ, and over a dozen large paintings by his hand dedicated to this theme survive. Rubens’s earliest treatment of the subject dates to about 1602 and is now in a private collection in Belgium. Shortly after this Rubens created a larger oil study in the Groninger Museum in Groningen which ultimately served as the model for a large canvas for the Statenkamer of Antwerp’s Town Hall (today in the Prado, Madrid). In the Prado Adoration, we see many of the compositional devices that Rubens further developed in the present sketch, such as the standing Virgin at the far left. Mary is portrayed with a bent knee, a pose that might derive from Annunciation scenes, where she is customarily shown kneeling at her prayer desk. Julius Held has argued that this arrangement places emphasis on the Christ Child as the object of the Magi’s adoration, and positions Mary as a symbol of the Church itself (J. Held, Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens: A Critical Catalogue, Princeton, 1980, I, pp. 451, 456).

The present sketch is closely related to the central panel of Rubens’s triptych in the St. Janskerk in Mechelen, which was commissioned in December 1616 and completed in 1619. The Mechelen Adoration is the first of many compositions devoted to this theme for which Rubens employed a vertical format. In both images the Christ Child rests on a similar Roman sarcophagus, while a kneeling, bearded king in a rich robe of gold brocade presents him with a golden coin-filled vessel.

Comparison with the finished altarpiece in the Louvre provides further insight into Rubens’s working method. The painter used oil sketches to formulate his composition and created additional chalk studies to refine figural details. While the overall pictorial structure of the Louvre altarpiece and its corresponding oil sketch is the same, close examination reveals several differences. The most dramatic change occurs in the figure of the Virgin. In the sketch, Mary’s face is drawn in profile and she appears to rest her knee on a broken column, an allusion to the crumbling institution of pagan idolatry as well as the collapse of the Old Testament order. In the finished painting, the column fragment is in the centre foreground, and the Virgin’s leg is straightened to clarify her pose. Perhaps to counteract this loss of movement, Rubens painted her face in a more dynamic three-quarter-profile. Moreover, in the finished version, Rubens chose a different colour scheme for Mary’s garments. She now wears a white mantle and blue shawl over a scarlet gown. A similar change in colour may be observed in the kneeling king’s sleeve: in the sketch Rubens has painted it with a magisterial symphony of blues, reds and pinks, but selects a simpler monochromatic white in the altarpiece. The brushwork and handling of the figures in the present work recall the sketch of Christ on the Cross, of circa 1618-1620, which was formerly with Otto Naumann (see P. Sutton, M. Wieseman and N. van Hout, Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, exhibition catalogue, New Haven and London, 2004, no. 8).

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